Should We Spend $9 Million to Research Deformed Frogs?
JULY 01, 1999 by BRIAN DOHERTY
It’s the kind of story that doesn’t often get reported in the media—even though it is largely the media’s creation. In February, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made a stirring call for an extra $8.1 million in other people’s money—your money and mine—for fiscal 2000 to research yet another potentially earthshaking environmental crisis: declining and deformed frogs.
It’s tiny by federal standards. Still, the federal agency umbrella group created last year for which Babbitt is seeking this new cash infusion, the Taskforce of Amphibian Declines and Deformities (TADD), could portend something big. It certainly seems as if the government is prepared for anything and everything to come out of the issue of unexpectedly disappearing and deformed amphibians: TADD, in an almost archetypal example of federal overkill, has representatives from the departments of state, justice, and defense on the team.
While the Department of the Interior posits this program as an example of pure science, research into a vital issue that only government force can supply, Babbitt’s science adviser William Brown let slip the real score to a reporter from BNA Daily Environment: “There are a whole set of regulatory initiatives” waiting in the wings for when they find what they set out to find.
The frog situation has gotten just enough media attention—stories in Newsweek, episodes of “Nightline”—and is just bizarre and frightening enough that the average man in the street knows there’s something funny going on with frogs. There are two potential problems—probably unrelated, but conflated in both media and government—with amphibians: die-offs (frogs no longer appearing in customary numbers in certain habitats) and deformities.
That frogs are disappearing in numbers larger than what herpetologists have come to consider normal is not controversial in the field now; what these observations mean, and what might be causing them, are. A recently discovered chytrid fungus has been found killing frogs in Australia, Central America, and the United States; it is moving to the forefront as a convincing explanation in the scientific debate. Also, there is the possibility that natural fluctuations occur in frog populations that scientists don’t understand because they haven’t been looking at trend lines long enough. Even the government’s own Web site devoted to the nascent frog crisis acknowledges that one of the frog species whose diminution concerns us now, the Northern leopard frog, created an earlier alarm in the Midwest in the 1960s and ’70s, and “initiated our concern about amphibian declines, but many of these original declines have stopped and populations have recovered to some extent.” These population fluctuations happen in nature, and the workings of nature, like that of the human economy, are so multicausal and complex that we don’t always know why certain things occur. Our intimate knowledge of long-term population trends is so poor that we can’t even be sure we are seeing an alarmingly unnatural diminution.
Also, there are a couple of very likely man-caused, though prosaic, problems that could be killing off frogs: general encroachment on habitat and stocking non-native fish in large numbers in frog ponds. Indeed, man’s desire for trout fishing could be hurting young tadpoles—but this is a matter of tradeoffs, not unquestionable bads.
However, the government frog effort prefers other controversial explanations. Not coincidentally, these explanations—while government researchers admit they have found no causal smoking gun—are those for which industrial society can be blamed: pesticides and ultraviolet radiation. These are the sort of explanations that would inspire the “whole set of regulatory initiatives” Babbitt’s science adviser crowed about. It’s true that UV radiation can cause problems for frog eggs in labs, but no one has shown that amphibian eggs in nature are actually being exposed to too much of it. (The UV thesis is thought to have more to do with the problem of deformed frogs rather than dying ones, though even there the evidence of real-world exposure is lacking.) Two herpetologists, from Stanford and the Smithsonian Institution, wrote in the journal Froglog that “what funding is available tends to be directed toward the most high-profile factors, regardless of whether or not they are the most likely causative agencies.” And when government bureaucrats pay the scientific piper, the bureaucrats call the tune—and they tend to love the sweet sound of more regulation. Thus, while even such potential causes as chytrid fungus might have man to blame, in the sense that herpetologists themselves might be spreading the fungus cross-continent, advising scientists to wash their boots more carefully just doesn’t pack the regulatory punch of stopping UV radiation or banning more pesticides to stop man’s mad, unchecked lust for food not infested with (or eaten by) insects.
The frog deformity problem is the more grotesque and disturbing—freakish frogs with eyes in their mouths, multiple sets of limbs, missing limbs, missing jaws, appearing (or being noticed) in unusually large numbers. Consequently, it has gotten the most attention and money so far. The state of Minnesota alone—where the crisis first hit the media in 1995 after a school field trip found an unusual number of deformed frogs in one pond—has spent around a million dollars investigating the matter, and has already created a public scare on scant evidence. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in September 1997 announced that local well water was definitely causing frog deformities (pressuring scientists to go public with studies before they felt they were ready), and began giving out bottled water to frightened residents. The agency later admitted it was mistaken. One of the leading researchers of frog deformity, who thinks that naturally occurring parasites and cannibalism among tadpoles are most likely the main culprits, complains that the information presented to Babbitt was biased in the direction of scary man-caused explanations.
The feds are pulling out the whole panoply of modern devices to create a scare about this issue. They set up a Web site and created a cute mascot to encourage children of all ages to get scared and get active—and, perhaps coincidentally, to become a public constituency for more federal money on matters amphibian.
Captain Ribbitt, a cartoon frog in a spacesuit presented as “Earth’s Ambassador from the Planet Amphibian” tells “earthlings” that they “must join Frog Force now, get involved in finding the cause, and become a friend to frogs everywhere.” Some amphibian scientists shudder at the thought of thousands of eager kids recruited by this cartoon commando tromping heedlessly through the habitat of possibly endangered frogs, but you can’t get a good environmental scare story rolling without starting a Children’s Crusade. One wonders how much of last year’s frog budget—your tax dollars at work—went to cutesy absurdities such as this.
When Babbitt first heard about the frog problem, he told the Washington Post that it “illuminated a landscape of potential extinction that extends all the way round the world.” This is rhetoric of the sort that herpetologists don’t necessarily agree with. The government’s and media’s panic over frog disappearances is based on the oft-repeated rhetorical notion that frogs, because of their permeable skin and water-based and land-based life cycles, function as a sort of canary-in-the-coal-mine early warning system for the bio-sphere. But herpetologists Joseph H. K. Pechmann and Henry M. Wilbur, writing in the academic journal Herpetologica, write that “we are not aware of any evidence available to substantiate it. The toxicological literature does not support a general statement that amphibians are a relatively sensitive group.” But because that idea, false as it may be, is widespread, the frog problem could be another global warming in the making—media hype and government science in alliance to condemn industrial society and justify massive government intervention—on questionable evidence.
In federal terms, $9 million makes for a mere tadpole of a program. But tadpoles become frogs. And little government programs have been known to metamorphose into regulatory monsters.