Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cute and Scary

It Isn't Easy Being Green--or Amphibious

For the last month, my husband and I sewed our son a froggy Halloween costume. Doggedly we stitched--ripped--and re-stitched. We argued over the meaning of those "Simplicity" pattern instructions. But we did it, and felt proud.

As soon as I put it on him, he ripped the webbed-foot fabric off his Crocs (admittedly, my shortcut version of the pattern). He refused to wear the hood--the most froggy part of the costume. 

Nevertheless, we enjoy seeing him yellow-bellied. We have pet frogs (tiny toads, actually), and I love all things amphibious. For one, they're cute. And, two, these little guys are bellwethers of the health of our planet. As you probably guessed, what they're telling us isn't pretty. 

The Global Amphibian Assessment says nearly one-third of the world's amphibians are threatened with extinction. 129 may have gone extinct since 1980.  Habitat loss, disease, pollution, predation by nonnative species, and UV radiation are among the culprits
A recent study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) concluded climate change could wipe out more than half of all amphibians. 

But you can still enjoy learning about frogs.  Check out National Wildlife Federation's FrogWatch, Save The Frogs, AllAboutFrogs, and Jumping Frog Institute

Among my favorite local--and imperiled--amphibians is the Arroyo Toad. Here's my radio story:

A third of our planet’s amphibians are threatened with extinction.  In southern California, habitat loss and predation by non-native species has imperiled two of our frogs, a salamander, and the Arroyo Toad.  The toad has lost more than 75 percent of its habitat.  And, as KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol reports, it faces an uncertain future.

(sound of a creek)

SETZIOL: Just before sun down, in the Angeles National Forest, Little Rock Creek is darkening in the shadows of a steep canyon.  The fading amber light catches the creamy blossoms of tall yucca plants, making them glow like candles. 


SETZIOL: Biologist Ruben Ramirez crosses the creek.

RAMIREZ: In southern California generally you’re going to have 2 toads you’re going to see most often. The common western toad. And then the Arroyo Toad.

SETZIOL: Little Rock Creek is one of the few places where endangered Arroyo Toads survive.  Ramirez heads upstream a couple of miles, crisscrossing the creek … then sits down on a sandbar and waits. A halo of midnight blue spills over the top of the canyon.  The landscape looks like it’s been stilled by the night. 

(forest night sound fading up)

SETZIOL: But then, a few sounds crescendo into a chorus …

(sound of a chorus of frogs)

RAMIREZ: you’re hearing that two-note, that “grib-bit-grib-it” that’s a pacific tree frog. We’re also going to hear something that’s like “quack” “quack!!”that’s California tree frog.

(quack of tree frog in clear)

SETZIOL: Ramirez uses a flashlight to search out Arroyo Toads. He spots them by the way their eyes shine in the beam of light.  It’s not long before he picks up a two-inch toad about the color and texture of an oatmeal-raisin cookie. There’s something about this creature, with its soft round body, tiny toes and big, liquid eyes, that looks … very friendly.

RAMIREZ: Just a beautiful guy, isn’t he?

(toad call)

SETZIOL: Arroyo Toads spend their days buried in moist sand.  It’s only at night that the adults become active.

RAMIREZ: what he’s doing right now is a release call, because I’m compressing him a little bit on each side as though I’m basically trying to amplex him for breeding. He’s a male so he’s basically saying…get off me, I’m a male not a female. It’s a release call. 

(toad call)

SETZIOL: Amplexus is the technical term for toad nooky.

RAMIREZ: He’ll go down tonight and do some soaking. Definitely forage tonight, get some ants. …And I wouldn’t be surprised that he would find a nice spot and let of some advertisement calls tonight, just trying to get some female’s interest.

SETZIOL: Biologist Ruben Ramirez says when the creek starts to dry up, the toads will burrow deeper into the ground, and slip into a summer version of hibernation called estivation.  They’ll emerge again when it rains.  

(bird and creek sound)

SETZIOL: A hundred miles to the south, in the Los Padres National Forest, biologist Nancy Sandburg dips a small net into the water of Piru Creek.  Inch-long charcoal-colored tadpoles dart under a mat of algae.

(sloshing sound)

SANDBURG: I see a lot of western toad tadpoles 

SETZIOL: But Sandburg says this part of Piru Creek hasn’t been suitable for Arroyo Toads for years … not since the state started releasing water year-round from Pyramid reservoir upstream. That’s allowed a lot of vegetation, including cattails, to grow. 

SANDBURG: Cattails are very effective at collecting silts and what happens is it changes the river from a nice wide open stream bed to a very entrenched channel that’s deep, steep and much too fast a flow for arroyo toads to breed. 

SETZIOL: The extra summer water also supports non-native bullfrogs, which prey on Arroyo Toads.  To help the toads, the California Department of Water Resources is proposing to release water in a way that mimics natural cycles.  Recreational fishermen fear it will mean fewer hatchery and native rainbow trout. But federal biologists say the native fish should do just fine. 

Toad researcher Nancy Sandburg says the natives should be able to survive in tributaries and small pools.  But even with improvements at Piru Creek – She’s worried about the Arroyo Toad’s future.

SANDBURG: As I see it, no recovery efforts have been attempted yet…we’re still trying to prevent loss of existing habitat.

SETZIOL: Creed Clayton with the US Fish and Wildlife Service is more optimistic.  He says there are a number of small steps that could help toads quite a bit.  But there are limitations…

CLAYTON: The recovery plan identifies actions that should be taken to recover the species, but they’re not mandated to happen.  So federal agencies often will pay attention to what’s in a recovery plan and they’ll try to accomplish what they can. But on private lands, private landowner is not obligated to do what’s identified in the recovery plan. 

SETZIOL:This year, Fish and Wildlife sharply reduced the amount of land designated as “critical habitat” for the toads.  It’s in response to a lawsuit by the building industry.  That’s doesn’t necessarily mean more toad habitat will disappear … but Biologist Ruben Ramirez says reducing “critical habitat” does make it harder for the public to know when development is threatening the Arroyo Toad.  

With night settled in at the Angeles National Forest, Ramirez heads back downstream, when he hears a soft buzzing sound coming from the other side of Little Rock Creek.

(toad in clear)

It’s a male Arroyo Toad trying to attract a female. He’s positioned himself in the best place—just above the waterline--to broadcast his call.

RAMIREZ: What fascinates me is because I’ve studied them so long. Every year they continue to prove me wrong. In what I think they’re capable of. I find them moving up slopes where I didn’t’ think they could move.  At least it gives me hope that with a little proper management, we can help them rebound.

(Toad sound)

In the Angeles National Forest, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

(Toad sound)

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