A Plague of Frogs; Unraveling an Environmental Mystery by William Souder

Wesley Burnett

Frogs are supposed to be a 'sentinel species' . . . If frogs are doing badly, we have reason to be anxious.

A Plague of Frogs

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Length: 320
Subtitle: Unraveling An Environmental Mystery
Price: $17.95 (US)
Author: William Souder
US publication date: 2002-12

Consider frogs. They've been around for 350 million years, and that's a while. They are essentially funnels with a big mouth at one end, and at the other, big legs to escape predators with. They've evolved ingenious techniques for surviving serious cold and heat and drought. They seem well adapted to anything nature wants to throw at them. And so it is. They've survived astronomical catastrophes, drifting and colliding continents, glaciations, and mass extinctions of all sorts. Everything except us, possibly. It is a fact that frog populations are in decline everywhere, even in pristine environments where we haven't yet pulled our ugliest stunts.

But on August 8, 1995, the frogs' saga took a nasty turn. A group of middle school children visiting an environmental learning center in Le Sueur County, Minnesota, found an entire population of leopard frogs suffering from all kinds of horrid deformities. Extra legs, extra arms. More limbs than a centipede. Only one eye. Open the mouth and there's the other one. A hell-hole of frog horrors. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was called into to view the spectacle, and soon the scientific community was in a hubbub. In A Plague of Frogs, William Souder, who covered Minnesota's deformed frogs for the Washington Post, reviews that scientific hubbub following the discovery in Le Sueur County.

It took awhile to dig out, but the literature is there. It just took a French Canadian to make it available to language deprived American scientists. Deformed frogs have not been all that uncommon. Frog deformation does happened quite naturally. But the literature also demonstrated that what was going on in Le Sueur County was of entirely new order of magnitude. And once the news got on the Internet, deformed frogs, soon found all over Minnesota, started popping up in other places as well. Canada. Vermont. Japan. California. Oregon.

Two hypotheses immediately presented themselves. The first was that the frogs were being exposed to some type of deforming pollutant. Simple, find it and get rid of it. Not so simple. In Minnesota, 15 types of pesticide are applied three times a year in addition to several fungicides and insecticides. These breakdown into.what? Nobody knows. Which of the chemicals or its 'daughters' was the guilty party. Possibly it was two or three of them in combination, and anyway, how and when were they delivered? In the water? In the sediments? In the vegetation?

The second hypothesis was that it was a parasite causing the deformities. Some are known to do that. But why would a parasite so thoroughly massacre its host population? And why now, if not a hundred years ago?

Possibly the answer lies in a synergistic combination of toxicants and parasites. Possibly it is neither, but global warming or increased UV radiation, or those in combination with toxicants and parasites. Or possibly frogs are just at the end of their evolutionary rope, and there's no help for it.

With all the possibilities, designing data collection techniques and laboratory experiments became a scientific nightmare all its own. Key components of field observations weren't gathered and laboratory findings just didn't jive with field observations. Yes, this toxicant will cause deformities in the lab but in the field the toxicant just isn't present. Oh, well, time to whip the slate clean and start over. Let's hypothesize that...and here we go again.

To make a long story short, we don't know much more about frog deformities than we knew on August 8, 1995. But in telling the tale, Souder tells us a lot about how science, good and bad, is done by big and small bureaucracies and by individual scientists. He takes the reader with ease and daring through a lot of complex ideas from evolution, from embryology, from toxicology. And he explores a lot of interesting personalities from middle school teachers, to landowners worried about being blamed for things they don't understand, to simple and contented professors in backwater colleges, to science's most arrogant and smug geniuses.

Much of this is very troublesome. Biologists who are concerned with organisms are themselves an endangered species being replaced by molecular biologists in their laboratories and by biology teachers preparing students for medical schools and owning BMWs. We just don't have the scientist who can tackle a major field problem concerning basic organisms, living critters. Agencies squabble and fight among themselves and can't protect their incomplete data from an incompetent public. Landowners are too frightened to cooperate. Professors withhold data and findings the public has paid for in hopes of achieving more prestigious publication, and thereby faster promotion and tenure. And finally, and most disturbing, we may know a lot, but we don't know diddle-squat about how life on this plant works. We've a lot of equipment for measuring this and that, and a lot of theories and ideas, but not the organization or management to tackle any major environmental or ecological problem. The frogs are trying to tell us something, but something too complicated for us to understand.

But, if you aren't into frogs, what do you care? The answer, beyond our simple lack of preparation for understanding what is going on among the frogs, is that frogs are supposed to be a 'sentinel species', itself a controversial concept in science. Frogs are major predators who eat, in their specific habitat, pretty far up on the food chain. If the frogs of the world are doing well, we have little reason to worry. If the frogs are doing badly, we have reason to be anxious. The frogs aren't doing well so we should be worried. As one of Souder's scientists is made to observe, 'We don't have to save the world. We have to save ourselves.'





'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.