Where The Frogs Still Sing

Northern leopard frogs were abundant all across Canada until half a century ago. Some populations have bounced back. Others have not. When it comes to conservation, loving living things deeply is half the battle, but is it enough to save these frogs?

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The window creaks open as my mom cranks the handle to let some of the lingering summer heat out of my bedroom. A chorus of croaks and ribbits sift in through the screen. The pond my grandpa dug in the early 70s to fill with rainbow trout attracts all types of frogs and wildlife. On hot summer nights like this one, the animals — especially the frogs — come to life and sing. My mom turns out the lights, leaving the door open to let the cooler air circulate throughout the house. It’s hard to sleep with the humidity. My windows face the highway, but the frogs keep me company as I lie in bed, hugging my teddy bear. Cars pass by. Owls scratch around and hoot on the roof. Coyotes howl in the distance. This is the soundtrack of my childhood.

These sounds are familiar to anyone who grew up in the middle of nowhere in southern Manitoba. My home is just 20 kilometres east of the Perimeter Highway, but I don’t live in a town. The communities nearby are so small that most people don’t even know their names. But I know the names of the frogs that call this place home, the ones I wait to hear once the cold winters thaw, the ones I look for in the grass wherever I walk in the summer: the gray treefrog, spring peeper, boreal chorus frog, and — perhaps the most well-known — the northern leopard frog.

Growing up, northern leopard frogs were such a constant presence in my life that I didn’t realize their range has disappeared in some parts of Canada over the last 50 years. They no longer live in some of the areas they did in the past. It wasn’t until last summer when I was working for a rural newspaper writing about endangered species in southern Manitoba that I picked up a pamphlet from the Shared Legacy Partnership about species at risk. I never expected to see the northern leopard frog with its familiar green and black bumpy skin in those pages. But there they were — with 27 other species at risk in the tallgrass prairie. 

A collage of northern leopard frogs in various life stages. Clockwise from left: tadpoles in a net, a froglet in a clear cup, and an adult northern leopard frog. A quote reads, "I love the inconspicuous and very modest nature of amphibians." — Kim Pearson
Northern leopard frogs were found in various stages during the rehabilitation project in Waterton Lakes National Park. (Photos supplied by Parks Canada Agency, Kim Pearson)

Historically, the tallgrass prairie ecosystem covered roughly a third of North America, stretching from the Rocky Mountains to east of the Mississippi River, and from southern Canada down to Texas. Of the original 90 million hectares of land it used to cover, only 1.5 million hectares are left — that’s just around one per cent remaining. One of the biggest chunks of tallgrass prairie left is found in southern Manitoba near Vita, about 115 kilometres south of Winnipeg. Other small patches remain in the Interlake region and other parts of North America. It’s one of the most diverse but endangered habitats in the world, only surpassed by the Amazon Rainforest, according to the National Park Service.

Northern leopard frogs were so present in my life. I took their abundance for granted.

That day, while I reflected on the fragility of the other species I was writing about for the newspaper — the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly and western prairie white-fringed orchid — I didn’t have much time to think about the little animal that I knew so well. It wasn’t until later that I realized how important northern leopard frogs are to me and the ecosystems they live in. Hearing their chirps and peeps that are loud enough to travel down my driveway are the sounds of home.

Sounds tell a story. Where I grew up and still live outside the city, I can’t see most of my neighbours but I can tell who is nearby from their voices.

“If you’re in the deep forest and the frogs are singing, you’re okay,” said Barret Miller. “You are the scariest thing in the forest at that point.”

Miller is a naturalist, frog-lover, and manager of group services at Fort Whyte Alive — a wildlife preserve and education centre in southwest Winnipeg. Miller said some of his first memories involve frogs. He remembers hearing his grandfather telling him if you can hear the frogs singing in the woods at night, “You’re going to be okay.” Miller said after moving away from his hometown of Pinawa, Manitoba, he realized the importance of nature. That’s when he knew he wanted to teach others how special the environment is.

A collage of Barret Miller wearing an orange hat, with a green and brown northern leopard frog in the right corner. A quote reads, "If you're deep in the forest and the frogs are singing, you're okay. You are the scariest thing in the forest at that point." — Barret Miller
Barret Miller remembers his grandfather tell him everything would be okay if he could hear the frogs singing. Now, Miller teaches others about conservation through frogs.

Educating others by using species that are easy to spot and recognize opens the gate for people to start caring about the things that are harder to see, Miller said. Wetlands are an important part of the ecosystem, but many plants and animals that call the habitat home are sensitive to human presence. Seeing frogs lets people know there is other life there, even if it’s invisible. And everyone knows a frog when they see one.

“[Frogs are] oftentimes one of the first and safest types of wildlife that people will interact with as kids,” Miller said. “If you can build from the familiar to the new and novel and sort of help folks understand that… that’s just good environmental education.”

Frogs are the “canary in the coal mine” of the ecosystem, as Miller calls them, or an indicator species. The frog population shows the health of the entire habitat. Because they breathe through their skin, rely on multiple habitats for different stages of their life, and have sensitive bodies, frogs are generally the first living organisms to show the impacts of pollution, climate change or disease. Industrialization has contributed to speeding up these factors. Humans and the development of land have had a huge influence on the survival of many different plants and animals.

