Environmentalism

Ribbitting Story

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Attention Earthlings! You are hereby put on global alert. Frogs and toads are disappearing on your planet. Others are born deformed with missing or extra arms and legs. You must join Frog Force now, get involved in finding the cause, and become a friend to frogs everywhere…Over and out." So speaketh the Hon. Capt. Ribbitt, "Earth's Ambassador from the Planet Amphibian."

Lest there be any sort of War of the Worlds misunderstanding: Ribbitt is in fact a U.S. government employee, the cartoon mascot of a new effort by the Department of the Interior to raise awareness about what it claims are increases in mutant frogs and declines in overall numbers. Improbably, the Task Force on Amphibian Declines and Deformities includes representatives from the departments of state, justice, and defense along with people from environmental and scientific agencies. (For more information on TADD, including public service ads and Ribbitt's full comments, see www.frogweb.gov.)

The mutant frog crisis first hit the media in 1995, after a school field trip in Minnesota found an unusual number of deformed frogs in one pond. Since then, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has spent millions investigating the issue. In September 1997, it announced that local well water was definitely causing frog deformities and began giving out bottled water to frightened residents–only to later admit it had been mistaken. In the wake of continuing state and federal research, it remains unclear whether deformities are actually increasing or simply getting more attention.

It is also unclear whether frog die-offs are happening in unusual numbers. Government-financed scientists have fingered pesticides and ultraviolet radiation as possible culprits but admit such findings are highly speculative (UV rays, for instance, can cause problems in amphibian eggs in labs, but no one has shown that eggs in nature are actually being exposed to unusual amounts of UV). More recently, a fungus called chytrid has been identified as a global frog killer. This threat, too, may be man-made, but in a way that packs no regulatory punch: Scientists themselves are likely spreading it by not cleaning their boots after tromping through infected areas.

In any case, natural fluctuations in frog populations may be the simplest explanation for the apparent frogicide. As the government's Web site notes, one of the species whose shrinking numbers worry regulators now–the Northern Leopard Frog–created a false alarm in the Midwest during the '60s and '70s. Though that earlier scare "initiated…concern about amphibian declines…many of these original declines have stopped and populations have recovered to some extent."

Regardless of whether there is an actual crisis, however, Capt. Ribbitt can rest assured that he has a dedicated ally in the United States of America. As William Brown, science adviser to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, told BNA Daily Environment, "There are a whole set of regulatory initiatives" set to be enacted once government researchers find what they're looking for.

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