Monthly Archives: December 2013

It’s the Habitat: What’s happening to our Frogs

In the mid-1990s, children in Minnesota were horrified to find the frogs they were catching had missing legs, horror-movie features, extra legs, and missing eyes. After that, these misshapen critters started showing up seemingly everywhere across the U.S., less so in Canada.

This past November the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of the 10-year study of amphibians, 48,081 individuals representing 32 species of frogs and toads at 462 wetland sites. Its purpose was to address “the broad spatial distribution and temporal dynamics of amphibian abnormalities that have hindered efforts to understand the extent of the problem.”

one leg frog

Amphibians are the most imperiled class of vertebrates on earth. Amphibian Ark, a coalition of conservationists, estimates that 165 species have gone extinct in recent years. Malformations and mortality rates seem to be on the increase. Their permeable skin and shell-less eggs make them extremely vulnerable to the environment, and because they never venture far from home, they’re close to perfect bio-indicators of local conditions.

Various reasons for their decline have been suggested, but people have fastened on climate change, ultraviolet radiation seeping through the thinning ozone layer and damaging the molecular structure of just about everything.

The FWS study actually turned up surprisingly few abnormalities: only two per cent when the results were averaged over the U.S.; only 22 cases of extra limbs .6 per cent of all the abnormalities recorded;  and one-third of the 675 collection events yielded no abnormal amphibians at all.

Two per cent or fewer abnormalities is considered within a normal range. Malformations can result from predation and parasites. Even dragon flies nibble on frog larvae.

However the hot spots—the Mississippi Valley, the Central Valley in California and south-central and eastern Alaska—revealed serious abnormalities, shortened or odd-shaped limbs and missing eyes, at rates close to 40 per cent in some years, other years nothing. (Bravo for this long-range survey: a smaller sampling might have come to wildly different conclusions.)

Garden furnitureBut there’s a codicil: all the sites studied were in U.S., refuges where amphibians are provided protection from man-caused environmental stressors—except of course ultraviolet radiation and climate change. So the study doesn’t tell us why exactly amphibians are doing so poorly in less pristine environments.

One of the chief causes of malformations and high levels of death in amphibians, although it doesn’t explain all the cases, is the parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae, or flukes. This flat worm, after reproducing asexually in snails, dispels 40 to 1,000 larvae every night per snail. Once released, they head straight for a frog, toad or salamander where they target their limbs, forming cysts there, obstructing their growth, sometimes causing their deaths or simply rendering them lame and more susceptible to predators.

The infected amphibians are eaten by birds (especially herons), which then become the second home for the flukes, and a place where they sexually reproduce. Their eggs are expelled in the bird’s feces, which if they land in water, they hatch and seek out snails, burrowing into their shells and setting up home again. R. ondatrae thrive in algae- rich farm ponds, so the increase in amphibian mortality may be related to an increase in nutrients.

Garden furniture 2The Canadian Journal of Zoology reports that infected amphibians have been found along the migratory flyways in the U.S., as you might expect given that the dispersal agents are birds, but curiously enough, the flyways in Canada haven’t turned up infected amphibian populations—a mystery for a future gap analysis. (This is not to suggest that R. ondatrae aren’t found in Canada, they are.)

A recent study in Illinois connected the decline in amphibians to the invasive European buckthorn, now evident in two thirds of the U.S. This rampaging ornamental plant releases a compound that is toxic to amphibian embryos, killing off populations of Western chorus frogs and the African clawed frog in particular, but it is also suspected in the high mortality rates of other amphibians.

A Canadian study has drawn a line between pesticide use and amphibian mortality. In Minnesota, a field study has linked UVB penetration in a pond to a depth of 10 cm. and the percentage of malformed frogs there, but light penetration in water is affected by shading from trees and aquatic plants, and by the amount and quality of dissolved organic carbon. So UVB doesn’t rank very high as a cause of amphibian mortality. However it could be acting on natural and manmade compounds that then make them toxic to frogs. The potential combination of biological, physical and chemical substances is limitless.

Garden hoseIt’s useful to know that amphibians are doing more or less O.K. in pristine environments like U.S. refuges. By inference, we’re left with contaminated environments, squashing them under our tires, interactions with invasive species, chemicals, nutrient runoff, any or all combinations of these factors plus outright habitat destruction as the real stressors. We can deal with these issues at the local level, unlike climate change.

