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Peril in the Ponds

Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist's Quest

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    Peril in the Ponds
    Book Description:

    Peril in the Ponds tells the story of a government biologist’s investigation into the mystery of deformed frogs, an epidemic that grew during the 1990s and continues today. It provides an inside view of a highly charged environmental issue that aroused the attention of the public and the media and sparked controversies among scientists, politicians, and government agencies. By the 1990s, wetlands across the United States were endangered from pollution and decades of drainage to convert them into farmland and urban developments. But when deformed frogs—many with missing legs or eyes, footless stumps, or misshapen jaws—began to emerge from Minnesota wetlands, alarm bells went off. What caused such deformities? Pollution? Ultraviolet rays? Biological agents? And could the mysterious cause also pose a threat to humans? Judy Helgen writes with passionate concern about vulnerable frogs and wetlands as she navigates through a maze of inquisitive media and a reluctant government agency. She reports on the complexity of a growing catastrophe for frogs and broadens the issue as she researches and meets with scientists from around the world. She affirms the importance of examining aquatic life to understand pollution and the need to rescue our remaining wetlands. She also shares the fears expressed by the teachers, students, and other citizens who found these creatures, sensed a problem, and looked to her for answers. Ultimately, this is a story about the biological beauty of wetlands and our need to pay attention to the environment around us.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-201-1
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-6)

    I knelt on the ground in my oversize rubber waders and peered into the metal pan. Its water danced with small creatures we’d just netted from the pristine-looking river below. A variety of immature insects swam about: armored dragonflies and pebble-cased caddis flies, dark-bodied beetles and bugs. Other invertebrates—tiny crustaceans and elegantly spired snails—crawled along the bottom of the tray. I looked down at the San Marcos, its clear blue water sparkling in the midday sun. Who knew it harbored such a diversity of life?

    A thirty-something mother, I was taking this course in aquatic ecology as part...

    (pp. 7-27)

    Her voice quavered over the phone as she described a hellish scene: frogs with stumps of legs; frogs missing a leg; frogs with twisted joints; some with extra legs that couldn’t move. A frog with one eye. “Half of these frogs have something wrong. They look really pathetic.” She paused. “We need help.”

    It was mid-August of 1995 when I first talked with Cindy Reinitz, a teacher who’d taken her students on a nature walk around a pond near Henderson, Minnesota, a community of nine hundred located close to the Minnesota River south of St. Paul. The town was founded...

    (pp. 28-41)

    In October of 1995, not long after the discovery of deformed frogs, eighty-four-year-old state representative Willard Munger organized a hearing about deformed frogs and wetlands issues. He invited the school students, their teacher, and me to speak to a mixed assemblage of legislators and citizens. I was honored to be asked and excited to see both wetlands and frogs on the day’s agenda. Munger understood the connection, if others did not. He launched a bill in the state legislature to fund an investigation into the frog deformities. At the same time, he promoted new legislation to protect wetlands.

    A rumpled-looking,...

    (pp. 42-67)

    One thing I knew: to find clues to what caused the deformities, we had to focus on the frogs themselves and the places where they spent their time throughout the year. The most likely scene of the crime lay within the ponds, where developing eggs would be exposed to pollutants or other agents in the water. But what about places where the adult frogs, females especially, went to feed or spend the winter? Could pollutants from those habitats get into their bodies, penetrate the eggs, and cause abnormalities?

    I was sitting at my desk, contemplating how to deduce where the...

    (pp. 68-76)

    Before coming to the MPCA, I observed first-hand the vulnerability of wetland organisms to damaging pollutants when I participated with EPA scientists in a research project. Their goal was to field-test the impact of organophosphorus insecticides on the biota of natural wetlands. Would the results from these more complex environments line up with their laboratory toxicity tests, conducted on just a few species under simpler conditions? To sample the study sites, located in the Crow Hassan Reserve near the Twin Cities, I walked happily up a hill through a restored prairie area where bobolinks nested and tree frogs called from...

    (pp. 77-93)

    With renewed hope, Mark and I made plans for surveying frogs and sampling ponds. In 1995 we had logged hundreds of misshapen frogs in a few different locations in the state. But what if Granite Falls repeated itself and no deformed frogs appeared in 1996? If that happened we could be accused of wasting taxpayers’ money, of raising a false alarm.

    Doubts hung over our plans. Getting out to frog ponds in time was uncertain at best. We were both absorbed by an onslaught of queries about the frogs; we battled to preserve our other projects; we struggled against the...

    (pp. 94-108)

    The Monday following the EPA’s meeting in late September 1996, we conducted a third survey of the frogs at the Ney Pond. This time a troubling 32 out of 70, or47 percentof the frogs were deformed, much worse than earlier in September, when we logged 8 percent abnormal, or in July when only one frog out of 124 we collected had a small defect. With each survey the percentage of deformed frogs was increasing. How would people react if such a horror were happening to newborn humans?

    Forty-seven percent! What was causing this, and what could be done...

    (pp. 109-136)

    After taking a week off for our wedding in early November of 1996, I returned to work with unrealistic hopes that the swirl of media requests and other communications might have simmered down. Instead, I was greeted by a flood of nine hundred e-mails and phone messages.

    Cindy Reinitz reported on her students’ latest survey of the frogs at the Ney Pond in mid-October: hundreds of frogs were still there, many with deformed legs and unusually tiny bodies, she wrote. They seemed weak and seemed to suffer from what Cindy called a failure-to-thrive syndrome. Also, some of the students had...

    (pp. 137-148)

    “Hey Judy, any chance your field crew could collect some fertilized frog eggs for us from one of your study sites?” asked EPA researcher Joe Tietge during a break at the amphibian meeting in Madison in the spring of 1997. He wanted to expose eggs to some chemicals and to ultraviolet light to see if deformities would develop, he explained.

    I hesitated, still unsure if my agency would support any of our fieldwork that spring. “We’ll try,” I said. “But I can’t guarantee we’ll be able to get out in time.”

    Dave Hoppe, standing nearby, spoke up. “To find egg...

    (pp. 149-171)

    Death and deformity again stalked Dave Hoppe’s intensive study site in north central Minnesota in the summer of 1997. Frogs were floating, listless, and dying. Dozens of small fish and a couple of painted turtles had died. Young frogs couldn’t swim or hop. Three-quarters of the mink frogs had severe and in some cases multiple deformities.

    I read Dave’s gruesome message summarizing this catastrophe and remembered the frogs I’d seen there the previous summer. Their bodies had been so grotesquely malformed I could barely stand to look at them. Some had had limbs projecting at odd angles from their abdomens...

    (pp. 172-187)

    After the reaction to September’s press conference and the media coverage cooled down, I hoped work would go more smoothly. But I’d had this thought before. Dorothy took a couple of months off to finish her master’s thesis, and, as we expected, she quit her job as fieldwork coordinator when she returned. Without her assistance we faced anew the tensions of trying to manage the frog work and our wetlands projects. Mark and I agreed: this time we couldn’t do both.

    Dorothy’s crews had worked intensely during the summer of 1997. They’d surveyed and confirmed thirty-seven new ponds that had...

    (pp. 188-199)

    The MPCA’s new reorganization plan, optimistically called “Goal 21” for the new century, swung into action with a massive and work-stopping internal move in 1999. During this time, the agency received a bomb threat, preceded earlier that summer by an anonymous message from someone who had threatened to “start shooting employees one by one,” should the MPCA go ahead with its plans to fine two communities for violating pollution regulations. This made staff uneasy and led to security systems at the building’s entrances.

    The costs of adding and moving staff to regional offices located in cities away from the metropolitan...

    (pp. 200-224)

    More than a decade has passed since the MPCA halted its research on the frogs in 2001 and after my retirement in 2002 to compose the next chapter of my life teaching, writing, and spending time with family. Since then, major environmental disasters, such as the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf and growing concerns about climate change have rightly dominated the news. Media coverage about frogs, on the other hand, has been almost nonexistent. Yet scientific reports from the first decade of the twenty-first century are disquieting: biologists report significant numbers of malformed frogs from sites across the...

    (pp. 225-240)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 241-243)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 244-246)