A jewel peeps up from a pattern. Translucent skin as fragile as life; as delicate as balance. An amphibian tells us without words, “Heaven is anywhere one lets it stay”. N’then there’s us. Of concrete and metal, plastic and wires, ambitiously tinkering, rambunctiously conquering, thumping our chests in dominant delusion while all the while this little jewel is shining up to silently say, “We are one organism peeping through many eyes. What you do unto me you have done to yourself.” Kala paints a picture.
Amphibians are a class of cold-blooded, semi-aquatic creatures that are divided into three orders: Apoda (caecilians, or limbless serpentines), Anura (frogs and toads), and Urodela (salamanders). Amphibians are found on every continent except for Antarctica and feature some of the more bizarre and wonderful adaptations the animal kingdom has to offer. They come in a surprising range of sizes, the smallest measuring at just a third of an inch (A frog from New Guinea called Paedophryne Amanuensis) and the largest at nearly six feet long (The Chinese Giant Salamander, Andrias davidianus). This Eco Mural features a wood frog, one of the thousands of fascinating frog species found across the globe. Frogs and toads have unique life cycles, undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis: they are born in clusters of eggs that hatch into gilled, water-breathing larvae, called tadpoles. These tadpoles develop in shallow pools of water, eventually growing legs and shedding their tails. They lose their gills and become air breathing in a matter of weeks, utilizing lungs and their skin as a secondary respiratory surface, with certain species relying only on their skin for breathing.
Most frogs are absentee parents, producing hundreds of eggs to increase the chance that a large percentage reach adulthood. However, in 20% of amphibians, one or both parents have some involvement in rearing young, often protecting eggs as they develop or keeping larvae on or in their bodies. Adult frogs predate on a variety of species, including small fish and crustaceans, all manner of insects, algae and certain underwater plants. Frogs, toads, and other amphibians in northern climates have a remarkable resilience to the cold: they are able to increase the glucose levels in their blood, producing a natural antifreeze. They then slow their circulatory system and hibernate under leaf litter or in burrows; this method allows them to survive temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit all winter long.
New England has a wealth of frog and toad species. Spring Peepers, (Pseudacris crucifer), have come to characterize the sounds and sights of New England springtime, as they are the first frogs to begin calling in a chorus of joyful chirping even before all the snow has melted. As spring approaches, vernal pools gather from snowmelt and precipitation, creating temporary habitats for the Spring Peepers and other amphibians of the Northeast to begin mating and producing offspring. As temperatures rise, New Englanders can see salamanders, toads, and frogs crossing roads and yards to make their way to these pools, gathering there and producing huge communal nests of eggs. As the eggs progress, thousands of tadpoles emerge, grow, and eventually mature into full-grown amphibians, returning the next year to the pool of their birth to continue the cycle.
All amphibians are incredibly sensitive to perturbations in their environment, so they are classified as indicator species or creatures that scientists can observe as an accurate representation of the health of an environment. Amphibians are incredibly important links in the chain of ecological interdependence: when their populations suffer losses, entire ecosystems suffer with them. Frogs and toads are important predators, maintaining populations of fish and insects that use shallow water habitats. Tadpoles manage overgrown algae in shallow water, preventing the depletion of oxygen that is caused by decomposing plant matter.
Amphibians are listed as one of the most endangered classes in the animal kingdom, with over 41% of their subspecies marked as endangered or extinct. Amphibians contribute to a huge portion of biomass in their terrestrial environments, so their decline is a massive blow to global biodiversity.
Frogs and toads are threatened by most aspects of human activity: the combined forces of environmental degradation, pollution, climate change, and poaching have massively reduced their numbers since the 1980s. Many amphibians live in environments that are easily damaged or altered by climate change, as the shallow pools they breed in become marred by human interference or cease to exist due to rising atmospheric temperatures. Deforestation has decimated areas that have large populations of amphibians, most notably that of the Amazon Rainforest, which has the highest diversity of amphibian species in the world (427 of 4,000 recorded frog and toad species live exclusively in the Amazon!). Many frogs have become targets of poaching, including the brilliantly colored Poison Dart Frogs, who evolved their hues in order to warn away predators. Unfortunately, their coloring has produced the opposite effect, making them valuable collector’s items for “herpers,” (enthusiasts of herpetology and keeping amphibians) across the world. Although international trade is banned, the black market for these Dart Frogs is disturbingly large. Amphibians are not only precious because of their contributions to their food chains and the maintenance of their environments, but also for humans: some scientists refer to amphibians, specifically frogs, as “hopping pharmacies” due to the medicinal properties of compounds found on their skin.
Understanding the complex relationships amphibians have with their environments can give us clues as to how to conserve remaining populations across the world. There are currently several international organizations for the protection and maintenance of amphibian species, and they are linked below. The most important and urgent thing we can do for frogs, toads, and salamanders is to alter our daily behavior to prevent habitat loss and pollution, reducing our use of plastics and fossil fuels. Donating to organizations that produce colonies of endangered species and groups that aid in the creation of worldwide ecological heritage sites can make a huge difference.
If you are interested in learning more, getting involved, and gaining further resources and tools, please follow the links below to learn more: