National survey finds frog abnormalities rare

Dec 03, 2013 Andy Fell University of California, Davis
Good news for frogs and toads — the abnormalities of the 1990s are rarer, except in local hotspots.
National survey finds frog abnormalities rare

Researchers collected more than 68,000 frogs and toads for the study, and the dataset is available to researchers and the public online. (Bill Buchanan/USFWS/photo)

A 10-year study shows some good news for frogs and toads on national wildlife refuges. The rate of abnormalities such as shortened or missing legs was less than 2 percent overall — indicating that the malformations first reported in the mid-1990s were rarer than feared. But much higher rates were found in local "hotspots," suggesting that where these problems occur they have local causes. The results were published Nov. 18 in the journal PLOS ONE.

"We now know what the baseline is and the 2 percent level is relatively good news, but some regions need a deeper look," said Marcel Holyoak, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, and a co-author on the study. Hotspot regions included the Mississippi River Valley, California and south-central and eastern Alaska.

Mari Reeves, a graduate student working with Holyoak, led the data analysis and is corresponding author on the paper. Reeves now works at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

Fieldwork for the study was carried out by the Fish and Wildlife Service at 152 refuges across the country between 2000 and 2009. Researchers collected more than 68,000 frogs and toads for the study. The complete dataset is available to researchers and the public online.

The aim of the study was to understand where and when these abnormalities occur — are they widespread, or localized? Are they persistent, or do they appear and fade away? — rather than to identify specific causes, Holyoak said. Understanding the patterns of these hotspots in space and time can help researchers home in on likely causes, he said.

The results show that abnormality hotspots occur in specific places, but within these hotspots the rate of malformations can change over time, Holyoak said.

"We see them at an elevated frequency one year or for a few years, and then they recover," he said.

The most common problems observed were missing or shortened toes or legs, and skin cysts. Only 12 cases of frogs with extra legs were found.

Many different potential causes have been put forward for the abnormalities, including pollution from industry or agriculture, parasites, ultraviolet exposure and naturally occurring heavy metals leaching into water bodies. The exact cause may vary from place to place, Holyoak noted.

The study comes against a background of a general decline in amphibian populations both in the U.S. and worldwide. For example, the California red-legged frog celebrated by Mark Twain's story is now listed as threatened. Frogs and toads may be especially sensitive to changes in climate and air or water quality. It's not clear whether hotspots of malformations contribute to this general decline, Holyoak said, but the new dataset will help researchers explore the problem.

The study was funded by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Other authors were: Kimberly Medley and Pieter Johnson, University of Colorado, Boulder; Alfred Pinkney, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Annapolis; and Michael Lannoo, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has been one place where people are bettering humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the state capital, UC Davis has more than 33,000 students, over 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget of nearly $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

(This article was written by Andy Fell, UC Davis News Service, November 19, 2013) 

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