This little buddy is one of the amphibians you can find around Peterborough. It’s a Western Chorus Frog. Photo by Benny Mazur, courtesy the Wikimedia Commons.
This little buddy is one of the amphibians you can find around Peterborough. It’s a Western Chorus Frog. Photo by Benny Mazur, courtesy the Wikimedia Commons.

A Trent-led project is to develop, for the first time, a uniform systematic way to survey amphibian populations across Canada, and shed light on factors associated with the presence, or more importantly, the absence of amphibians.

To assess the declining amphibian populations, almost $600,000 in funding was awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to a Canada research chair in integrative wildlife conservation, bioinformatics, and ecological modelling, and professor at Trent University, Dr. Dennis Murray, along with colleagues Dr. Craig Brunetti of the Biology department, and Dr. Chris Kyle of the Forensic Science program.

Partners at University of Toronto, McGill University, Laurentian University, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and Environment Canada, will also be involved.

“We will develop a precise monitoring system by using water, and DNA that is in the water to identify the presence or absence of different species of amphibians,” said Dr. Murray. Using water is a much more reliable and rigorous detection method of determination than simply listening to the frogs, he added.

As explained by Dr. Murray, Canada is a rather delinquent relative to other developed countries in terms of monitoring amphibians. “We are just not doing a good job at all,” he stated. And said that monitoring right now is being relied on citizens to drive around and listen for breeding frogs. That is basically the extent of surveys which are available for amphibians in Canada.

First of all it is not a precise way of indexing amphibian populations, secondly there are groups of amphibians that don’t make any noise, and as such one can never know whether they are around or not, pointed out Dr. Murray.

So they are glad to have managed to convince the federal government to put some money into allowing them to develop ways of survey these populations that will be more rigorous and reliable, and bring Canada up to where it is supposed to be relative to other developed countries, he said.

The other component of this project includes looking into effective pathogens, contaminants, and parasites in the water and how those might be affecting the amphibian abundance, Murray added. So both improving the monitoring system, and figuring out what might be causing amphibian declines, will be the major significance of the project.

When asked about the importance of focusing on amphibians as opposed to any other group of animals, Dr. Murray reasoned that amphibians are undergoing a massive decline across the world right now. The current rates of extinction are terrifying, and is  at a rate that has never occurred in the world’s history. As well, in the next 30 or 40 years about third of the amphibian species are predicted be lost, he said.

Most of these die-offs are happening in tropical areas, but “Because we are not doing any monitoring in Canada we don’t know what is happening here,” he informed, although there has already been some disease outbreak and some declines recorded.

“But I think that right now most ecologists in conservation biologies are recognizing that amphibians are really a big conservation concern, more so than most traditional wildlife species,” he stated.

Amphibians are high priority, and one can consider amphibians as canaries in a coal mine, too, says Dr. Murray, explaining that since they use the waterways, or other natural environment, and to see a decline in them is partly related to human activities. It is an indication that humans are messing up the environment, and the need to get on top of it too, he added.

In terms of challenges associated, some include coming up with a good sample size, being able to sample a large enough area that gives them lots of variabilities, which according to him is important to develop predictive models, and finding good students who can help them make this a top of the line project, are few that they expect to see, says Dr. Murray.

The four-year project studying the decline in amphibian population will focus more expansively around Southern Ontario with a fair bit of work around Peterborough.

It is due to commence in the next couple of weeks, soon after the amphibians start coming out.