The Thin Green Line

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Cross posted from DailyKos.

This is a very disturbing “canary in the coal mine” environmental diary. I’m sure the twenty-seven year old PBS series Nature needs no introduction but this week’s episode The Thin Green Line was by far the most devastating to watch. We are wiping out the frogs and amphibians.

The thirty second preview offers a quick look and some amazing photography;

But the entire program points out that we have created the perfect storm against our amphibians.  

The director and narrator Allison Allison Argo’s introduction;

They’re ancient creatures in a changing world. These evolutionary gems have been around since before the dinosaurs. But suddenly they’re slipping away.  As scientist race to find answers amphibians are vanishing. “We’re going to lose perhaps half of the amphibian species and they are going away for good. They don’t come back.” The implications are enormous. “Some of these habitats will fall apart without their amphibians. It’s an indication to us that there is something wrong. At what point are we going to turn around and say ‘Hang on we needed those frogs?'” Across the globe amphibians are walking a thin line. If we act quickly, we might pull them back from the edge “This is the only chance we have.”

The environment is filled with dire signpost about mankind’s (peoplekind’s?) accomplishments. Polar icecaps melting, continent size swarms of plastic bags destroying the Pacific Ocean, polluted air, questionable drinking water, the list is endless. But there is something even more painful about wiping out our earliest ancestors, the second behind the plant kingdom to crawl out from the oceans and populate the earth.

Ms. Argo’s words in the second segment, unfortunately without her breathtaking photography. But still words of warning, consider the similarities between the skin of an amphibian and the human lung;

Frogs have managed to navigate life on earth for more than 250 million years. They were the first of our ancestors to venture from the water to the world  beyond. But their fish like beginnings haven’t hindered their progress on earth. They’ve evolved into an explosion of species, each one unique.

These diminutive time travelers survived the dinosaurs, asteroids and ice ages adapting in ways that boggle the mind. Some are masters of camouflage while others avoid predators by carrying poisons in their skin. Their survival tactics have splintered them into thousands of species scattered on almost every corner of the earth. Whether salamander, frog or toad amphibian are some of the most diverse and far flung animals on the planet but they’re disappearing and experts are worried.

Frogs are considered bell weathers for the environment. Their double life makes them unique. It’s through their skin that they breathe and drink. Because their skin is so permeable they’re epically sensitive to changes in the environment. Today more than a third of amphibians are in decline. From Austrailia to South America frogs are disappearing. Why are species that have survived suddenly collapsing? Scientist are searching for clues before the next species slips away.

The rest of the show looks at all of the ways the remarkable adaptations and survival tactics of amphibians are no match for what people are doing to this planet. It starts with our carving up their habitat and the amount of frogs that are run over by automobiles on rainy nights. Millions of amphibians are lost each year when they collide with humans. “If a female is full of eggs, the next generation is lost as well.” It is pointed out that Cape Cod National Seashore has taken some precautions by closing some roads on rainy nights.  

Then there is a fungus called chytrid playing a major role in this environmental crisis and adding that deadly disease makes the situation for these super adapters very grim. It is a fungus originally discovered in the 1930’s in Africa and again in the 1970’s in California.

Now this fungus that needs both water to survive and a host that the fungus eventually kills when chytrid becomes chytridiomycosis is spreading everywhere. One scientist in the program compares this new strain called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis with a yellow fever for frogs or the superflu of 1918. When chytrid enters the moist cool habitats that frogs depend on, 50% of amphibian species and 80% of individuals can be expected to disappear within 1 year. Since frogs breathe through their skin this disease kills through asphyxiation. Nobody understands how this global epidemic causing fungus is spreading or how to contain it when it arrives.  

Scientist who have been removing predatory exotic fish that were introduced by sports fishermen in Yosemite National park thought they had given the Mountain Yellow Legged Frog a chance at a comeback. But twelve years ago chytrid began wiping out the species. The only option left is repeated washing in a Clorox solution and keeping some in captivity.

The disease is sweeping through the Sierras. It is well established in Mexico and Central and South America devastating amphibians. “Central and South America harbored fifty percent of the world’s amphibian species. this was the place with the worlds greatest amount and now we’ve potentially lost a huge portion of that.”

Just like the lake shore in Yosemite where someone can now walk without seeing a single frog, the forest of Costa Rica and the uplands of Panama no longer have the sights and sounds of frogs. No amphibian music in a once living forest that is just dying. The Panamanian golden frog, a once common symbol of good luck to Panamanians that has no ears and communicates through arm gestures, seems to only exist in captivity now.

Before the big crash this was a great place. I think out total list here was something like sixty-four species of amphibians. I didn’t matter where you went in the forest, you would find them on the ground, on the leaves, you’d hear them up in the canopy, you could walk any trail any stream and you would hear frogs calling day and night. And now…

Silence, just silence in a Costa Rican rain forest. It’s all just seems so Koyaanisqatsi as this epidemic spreads up from south America and down from North America. There is a walk in one little section of Panama, a submerged tropical rain forest area called Burbayar that still seems unaffected. It seems like a little sanctuary where life still continues the way it did for millions of years.