Ten thousand years ago, glaciers left millions of “potholes” or wetlands throughout southwest Manitoba, southeast Saskatchewan, North and South Dakota, and some parts of Montana, making up the Prairie Pothole Region. In the early 20th century, marshes and wetlands were drained to make way for farming. As a result, biodiversity was and still is lost in an already delicate ecosystem. Despite efforts to reintroduce or bring back wetlands in the province, Manitoba’s southwest corner still loses over 22 square kilometres of wetlands each year, according to the provincial government. This loss not only impacts frogs, but over 600 different species of plants and animals. Up to 40 per cent of the world’s species live and breed in wetlands, according to Ducks Unlimited Canada, a non-profit conservation organization.

Miller said a large part of solving the problem and protecting these vulnerable organisms is encouraging education and understanding.

“If we don’t understand things, we don’t appreciate them, we won’t care for them,” he said. “As much as it’s easy when you live in a big urban centre to think that food comes in packages and water out of the tap, we’re all very connected to the natural world. We have a tremendous influence on the biosphere, and we need the biosphere to stay alive.”

While the Manitoba population of northern leopard frogs hasn’t experienced drastic population shifts, that might not always be the case. Other parts of Canada have seen dramatic drops in northern leopard frog populations in the last half century. According to a 2009 report from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the northern leopard frog populations vary across the country, with the Rocky Mountain group in British Columbia having the lowest numbers. Northern leopard frogs are endangered there. The boreal and prairie population in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories is considered a special concern, or at-risk in some areas. This means they could become threatened or endangered because of various environmental threats and biological characteristics. Near wetlands in Manitoba, as many as 100 northern leopard frogs can be found in every hectare. Because little is known about their range, it’s unclear whether this is a good sign for the frogs or not.

The frogs in Manitoba have been affected by habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticide contamination, and eutrophication — caused by fertilizer runoff that creates an environment with too many nutrients — in the water they live in. Eutrophication leads to excessive algae growth, or algal blooms that lower oxygen levels in the water and can choke out other organisms. Northern leopard frogs from the eastern population in Ontario into the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador are the only group not at risk in Canada.

One of the hardest-hit groups of these frogs lived in Waterton Lakes National Park, located in southwestern Alberta. Starting in the 1970s, this group of northern leopard frogs experienced a widespread population decline and completely vanished in 1980, according to Parks Canada.

A collage of Kim Pearson smiling at the camera with an adult northern leopard frog in a net in the bottom left corner. She holds a tadpole in a cup pointing to it in the top right and a northern leopard frog sits on a rock in the bottom right. A quote reads, "It's a sign of hope. It's a hopeful story and a hopeful sign that we can do better than just accepting that species are disappearing." — Kim Pearson
Kim Pearson was the lead scientist on the northern leopard frog reintroduction program in Waterton Lakes National Park. After taking frogs from Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, Pearson and her team saw the frogs repopulate within two years. (Photos supplied by Parks Canada Agency, Kim Pearson, Jasper Angel)

In 2015 and 2016, Parks Canada collaborated with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan to try and reintroduce northern leopard frogs into the area again. Scientists took twelve egg masses, containing thousands of eggs from Grasslands National Park over a two-year period. Northern leopard frog populations were more stable in Grasslands National Park at the time. Scientists relocated the eggs to three ponds in Waterton Lakes National Park. The eggs were protected in five-gallon buckets covered with mesh and pool noodles on top to keep them afloat until the eggs hatched, and the tadpoles got big enough to swim on their own. Kim Pearson, Waterton Nature Legacy scientist with Parks Canada, and her team found baby frogs at two of the three sites at the end of each summer. The efforts were worthwhile for the outcomes they saw, said Pearson. Before this project, northern leopard frogs had not been seen in the area for nearly 40 years. The decline coincided with a global biodiversity crisis, Pearson said.

“It’s really special to have this species back on the land and in the water, calling every spring,” Pearson said. “It’s a sign of hope. It’s a hopeful story and a hopeful sign that we can do better than just accepting that species are disappearing.”  

No one really knows what happened to the group of frogs that became locally extinct in Waterton Lakes National Park in the latter half of the 20th century. By the time anyone noticed they were disappearing, it was too late to save them. Pearson has two hypotheses. The first is that a prolonged drought dried up important breeding grounds and over-winter habitats. Northern leopard frogs need suitable breeding ponds, foraging habitat away from the pond like a grassland, and finally a place to spend the winter near the breeding pond. The over-winter habitat needs to have lots of oxygen in the water but few predators close by. They also have to migrate four times and reach two years of age before they can start breeding.

