BARKLEY SOUNDINGS: Frogs important indicators to eco-health

As spring flowers emerge, for the keen listener, our evenings are filling with a symphony of frog songs. Although many locals curse the rain-laden weather that abounds in Alberni Valley, it is pure heaven for the six species of amphibians that call our backyards, wetlands and lush forests home.

A juvenile red-legged frog is discovered amidst the ground cover at the Wickaninnish Road bog by a crew searching for amphibian egg masses.

A juvenile red-legged frog is discovered amidst the ground cover at the Wickaninnish Road bog by a crew searching for amphibian egg masses.

As spring flowers emerge, for the keen listener, our evenings are filling with a symphony of frog songs. Although many locals curse the rain-laden weather that abounds in Alberni Valley, it is pure heaven for the six species of amphibians that call our backyards, wetlands and lush forests home.

Local habitats support a total of three frog and toad species along with another three aquatic salamanders. One remarkable species, the Red-legged frog, actually makes its calls to its mate underwater.

“They are fantastic!” Ucluelet amphibian biologist and frog enthusiast Barb Beasley said. “They are cool and beautiful and good indicators of ecosystem health.

“Frogs are the canary in the coal mine for the freshwater and terrestrial systems. If we keep them healthy, it is a good omen for our local environment.”

Unfortunately, in B.C., 60 per cent of frogs are at risk, she added.

“Mostly they are of special concern,” added Beasley, “but some are classified by the Species At Risk act as ‘at risk’.”

The Red-legged frog is one of these at risk species. Species At Risk is federal legislation to prevent plant and animal species in Canada from becoming extinct. The status of the species are based on data collection and studies throughout the geographic range of the species. They are then given a protection status from ‘special concern’, to ‘at risk’ and ‘threatened’. The species are provided specific protection measures and recovery strategies are developed and implemented.

Locally, the plight of our amphibian friends is of concern because they are important indicators of the health of our water and soil. Frogs drink through their skin and absorb whatever is there, including all of the bad stuff that collects at low elevations where ponds are often found.

“If we have healthy frog populations, then we know our local ecosystems are healthy,” Beasley reiterated.

Like our sacred local salmon, who transport nutrients from the ocean to the rivers, frogs also move nutrients from one ecosystem, namely ponds and wetlands, to the surrounding forests. “From an ecosystem perspective, frogs are a big part of the food web in the fresh water and terrestrial ecosystem,” Beasley said.

When we think of frogs, we think of ponds and wetlands, but it is important to consider so much more. “Red-legged frogs can move up to five kilometres from where they breed,” she said, “making the surrounding forests and terrestrial ecosystems important linkages to ensure the health of our local frog populations.

“We need to protect more than wetlands, but also the connections between the habitats, as frogs and amphibians are very mobile.”

Full of surprises, frog species can also be found along the ocean edges above the salt zones. Though not a lot of studies take place on the wild west coast, frogs form an important part of the coastal ecosystem, not just the terrestrial.

There are many threats to local frogs and amphibian populations, such as irresponsible logging practices. The largest local threat to our frog friends is development. Many wetlands and frog habitats are being drained and developed along with the terrestrial areas around them.

“The No. 1 problem worldwide facing our frog and amphibian populations is habitat loss. The one thing we need for our frogs is diverse habitat maintained,” Beasley said.

Kelly Poirier is a freelance writer living in the Alberni Valley.

Find out more ways individuals and organizations are showing their appreciation for the coastal environment at www.tsawalk.ca.