Citizen Science

Citizen Science Tuesday: FrogWatch USA

June 10, 2014

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Plains spadefoot (Spea bombifrons). Photo by Flickr user Andy Teucher through a Creative Commons license.

What is FrogWatch USA?

When you hear that ribbit, peep, or croak in your neighborhood, do you wonder what species it is?

You can make a difference for amphibians by gathering data for FrogWatch USA, a program run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

“FrogWatch USA is a hands-on conservation action that engages members of the public and professionals alike in monitoring wetlands and collecting data on calling frogs and toads,” explains Rachel Gauza, a herpetologist and Education Outreach Coordinator for the AZA.

“This collective effort generates a long-term, widespread data set and promotes knowledge and understanding of these important and awesome animals,” she adds.

That’s right, if you participate you will be able to impress your friends with your knowledge of local frog and toad calls!

Why is it important?

You probably know some of the reasons why frogs and toads are fascinating: they are at ease in water and on land and metamorphose from tadpoles to adults.

But you may not know that they do much more for the environment and for people.

“Frogs and toads, as well as other amphibians, are really special for a number of reasons: one being that they serve as indicators of environmental health,” says Gauza.

You may have noticed that frogs & toads have unusual skin. It’s thin and sometimes looks slimy. That’s because they can breathe water through their skin!

But, breathing through your skin has a downside:

“This makes them particularly sensitive to changes and impairments in both the aquatic and terrestrial environments. A decline in frog and toad populations can indicate bigger problems in the landscape and may even be indicative of problems that could affect human health,” Gauza adds.

Because of this, amphibians are key creatures to study when trying to understand how phenomena like climate change and the widespread use of pesticides are affecting ecosystems.

And that’s not all! Frogs and toads eat pests like mosquitoes that can spread diseases to people and their skin is being tested for possible anti-cancer and anti-HIV properties.

Many amphibian populations have been in steep decline over the past decade.

Now more than ever it’s important to get a sense of where amphibian species are living and how well they are doing. FrogWatch USA data are used to help make decisions about conservation and management.

California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), an endangered species. Photo by Flickr user kqedquest through a Creative Commons license.

Plus, this program is good for the volunteers. Participating will improve your ability to ask and answer scientific questions and your science literacy.

Like many citizen science projects, FrogWatch makes that data freely available to the public.

“As of 2014, FrogWatch USA data are available online to anyone with an interest in frogs and toads to explore through National Geographic FieldScope. The site is dynamic, so check back often,” Gauza remarks.

You might even provide new information about a species.

“One of my favorite things is when we receive data and on spadefoot species. Spadefoot are a family of frogs that primarily live underground and emerge after heavy rains to forage and breed,” says Gauza.

“They call briefly, sometimes only for a couple of nights. Because the timing of their activities is so restrictive, they can be hard to study – you need to be watching the weather and prepared to go out and listen at night at almost a moment’s notice,” she adds.

Gauza says that without heavy rains, the spadefoot might even stay underground all year without breeding.

FrogWatch USA started gathering data in 1998 and up to 2011 they hardly had any reports of spadefoot species, but in 2012 they made a special effort to teach volunteers when and where they might hear spadefoot.

“As a result, in 2012 we had multiple observations of three species (Eastern Spadefoot, Great Basin Spadefoot, and Plains Spadefoot) reported for the first time in over five years and in areas where they were not previously reported for FrogWatch USA,” Gauza reports.

“It is a group of species I am personally interested in, but I think our FrogWatch USA volunteers tend to be really excited about them, too. It becomes a treasure hunt and is satisfying when you finally hear a species that you’ve been waiting to encounter,” Gauza explains.

“But it’s also rewarding knowing that you as an individual are contributing to a greater understanding of these quirky frogs – quirky in both behavior and appearance. They have these wonderful, prominent cat-like eyes, broad mouths, and stout, squat bodies. The array of grunt-like calls made by the various species is also quite charming,” Gauza recounts.

How do you get involved?

Start by visiting the FrogWatch USA volunteer page to find a training session at a local chapter near you.

You will learn to recognize calls and record your observations.

There is an online training module and extra videos to expand your knowledge.

You can learn a lot just by watching the 44 videos on United States frog and toad calls.

Once you have finished the training, it takes very little time to volunteer, especially if you live near a pond or wetland.

“An actual monitoring observation visit can take less than 10 to 15 minutes, and a minimum of four monitoring visits at the same location throughout the spring and summer is recommended,” says Gauza.

You simply visit an appropriate area in the evening, give the animals a few minutes to get accustomed to your presence, and then record what you hear and see.

“Making multiple visits is important because it helps capture data on the full frog and toad community at that wetland site, since different frog and toad species have different breeding seasons and periods of activity,” Gauza adds.

If you are anxious about the data entry, Gauza has a recommendation:

“Give it a try! Even if you don’t submit data, it can be quite an awe-inspiring experience to stand near a wetland and be immersed in a chorus of different nighttime sounds. As an observer, you will personally get to enjoy the shifts of the frog and toad choruses, in the same way many of us enjoy the changes in weather and the seasons.”

Yes: give it a try. You may very well end up spending more than the required 15 minutes as you enjoy the free concert!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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