Friday, January 29, 2016

Amphibian Monitoring Program Benefits City, Science

Above: Newly trained citizen scientists search for amphibian egg masses at a 30 year old stormwater pond on the City of Olympia's westside last Saturday. The training was part of a Stream Team program activity to monitor the ecological health of area stormwater ponds and its inhabitants. Amphibians are a key indicator species that help scientists monitor the health of the environment.  

By Janine Gates

“I found one!”

That was the excited shout by more than one newly trained citizen scientist on a field trip to a stormwater pond last weekend.

What was found was an amphibian egg mass belonging to the Pacific Tree Frog, in about 30 centimeters of water. 

The sighting was confirmed by City of Olympia Stream Team leader Michelle Stevie who called me over with my clipboard to record all the vital information: location and depth, type of egg mass, developmental stage in which the eggs were found, whether or not the mass was attached to anything, like a cattail, and other notes. 

As I moved slowly through hip deep water to record the finding, as well as another egg mass, I found one all on my own! It belonged to the Northern Red-legged Frog. 

With each new discovery, everyone shared in the joy. 

Above: The egg mass of a Northern Red-legged Frog. The scalloped-edged mass, about the size of a grapefruit, is being highlighted with a simple, white plastic lid attached to a bamboo stick. The stick has markings used to measure depth, and, if needed, keeps one upright in what can be a mucky situation.

Learning How To Monitor Amphibians

This is the fifth year for the City of Olympia's Stream Team amphibian egg mass monitoring program, and about 20 people registered for the first training of the season last Saturday held at the LOTT Clean Water Alliance. 

Volunteers play a key part in maintaining several city programs designed to restore and protect area streams, shorelines, and wetlands. Some folks not only participated in the compact, nearly three hour class lecture, they had the opportunity to immediately put their newfound knowledge to use.

The class was taught by Dr. Marc Hayes, herpetologist and senior research scientist with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Students of all ages, even children, learned about the frogs, toads and salamanders of Thurston County and the Pacific Northwest.

Hayes showed PowerPoint slides of the egg, larvae, metamorphic, and juvenile stages of the Pacific Tree Frog, Northern Red-legged Frog, Oregon Spotted Frog, Western Toad, American Bullfrog, Northwest Salamander, Long-Toed Salamander, Rough-Skinned Newt, Western-Backed Salamander and Ensatina.

The value of monitoring a particular species or its habitat has not always been appreciated. In the past, it was a neglected piece of the puzzle in restoration efforts.

“People are beginning to understand the connection between monitoring and restoration. If restoration is not successful, it is a waste of money. It’s important to do effective analyses, and understand the failures to potentially correct them in future efforts,” said Hayes, who has 43 years’ experience with frogs and salamanders.

Hayes gave a good natured pop quiz after the lecture, and the group proved it had retained an impressive amount of knowledge.

Threats and Issues for Thurston County Amphibians

There are about 7,000 amphibian species and a website at UC Berkeley actively updates their descriptions. Since 1985, about 48 percent have been described, most of them from tropical areas, with 17-20 amphibians added per month.

Amphibians are declining globally. Over 200 species have been lost in the last 25 years and it is anticipated that that 400 species will be lost over the next 20 years.

Emergent diseases are a direct or indirect consequence of climate change. A fungus that attacks salamanders in particular was just discovered less than two years ago in Europe. While it has not yet been found in North America, a fungus that interferes with an amphibian’s water balance, and the ranavirus, a viral disease that has the ability to move between fish and amphibians, is present in Thurston County.

Other threats include growth and urban development. According to a 2001 state Department of Fish and Wildlife study in King County, wetlands adjacent to larger areas of forests are more likely to have greater native amphibian species diversity. Amphibian richness is highest in wetlands that retain at least 60 percent of adjacent area in forest land up to and exceeding 1,640 feet from the wetland.

Invasive Species in Thurston County

The only native amphibian to be reintroduced to Washington State is the Oregon Spotted Frog, a species federally listed as threatened in September 2014.

Reintroduced at Joint Base Lewis McChord in 2008, the program has been somewhat successful, but is still under evaluation, said Hayes. In reality, there is a 97 percent mortality rate in the larvae stage for amphibians due to predation under normal conditions, so scientists would need to introduce thousands of the frogs to achieve some impact to the success of the species in the area.

Two amphibians that are present in Thurston County and are definitely not wanted is the American Bullfrog, an invasive species introduced to the area in the 1930s after a bullfrog farming craze phased out in California, and the African Clawed Frog.

The African Clawed Frog was discovered about a year and a half ago in three stormwater ponds on the St. Martin’s University campus in Lacey. Hayes said scientists are desperate to remove it because it breeds at an alarming rate and carries the ranavirus at a 70 percent frequency rate.

“They are voiceless, tongue-less burrowers with tough skin and can withstand a whole host of environmental insults,” said Hayes. 

Hayes said the species is used in labs, and it is suspected that the source of this population is the result of a pet dump from North Thurston High School. Goldfish were also present. So far, 4,700 African Clawed Frogs have been removed from the St. Martin’s ponds.

An extraordinarily stubborn species, Hayes said it took San Francisco scientists about 10 years to eradicate the African Clawed Frog from their area, but that also included the time it took to learn the system of what would be most effective in their removal. 

The method? Scientists capture the frogs, humanely euthanize them, put them in baggies, and pop them in a freezer for a week to guarantee they are dead. Then, the bags containing the frogs, are autoclaved, a process that is one of the most effective ways to destroy microorganisms, spores, and viruses. 

Most pet stores and online marketers do not educate consumers about the animals they sell, and are part of the problem with invasive species. Public outreach is a touchy situation and has to be done carefully to prevent consumer backlash and mass dumps of particular species, said Hayes. The state is doing outreach to educate students and teachers not to release pet animals into the wild.

At Last! Hands-On Learning

At the conclusion of the lecture, just when human brains were starting to get over saturated, the rain (literally) stopped, and perfect amphibian monitoring conditions prevailed.

Participants eager to locate, identify, and tag egg masses carpooled to the stormwater pond on Olympia’s westside near Hansen Elementary School. Hayes has been monitoring egg mass species there for about 16 years. 

Participants found their boot sizes and pulled on clean hip waders provided by the city. Those who brought their own boots had to wash them before entering the area. Everyone had to scrub their boots after being in the water to prevent water body cross-contamination.

Breaking up into small groups of four, all paired up with an experienced amphibian watcher and we slowly waded out, arms-length apart, into the pond.

A bamboo stick marked with measurements and a plastic lid attached to its end served to measure depth, find and see egg masses better, and use as a walking stick to prevent a potential fall into the muck.

Almost immediately, a Pacific Tree Frog egg mass was found, then another, this time, that of a Northern Red-legged Frog. A couple more egg masses were found, tagged, and recorded. 

Who would have thought stormwater ponds could be so much fun?

Stream Team activities are also available in Lacey, Tumwater, and Thurston County, and are financially supported by local storm and surface water utility bill paid by residents of those jurisdictions.

Amphibian monitoring continues until early April. For future trainings, and for more information other Stream Team monitoring programs involve purple martins, shorebirds, and stream bugs, go to or 

Above: Janine Gates, newly trained citizen scientist, participated with a Stream Team sponsored amphibian egg mass training in west Olympia last Saturday, and found the egg mass of a Northern Red-legged Frog. An exhilarating day of learning and discovery helped inform science, benefit the environment, and potentially influence future land use management and policies. And to think I didn’t know a thing about amphibians when I woke up Saturday morning!