Too often climate change induces a paralyzing stupor; it makes us feel bad and block us from taking on the challenges we should be fighting. For frogs everything is local. These critters don’t have enough room, and we too often mess with what room they do have. We can stop that.

Localized Hotspots drive Continental Geography of Abnormal Amphibians in U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Mari K. Reeves, Plos One;jsessionid=3F631910F949681EE6E7DE18549F0331

Ribeiroia ondatrae causes limb abnormalities in a Canadian amphibian community, C.D. Roberts, T.E. Dickinson, Department of Biology, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC V2C 0C8, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology

USGS, Science for a Changing World. Malformed Frogs in Minnesota: An update

Frog Deformities: North Temperate Lakes: Long Term Ecological Research from Lakeland Times, John Bates

legless frog photo credit: Scientific American, USFWS/Fred Pinkey

Canaries in the Coal Mine, Frogs in the Pot: Revisiting the Muzzling of Canadian Scientists

It hasn’t gone away. The muzzling of scientists by the Harper administration continues to represent a scandalous challenge to Canadian democracy. Good news though: the abuses have been solidly documented in a survey of federal scientists, and in a report to the Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who as a result, has launched a formal investigation.

scaly branchTo recap some well-know cases: Nature published “Unprecedented Arctic Ozone Loss in 2011”, an article by Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick that documented a hole two million kilometres wide that allows harmful ultraviolet radiation to escape. When a journalist contacted the federal media relations rep for an interview with the author (as protocol calls for) a spokesperson wrote back, “While the interview cannot be granted, we are able to provide additional information on the paper…you may attribute these responses to Dr. David Tarasick.” These “responses” however did not originate with the author but instead with the assistant deputy minister. The bureaucrats only relented in their walling off of the author two weeks later, after the media had moved on to other stories.

Case number two: Environment Canada scientists attending a Montreal conference, International Polar Year 2012, were shadowed by media relations contacts who sat in and recorded their interviews. If approached by a journalist, the scientists were required to brush them off, referring them instead to a media person. This is the sort of practice one would expect in Russia.

Case number three: University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler were provided with a package of scripted answers to expected questions from journalists on the subject of their paper on contaminated areas around oil sands developments.

Bark Dec 7, 2013

These are hardly isolated cases as has been made abundantly clear in a survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and conducted by the Environics Research Group. The scientists surveyed included those with responsibilities for the safety of our food, water, drugs and health products, the air, environment, children’s toys, scientific innovation and the economy.

“Faced with a department decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, 86 percent do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department,” reads the report.

Half the scientists surveyed reported being aware of actual cases in which the environment or the health of Canadians has been compromised as a result of political interference with their scientific work. Twenty-four per cent have been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. Sixty two per cent think the best climate change science has not been translated into policies.

(U.S. scientists endure nothing like this; they have only to make clear that when they speak, they are not necessarily representing their government’s position.)

Last March, Canada’s information commissioner launched an official investigation into the muzzling issue based on a 26-page report with 100 pages of appendices detailing cases, internal government documents, information requests, interviews with former and current federal public servants, journalists, non-profit organizations and university professors. Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic provided the document, which charges that current practices constitute a breach of the Access to Information Act.

If Commissioner Suzanne Legault agrees, she could “facilitate a solution”, which might involve mediation, or worst/best case, refer the matter to the Federal Court of Canada.

Commissioners report directly to parliament, free of the restraints of party politics, or so goes the theory, but all their power in tied up in influencing people. Their reports typically become the subject of hand-wringing editorials and that’s about it. If they’re especially good at getting heard, they might get blown off like the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page. The Harper administration is used to scathing reports; this is the same government that seems so nonplussed about having been found in contempt of parliament.

Sumack Dec 7, 2013

Imposing a clogged artery between scientists and the media; insisting that scientists be shadowed by media flacks; denying them permission to speak about their already published work; supplying senior-bureaucrat talking points for media interviews; insisting co-authors on federal research projects submit to the same soviet-style restrictions as federal scientists; and delaying, delaying, delaying, these media management practices seem curiously off-tempo with the speed of light exchanges on the wide open Internet.

But actually, the feds media protocol fits perfectly with the larger phenomena of seemingly huge piles of data accumulating in the ether while fewer and fewer people seem to have the authority to tell us what it all means. They’ve been laid off.

