Volunteers needed to assess wood frog populations

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2003

Imagine yourself taking a leisurely stroll in the twilight of evening. As you move through the woods, coming up on the familiar site of the neighborhood pond, the forest suddenly comes alive all around you.

The explosive cacophony of trilling, croaking and muttering voices of frogs seems all around. What should you do?

Well, if you were one of the many volunteers working on the Cook Inlet Amphibian Monitoring Program, you would know exactly what do.

"We need your help," said Tracey Gotthardt, a zoologist and coordinator for the project. "We're looking for volunteers of all ages to to help with the program."

The project is a volunteer-based effort designed to assess the current status of amphibians within the Cook Inlet Water-shed.

Surveys are being conducted by the Alaska Natural Heritage Program in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"We're trying to collect baseline data on where wood frogs are, so that we can set up a program to monitor the populations," said Gotthardt.

This is the second year of the project. In 2002, more than 90 volunteers contributed information, and this year may be even better for volunteer support.

"Compared to last year, the support has already been overwhelming," she said. "We're getting volunteers from every age group, from a 6-year-old who wrote me last week to a retired Fish and Game biologist who called yesterday."

All the help is much appreciated, but also much needed, this year in particular, according to Gotthardt.

"Last year, we had a cold spring so the breeding season was a little later. The calls began down in Homer and then gradually moved up," she said.

This year with the mild, warm winter, the situation is completely different.

"It seems to have started all at once, everywhere. We've already had reports from Ninilchik, Talkeetna, Anchorage and Palmer," Gotthardt said.

The project will help document habitat types utilized by these animals from as far north as Talkeetna to as far south as Seldovia.

"Once we know how many are out there and where they're at, it will be easier to monitor them and to know if we have any declines," Gotthardt said.

Major population declines and increased rates of deformities among amphibian populations recently have caught global attention.

"Frogs are bioindicators of environmental health," said Gotthardt. "Changes in their numbers are one of the first clues something could be wrong."

By monitoring frogs, scientists are able to provide early warnings of threats such as ground water contaminants, airborne pollution, increased ultraviolet radiation, introduction of alien species, increased levels of pesticide and habitat loss.

Studying amphibian population declines and deformities may help avert potential impacts on other species, including humans.

"Deformities in Alaska have been verified from Eklutna Lake, the water source for more than 250,000 people living in Anchorage, and in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge," said Gotthardt. "We've also had speculative reports from Talkeetna."

The specific cause of the deformities in Alaska currently is unknown.

Volunteers can help with wood frog calling surveys by visiting local ponds, bogs, marshes, temporary pools or roadside ditches and listening for the frog's distinctive mating call.

"All of the information on the project overview how to identify wood frogs, what they sound like, how to conduct the survey and how to fill out the data sheets is online," Gotthardt said.

"Interested volunteers shouldn't delay. Wood frogs have an explosive breeding season, but it's only about three weeks long."

People who want to help, but are squeamish about touching the amphibians or believe in the old tales about getting warts from frogs, need not be concerned.

"All the surveys are listening surveys," she said. "There is no handling required."

Anyone interested in volunteering for the program can do so by e-mailing Gotthardt at antg@ uaa.alaska.edu, visiting www. uaa.alaska.edu/enri/aknhp_web or calling (907) 257-2782.

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