Science lessons: frogs to feathers

PAUL SMITHS – With a little training, anyone can get involved with science.

This Saturday, the Paul Smith’s College VIC will host a free workshop to teach everyday citizens how to identify wetland plants and birds.

The event is a follow-up to a similar workshop last month, which focused on frogs and toads. At that workshop, participants learned how to identify, by sight and sound, eight frogs and one toad species that call the Adirondacks home.

The Director of the Center for Biodiversity at Paul Smith’s College, David Patrick, outlined the habitat of each species and played recordings of its call. There was the high, intermittent chirp of spring peepers, the long, slow snore of the northern leopard frog and the distinct banjo-twang of the green frog.

Armed with the identifying characteristics of the Adirondack species, citizen scientists can enroll in a wetland-monitoring program, which involves visiting a monitoring station located within the Park once a week around dawn or dusk to collect data on the organisms there. That data will be used by the state Adirondack Park Agency to evaluate the influence of climate change on wetlands in the Adirondacks and manage wetland protection programs accordingly.

Patrick explained that it’s important to keep tabs on amphibian populations because they seem to be particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change.

“In general, amphibians are thought to be the most imperiled vertebrates,” Patrick said. “Compared to birds, reptiles or mammals, they have the highest proportion of species listed as threatened or endangered worldwide.”

Unfavorable changes in an aquatic or terrestrial environment are difficult for amphibian species to cope with because they’re not as mobile as other animals. A great blue heron can fly to a different wetland and a black bear can walk to a new area of forest, but a mink frog tends to stay in the vacinity of where it’s born.

“You basically have three options if the conditions change where you’re living, making them unsuitable,” Patrick said. “You either go somewhere else, you adapt to those changes, or you die.”

Changing habitats aren’t the only threat to frogs and toads. Amphibians become dehydrated quickly because their skin is permeable. That also means their skin readily absorbs toxins.

“When we think about climate change, we often think about how it gets warmer on average, but it might only be one day where it gets above the critical threshold, and these animals die,” Patrick said. “These animals just don’t have the ability to tolerate the changes in conditions that other vertebrates do.”

To put things in perspective, Patrick explained that if someone were to weigh all of the whitetail deer and all of the red back salamanders in the Adirondacks, the salamanders would weigh more.

Such abundance is good because many other organisms rely on salamanders for food – but there’s a catch. A 50 percent decline in the red back salamander population also means a 50 percent decline in a food source for other species.

That’s why Patrick said it’s important to study changes in Adirondack ecosystems. Citizen science data will be used to track population counts of wetland species and what time of year they are active, which, in turn, can be used to determine if amphibians are consistently emerging earlier or later each spring. The study of plant and animal cycles in relation to variations in seasons and the climate is called phenology, and it’s at the core of the Adirondack wetlands monitoring program.

“Not every organism responds to these changes in the same way, and a great example we’ve seen with this is with spring migrant birds,” Patrick said. “They migrate in at a time that optimizes the food availability for their young. The nestlings hatch, and there are all of these insects available. What we’ve seen with these changes in phenology is the birds are coupled with the invertebrates, so there’s no food available for the young. We’ve seen a decline in nestling survival, and we want to see if the same thing is going on with these amphibians. It’s not just about the timing of these events; it’s about the timing of these events in the context of everything else that’s going on within those systems.”

For more information, call the VIC at 518-327-6241 or visit

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or