The Harper government seems particularly keen on constraining the climate change wonks from messing up its plans, but something else is going on. This particular administration is diminishing the authority with which science speaks — all that independent, peer-reviewed, evidence-based, cautious, heavy-on-the-qualifiers thinking of those conscientious people who always did their homework and got good marks in school.  Reducing scientists to squeaky wheels and whiners slots them as a special interest group with an agenda, and one that can be tossed off to appease their base.

Sometimes of course the best-laid political operative’s plans go astray. Muzzling the scientists when added to Canada’s knuckle-dragging performance on the climate change file has made us an easy target in the XL Pipeline debate south of the border. We’re iconic bad guys now with not a whole lot of credibility.

If we can describe federal scientists as canaries in the coal mine, part of the warning system in a political culture determined to stream-out evidence-based analysis, then we must be the frog in the pot, cooking so slowly we won’t know we’re intellectually compromised until it’s over.

The Bill Chill: A survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

Muzzling Scientists: A Threat to Democracy

Stop Muzzling Scientists: A petition

Getting at the Burr in the Water Levels Debate

It’s not sexy, but the distinction between restoration and multi-lake regulation explains why the issue seems to go round in circles. Get this straight, and you’ll have bragging rights just in time for your Christmas parties.

To recap: for something like 15 years now, Georgian Bayers have been deeply concerned about “their” water rushing down the St. Clair River on account of the deep navigational channels that were dug there in the 1930s to 1960s. Water levels plunged. The Georgian Bay Association, the Georgian Bay Foundation and their supporters succeeded in getting the International Joint Commission to pay attention, a very considerable achievement; and that resulted in the Upper Great Lakes Study Board, the scientific arm of the IJC, looking at the impacts of permanently restoring water levels by some pre-determined amounts from 10 to 50 cm in Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay. While this might be possible, the Board determined that this could negatively affect all the water bodies downstream and might exacerbate the threat of flooding should water levels rise naturally.

The Board then turned its attention to multi-lake regulation. By adding new structures, could water be shared around, not necessarily raised some  set amounts? This too had its drawbacks and tradeoffs: it would be very expensive, bureaucratic and might not work very well given the uncertainties of climate change.

Since the Board made these deliberations, the difference between water restoration and multi-lake regulation has been getting murky.  In fact, the IJC contributed significantly to this murkiness when it recommend a hybrid of the two in its all-important Advice to Governments, April 15, 2013, the culmination of five years and a $17 million study on water level issues in the upper Great Lakes. (We’re still waiting to hear back from the U.S. and Canadian  governments on this.)

Campbell dock 2

The IJC was very specific that it wanted the two federal governments to consider restoring 13 to 25 centimeters (5 to 10 inches) to water levels in Michigan-Huron, amounts  pegged to compensation for mid-20th century dredging episodes in the St. Clair River.

But at the same time, the IJC recommended that the governments focus on an option “that would not result in a permanent restoration change that could exacerbate future high water levels, but rather one that could primarily provide relief during low water periods.” Italics: mine.

Campbell dock detail 2

Now leveraging water up and down necessitates big decisions: how much; when to do it and when to stop; this is according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that  would most likely have responsibility for the construction of any kind of engineered solution. An internal USACE report on St. Clair Compensating Works dated May 2013. reads:

“Compensation structures constructed would most likely be of a static nature, meant to raise the upstream lakes back to their pre-dredging levels. There have been recent suggestions [the IJC’s Advice doc] of looking at flexible systems that could be removed or altered during high water periods. This would essentially mean that Lakes Michigan and Huron would become regulated. It would require the creation of a regulation plan for the middle lakes and a corresponding IJC Board of Control to oversee operations. As such, the scope of this GRR [General Reevaluation Report] would involve significant bi-national coordination and multi-level review, likely up to the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.” (Italics mine.)

Green and pink cabbage like flower

USACE is saying water level flexibility is the back door through which multi-lake regulation comes: flexibility necessitates regulation; and regulation becomes multi-lake regulation because how can you stop short of considering all the impacts on all the affected water bodies not just the middle Great Lakes?

The Study Board recommended against any new regulatory structures in the Great Lakes: given their expense and various uncertainties, they wouldn’t work very well; and the tradeoffs would be unacceptable.

The IJC wants to see compensation for dredging in the St. Clair River, flexibility without multi-lake regulation. That looks like a muddle to me.

The International Joint Commission Advice to Governments can be found at:

The International Upper Great Lakes Study: Final Report to the International Joint Commission, March 2012 can be found at: