Amazonian students help monitor threatened frog populations



According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, amphibians are the most threatened group of animals on Earth: currently around 30 percent of the world’s amphibians are listed as threatened with extinction. However this percentage doesn’t include those species about which too little is known to evaluate (26 percent). Amphibians face many threats but two of the largest are habitat loss and the lethal chytrid fungus, which has rapidly spread worldwide and is likely responsible for numerous extinctions. But conservationists are coming up with innovative and creative ways to keep amphibians from disappearing, including a program from the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) that is working with students in the Peruvian Amazon to monitor frog populations.

Frog in Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Marcy Sieggreen.

“What we were interested in learning [from the students] was very basic information: what types of amphibians were they seeing, time of day, time of year, dates, where they found them, condition, numbers. We had several thoughts about this. If they understood and could appreciate what they have, there would be an interest in protecting it. Since visits from us occurred only twice a year, we needed help to identify any significant changes or finds that may be of interest that we would have missed,” explains Marcy Sieggreen, who heads up the Amazon Amphibian Protectors Club, in a recent interview with mongabay.com.

Sieggreen says that logging is likely the largest threat to amphibians in the area. However, her and colleagues have also discovered the presence of chytrid fungus in the region.

“Approximately 400 samples have been taken and fewer than 30 had positive results. Our work with amphibians in the area has been going on for about four years, but information is data-deficient to actually assess the current situation,” she notes, adding that at least to date the disease doesn’t seem widespread. “Frequently we see amphibians that we would expect to see, rarely find dead or sickly animals, and have only received positive results for disease in a small number of species.”

Working with local students not only helps monitor the frog populations, but also leads to better conservation awareness among local populations that have long feared amphibians due to the mistaken belief that they caused skin problems.

Marcy Sieggreen will be presenting on her work with the Amazon Amphibian Protectors Club at the 2013 Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference on Thursday, July 11th in Des Moines, Iowa.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARCY SIEGGREEN

Marcy Sieggreen with Adopt-A-School kids in Peru. Photo courtesy of Marcy Sieggreen.

Mongabay: What’s your background?

Marcy Sieggreen: I have two bachelor of science degrees from Eastern Michigan University, one in Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems in Biology, with a double major in Geography and minors in Conservation and Resource and Group Science. The other is in Earth Science. My master’s degree is in Biological Sciences from Wayne State University. I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Environmental Science at Antioch University in New Hampshire.

While working on my undergraduate degrees, I enrolled in every field course and internship opportunity that was available at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). Upon completion of my first internship, I stayed as a seasonal employee for several more months during the opening of the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery and photographed animals throughout the Detroit Zoo. I began working as the Curator of Amphibians in the National Amphibian Conservation Center for the Detroit Zoological Society in 2008.

Mongabay: What drew you to amphibians?

Marcy Sieggreen: Do you mean aside from how lovely they are and that almost all of them have a permanent smile?! Really though, they are fascinating in so many ways. They are a perfect example of an evolutionary species that has survived despite all of the environmental changes and within the species have shown every reproductive strategy known. I grew up with an interest and appreciation for herpetology. I don’t think I was drawn to them, I think it was always there.

Mongabay: How did you end up working in the Peruvian rainforest?

Tiny frog in Peru. Photo courtesy of Marcy Sieggreen.

Marcy Sieggreen: For decades the Detroit Zoo has had several ongoing projects in the lower elevations of the Napo and Amazon River basins. With amphibian concerns growing around the world and having a large presence in this area, it made sense to develop a project that identifies species and monitors population sizes.

Mongabay: What are the threats to amphibians here?

Marcy Sieggreen: I would have to say that deforestation from logging could quite possibly pose the biggest threat in this area. Up and down the Amazon and Napo Rivers, several acres of land have already succumbed to this type of devastation and the lack of trees in an otherwise dense rainforest is a brutal reality. Cut trees fill up the sides of the river waiting for logging ships to pick them up while pathways along the river narrow during high water with the abundance of debris from unwanted trees.

We have positive tests for chytrid Bd, however we have really just begun data collection and would be speculating as to the threat of this disease.

Mongabay: What were some of the misconceptions regarding amphibians among locals in Peru?

Students with the Amazon Amphibian Protectors Club. Photo by: Marcy Sieggreen.

Marcy Sieggreen: Most of what we heard and saw was a fear of zoonotic diseases, specifically warts. Parents would have buckets of toads and frogs piled together that they would remove or destroy. When asked why they had them in buckets, kids would show us their arms or parents would motion to have their children come over so we could see how their hands and arms were covered in what appeared to be warts. Not being in the medical field, I did my best to explain transmission and convince them that the toads did not give them warts, which seemed to satisfy their concerns. The communities were very receptive to having discussions about the benefits and roles amphibians play. They just needed to know that these buckets of toads were not a nuisance and they were a productive part of the food chain that would contribute to diminishing some of the pests that annoy them.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about the Amazon Amphibian Protectors Club? How are these local students protecting amphibians?

Marcy Sieggreen: The previous work and relationships developed by DZS with the Adopt-A-School program and conservation projects allowed us to expand projects to include work with amphibians. I had the opportunity to spend time with our education team while they were delivering supplies to schools along the Amazon and Napo River basins. During introductions with the students, I was able to give a brief talk. Kids and instructors showed so much interest that it was evident we should be capitalizing on that enthusiasm and provide more education for them. The school systems along the rivers are not anything like I had ever experienced and locating a school to start a pilot program was difficult. High water flooded some areas, and villages sent their kids to other communities or chose to have their children work rather than go to school. Eventually a stable school was found and, after presentations and several visits, we had support from the principal, two professors and a group of 15 kids.

The group of secondary students ranged in age from 12 to 16. They had a very strong interest in learning more about amphibians. What we were interested in learning was very basic information: what types of amphibians were they seeing, time of day, time of year, dates, where they found them, condition, numbers. We had several thoughts about this. If they understood and could appreciate what they have, there would be an interest in protecting it. Since visits from us occurred only twice a year, we needed help to identify any significant changes or finds that may be of interest that we would have missed.

During this process the students write stories and reports which they present in class. We anticipate their interest and desire may create interest from their peers. We have turned the image of amphibians around for them. Our experiential education for them has opened their eyes to the importance of amphibians. One child told us he couldn’t wait to see more and that he wanted to keep looking, but his mother said he needed to go to bed. Two additional communities have been added to our program and in November we will return to note their progress.

Mongabay: Over the last few years what have the tests for chytrid fungus shown?

Logging boat. Photo by: Marcy Sieggreen.

Marcy Sieggreen: Like everywhere else, the tests verified that there is chytrid in this region. Approximately 400 samples have been taken and fewer than 30 had positive results. Our work with amphibians in the area has been going on for about four years, but information is data-deficient to actually assess the current situation. Frequently we see amphibians that we would expect to see, rarely find dead or sickly animals, and have only received positive results for disease in a small number of species. Yearly monitoring and testing within these regions will aid in our understanding and impact on future populations.

Mongabay: What can people do to help Peru’s amphibians?

Marcy Sieggreen: Raising awareness is really a key component. Many people all over the world still don’t realize the negative effects our actions have on amphibian populations. We (DZS staff) are very fortunate that we have opportunities to interact with local Peruvian communities, tourists and zoo patrons. As for help, visiting our website to learn more about the conservation work we do and assisting with support would be greatly appreciated.

Colorful frog in Peru. Photo by: Marcy Sieggreen.

Member of the Amazon Amphibian Protectors Club showing off a specimen to children. Photo by: Marcy Sieggreen.

Poison arrow frog hiding out. Photo by: Marcy Sieggreen.

Swabbing frog for chytrid fungus. Photo by: Marcy Sieggreen.

This article was written for Mongabay.com and re-posted on Focusing on Wildlife.

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