Monday, August 18, 2008

Look to the Frogs

Ira Flatow recently interviewed biologist, Paul Ehrlich, on NPR for Science Friday on yet another geeky, wonderful topic – extinction! The scientific community is scratching their heads when it comes to the changing ways of biodiversity. We are adding toxics to the atmosphere, our population is growing and the climate is changing. One key point to note is that biodiversity is good folks! It helps our health, prevents floods, and allows us to eat.

So what will it take to change our ways? It is fear? Is it a dent in consumer wallets? Perhaps a generation that throws up their hands and says no

One answer is to better understand the frogs. The frogs are a unique key in this complex problem simply due to how they live. These creatures live on land and in fresh water allowing them to be exposed to toxics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, as well as ultraviolet light due to ozone depletion. Why are we not looking at birds, crayfish, or other fresh water creatures? Simple. Death has been occurring in large numbers from chytridiomycosis, which is an amphibian disease caused by a virulent fungus. With more frogs dying and less mosquitoes lately around our campfires, there is something morphing amongst our climate change that is even stumping the experts.

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Frog fan said...

Love frogs. Besides being cute, they ARE extremely important monitors of the environment because of their thin skin through which they breathe. However, I am not a big fan of Ehrlich - he's a bit of an alarmist. Not saying some of what he says is not true, but inciting people through fear is not the answer. People reacting out of fear ends in dumb, poorly thought-out reactions, or violence. Both make productive, useful change difficult.

Also, his take on biodiversity is a little off the mark in my opinion. Yes, climate change will eliminate some species (and thus biodiversity), BUT it is also biodiversity that allows species to adapt to change. This is the basis of natural selection. Change is inevitable. So the real issue seems to be more about the timing or RATE of the climate change. Given the amount of "stuff" that we've been pumping into environment for the last 50-100 years or more, if our major climate changing event (ice caps gone in 5 years according to Ehrlich's view) is likely to happen in a short period of time from now, any changes we make at this point are unlikely to cause change in that period of time, in which case it's too late already, right? To summarize, if the melting of the ice caps is the beginning of the end and it is going to take place in the next 5 years and we can't possibly change the outcome in that time allotment, we are blustering and frightening people to actions that can't correct the situation. We are upsetting people to take ineffectual actions. Seems kinda silly, possibly dangerous. Tread carefully. And even if we had the needed time, could we really stop the ice caps from melting??

Loss of species/species range. Truth be told, we really don't know what the "usual" or background rate of loss is. We can make educated guesses based on the fossil record and other tools for studying the geologic past, but they are just that, guesses. The rate of loss may seem high to us, and indeed, it may be the highest rate we have witnessed in our short time on this planet, but whether it's "abnormally" high (compared to the non-extinction parts of geologic history) because of some effect humans have had cannot be proven. Why do we pretend to know what we can't possibly know?
However, I DO agree with Ehrlich in that OUR ability to adapt to climate change (crops sown, etc) is definitely a concern. In my mind, that's where we need to focus - we need to be ready to change with our climate. And you hardly ever hear anything along that vein - preparing for climate change is rarely discussed.

Also, if we are going to expound on the ill effects of climate change, we need to connect the dots more effectively. Frogs dying of a particularly nasty fungus - new diseases pop up, that's the way it goes. Why does average Joe care? NOW, if you told Joe that the frogs died of a fungus that has become more prevalent due to the increasing heat/moisture of increasing temperatures thought to be connected with climate change related to human environmental impact - that might be more likely to affect Joe.

Sustaino - said...

Your points are well taken. I agree that adaptation will be a key concern. Most of us fear change and are stubborn in our least through my observations. It will be balancing act for us to learn.


Amy G said...

Great blog, Jennifer!

p.s. I heart frogs too :)