But for how much longer will it remain intact? We’re running out of places where frogs are healthy. We estimate that within ten years all of Panama will be gone. We’re talking upland areas but as fast as you move it’s continuing its passage.

And it is not just on this continent. A similar story is playing out in Australia. There is some evidence that global warming is effecting frog populations and adding Australian drought to chytrid seven species of frog have already been lost there.There is a beautiful species called the Corroboree frogs. Amazingly social black and yellow frogs that once gathered in huge crowds hugging each other and are named after a ceremonial gathering of Australian Aborigines where the elders often wear black and yellow paint. That celebration is called a Corroboree. These amazing frogs may no longer be found outdoors and live in shipping containers where Australian scientist fight for this frog’s survival.

Gerry Marentelli is the scientist who built the shipping container and evacuates frogs when drought drys up their habitat. He has reintroduced the Booroolong Frog to Boorooree Creek. One species, the Spotted Tree Frog has been reintroduced with every frog having the same father. Mr. Marentelli found only one male and with the help of captive females bred a new population from that lone male frog. Pretty amazing kind of guy, that Marentelli is.

If there is anything uplifting about this story it is the scientist working to save frogs. They breed frogs and put them back out in spite of chytrid hoping that some will prove resistant. Raising amphibians from little tiny black dots and hoping. The Mountain Yellow Legged Frog is air lifted from laboratory to the place where they once thrived in Yosemite. The Corroboree  are being pushed back out into the wild even if 95% of then just die.

All of these good people are doing whatever they can. They get children involved so the next generation will care about the sounds that should be heard at willow and swail or creeks and bogs. There is one little story about the Atlanta Botanical Gardens transforming into an amphibian preserve because the Gopher Frog. A species not effected by chytrid but by a housing boom that is removing the frog’s habitat. Science has no answer for that. A conservatory in a botanical gardens is not an ecosystem.

That’s the key here, ecosystem. As scientist try to save these frogs in laboratory fish tanks, what is going on in the real world? Insects that were once eaten by frogs can explode into uncontrollable swarms and eat the forest. Predators who depended on amphibians for food can also become extinct while scientist seek answers. Without tadpoles stirring up the brooks and with all of the nutrient rich chemicals we are adding to the water algae blooms can threaten the fish. Do you think maybe as all these scientist fight to save the frog that maybe we are doing something very wrong?

Everything is falling apart and it gets worse. Chytrid is not even the worst threat to these frogs, habitat loss is. The world is developing so quickly that even if scientist find a way to reintroduce these amphibians there may be no habitat to put them back in. Across the world runoff from developments are making nature unsafe for frogs who have shown a resistance to everything before humans. In suburban ponds about 21% of frogs have weird science deformities. The suspected cause is drugs in the septic systems.

Pesticides are devastating not only frogs but many creatures in the wild and humans too. Agriculture is adding chemicals similar to nerve gas called Chloropicrin that ends up in streams. Many of these chemical, they’re not even sure of the effects but the frogs are dying and what is our stewardship of the land doing to us?

There is methyl bromide used in both farms and sprayed all over golf courses, which is not only eating ozone but polluting our drinking water. Five legged frogs make a good argument for organic farming when you consider chemicals like diazanol and Atrazine.

Atrazine billed as “our most common drinking water contaminant” is one of the strangest stories. At levels one third of what is allowed in our drinking water the chemical has been found to reverse the sex of frogs. Causing male frogs to develop into female frogs this contaminant is causing sexual imbalance in the shrinking amphibian world.

The toxins in our waters are reaching well beyond frogs. Reproductive abnormalities have been reported in everything from alligators, to polar bears, to humans. “It’s not just a problem with frogs that we should be concerned about. The water that’s causing their problems is the same water that we’re drinking and using to water our crops.” Frog or human, we all breath the same air and drink the same water. For their sake and ours, experts agree-we have to take action and there’s no time to lose.

If you can’t find the time to record the rebroadcast of the story or watch it online, then perhaps you can watch this seven minute “Making of the Thin Green Line that may represent “The most important environmental story of out time.”


fifteen years has passed between Allison Argo’s two frog documentaries and the words in that clip are seriously a sign of our times.

Since I made that film dozens of species have disappeared globally. Some experts are saying that it is the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. It’s just a huge serious problem.

If you are looking for some sort of action to take all I could find is this link to a donation page at the Houston Zoo for the El Valle Amphibian Rescue Center in Central America that is trying to save the frog.    


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    • Eddie C on April 9, 2009 at 6:28 am

  1. Thank you.

    Front page noon tomorrow.

  2. I added this link at dkos, but I think it is worth repeating.

    Here’s Prof. Tyrone Hayes with a really good presentation, “From Silent Spring to Silent Night”, about what Atrazine is doing to the amphibians.

  3. Keep rockin’ it to power.

  4. it is too late……..

    over 50% of the biotic capital of the earth is going to dissappear and very soon…….

    as you have pointed out frogs are only the beginning….

    they and bees are indicator species as you know……

    but when they begin to show decline like this it is already too late……

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