Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 22, 2008

Leap frog

"This leap year, remember the frog."

The headline and accompanying photo of the Panamanian golden frog caught my eye.

Articles about leap year are always encouraging people to "leap into action" or take a "leap of faith" - but this Kansas City Star article seemed to be the product of a headline writer too eager to be funny.

But I discovered that more than 6,000 species of amphibians - frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and others - inhabit the earth. And I learned that scientists estimate from one-third to one-half of amphibian species are in danger of extinction - potentially the single greatest disappearance of species since the dinosaurs.

I've been fascinated with amphibians since I was a little girl. Watching for the first tadpoles in the spring was as much a part of farm life as doing chores. And croaking toads on summer nights helped sing me to sleep.

Something about the creatures appeals to me. A collection of ceramic, cloisonné, wood, clay and porcelain frogs and toads lines the window sill in my office. The "percussion frog," carved of monkey-pod wood from Vietnam, makes a croaking sound when I run a wooden stick along its spiky spine. The Bolivian black clay frog is thought to bring money to its owner. A tiny porcelain green frog from Kyoto, Japan came with an explanatory card: "In Japanese, the word 'kaeru' means both 'frog' and 'return.'" Kaeru frog charms bring wishes for a safe return of one's money or a safe return home.

When I lived in Costa Rica 30 years ago, I traveled to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, where I observed tropical toads up close and personal. The small, shiny neon-orange and yellow toads were in a terrarium, but other people were lucky enough to see them in their natural habitat on the forest floor. The towering trees and massive vines helped keep the forest damp, which the amphibians needed to survive. The cloud forest, with its golden toads and rare quetzal birds, was a mysterious, magical place for me. So it made me sad when I read that golden toads were last seen in Costa Rica in 1989 and were declared extinct in 2004.

Some may wonder what the big deal is. After all, with so many amphibians, what difference can the loss of a few species make?

But scientists say amphibians play a critical role in ecosystems as both predator and prey, they perform pest control services and their skin has substances that offer promising medicinal cures.

Amphibians are endangered because of the combined effects of habitat destruction, climate change, pollution and the chytrid fungus and the problem can't be solely addressed in the wild, according to conservationists.

That's why this year - a leap year - has been designated Year of the Frog by global conservation organizations. To raise awareness, many zoos and aquariums are holding events on Leap Day, Feb. 29.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has begun a program to bring amphibian species into facilities at zoos and aquariums as well as botanic gardens for safekeeping and breeding. They will be released back into the wild when the original threats have been controlled.

Even Manhattan's Sunset Zoo has committed a portion of its 2008 special events proceeds toward amphibian conservation projects and had a reptile and amphibian specialist discuss the Year of the Frog campaign at a recent presentation.

Individuals can help, too, by donating to wildlife conservation programs, conserving water, reducing the use of fossil fuels and creating amphibian-friendly back yards that include clean water, rocks, leaf litter and logs.

When I told husband Art about the article, he immediately related a story. It seems he has one for everything! Like Art, his dad Tom loved to fish for trout and there were several nice streams near their home in Wisconsin. One night, he and his older brother were fishing by the light of a full moon. His 8-year-old brother Rollie had tagged along. Without warning, a large bullfrog nearby let out a mating call. Tom said Rollie leapt through the brush toward him and never got farther than a couple of feet away the remainder of the trip.

Although some people might react with such fear toward them, I'm going to welcome toads and frogs to my back yard. As the Kansas City Star article said, "If amphibians can tell us anything about conservation, it's that we better hop to it."

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