Pearson’s second theory is that chytridiomycosis entered the ecosystem. It’s a fungal infection that spreads between amphibians across the world. Chytridiomycosis was stable in southern Africa for nearly 25 years before it was found outside the continent. The fungus invades the outer layer of the frog’s skin and can cause an entire population to die in some cases. It’s known to affect over 350 species of amphibians, but generally impacts frog populations the most. However, not all frog species are affected by it. Scientists believe the fungus disrupts the normal function of the frog’s skin, creating imbalances that lead to its death. Other groups of amphibians, like the Manitoba population, struggled in the 70s as well, but bounced back by the 90s. The most serious impacts were seen in the northern leopard frogs in Waterton Lakes National Park.

“A lot of people who grew up on the prairies, they knew [northern leopard frogs] well and they would be underfoot almost everywhere they walked near water,” Pearson said. “It was sort of taken for granted that they were so abundant, and then they started declining and nobody really seemed to notice.”

Pearson still remembers the first time she saw a mass of frog eggs while doing amphibian surveys in Waterton Lakes National Park. She said she always likes looking at the details of nature and frog eggs force her to stop and look. When they are first laid, there’s a total clarity about them, she said. A protective layer of clear jelly surrounds the embryo, collected in a tiny, little black dot.

“I remember… how beautiful they were,” Pearson said. “I love the inconspicuous and very modest nature of amphibians.”

Pearson, who grew up in Calgary and then Edmonton, said her love of the natural world started with camping trips with her parents and then followed her into her adult life. She admires amphibians for their ability to “move between worlds,” spending different stages of their life on the land and others in the water. She agrees with Miller that the northern leopard frog population in Manitoba could be at risk, but not in immediate danger.

“There’s no need to panic but I think there needs to be an eye kept on how the land and waters are being cared for and how other species are being impacted,” Pearson said. “They’re so sensitive to changes in the environment and have been here for a really, really long time. They’re really quite resilient animals, but there’s only so much they can take.”

Miller doesn’t want to say Manitoba is immune to population decline, but he’s more worried about climate change than populations dropping or industry destroying more habitat. Drier winters and less snow cover for too long could harm the province’s frogs. Snowpack is a crucial source of water in wetlands and if there is not enough to melt in the spring, amphibians might not have enough water to feed and reproduce. Miller’s outlook for their future remains “cautiously optimistic.”

Even while Manitoba is home to some exciting amphibians, there is a gap in the knowledge of frogs, toads, snakes, and other slithery or slimy animals, making it harder to notice changes in population or range — if there are any. It also makes it harder to understand what is going on in the different ecosystems across the province. This lack of information means it can’t be confirmed how well northern leopard frog populations have recovered in the last 50 years. There is no data on how many now live in Manitoba or what a “normal” population would look like. Despite Manitoba being a gold mine of information for herpetologists who study snakes, frogs, toads, and other animals like salamanders and turtles, herpetologists know very little about the range of different species and how that’s evolving because of climate change. The province is at the edge of the range for many species. Because of this, Manitoba has some smaller populations or isolated groups of different species that can show the effects of warmer weather and other environmental factors sooner.

Dr. Randy Mooi, curator of zoology at the Manitoba Museum started out studying fishes as an ichthyologist, but has shifted to include amphibians and birds in his research too. Growing up in Toronto, the son of immigrants from Holland, Mooi often camped and travelled coast to coast. He says those family trips and his childhood pets of garter snakes fostered his love for the outdoors.

Mooi believes Manitoba is an amazing place to study amphibians and reptiles, also known as “herptiles” or “herps.” The largest concentration of snakes in the world can be found in the Narcisse Snake Dens between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, about 40 kilometres west of Gimli. In the spring, upwards of 75,000 red-sided garter snakes come out of hibernation to mate and during the fall, they gather in the thousands again to hibernate in the limestone pits and keep warm for the winter.

A collage of Randy Mooi in a white and blue shirt holding preserved amphibians in a jar. Other preserved specimen line the bottom of the collage. A quote reads, "If you live in a concrete jungle your whole life, you're not going to even know these things are out there. They're mythical." — Randy Mooi
Dr. Randy Mooi with the Manitoba Museum believes studying common animals, like northern leopard frogs, is an important component to conservation. Studying the museum’s preserved specimens help scientist understand how species are adapting.

Mooi says it’s important to study common animals — like red-sided garter snakes and northern leopard frogs — to be able to notice changes in their populations. This data would help identify species that could be at risk and might need protection before it’s too late. Mooi’s work surveying species across the province leads him to areas not populated with people. Instead, he sees hundreds or thousands of frogs and toads. He calls the southwest corner of Manitoba a “bucket list” location to hear a chorus of great plains toads and a mixture of other amphibians.

Since moving to Manitoba in 2004, some of his best memories of frogs come from his surveying work in the province.

“If you go at the right time, the right night, it really is magic,” Mooi said. “The moon is out, you’re just surrounded by this wall of sound. It’s really quite spectacular.”

What astonishes him more though are some of the locals who have never paid attention to or heard the songs right outside their door. In his eyes, there’s a dissociation between people and the natural world that causes folks to care less. As the old saying goes, Mooi said, “If you don’t know something, you don’t care about it.” That’s just human nature, he said. Mooi adds that unfortunately, many people don’t care about something unless they see it directly benefiting them in some way.

“If you live in a concrete jungle your whole life, you’re not going to even know these things are out there. They’re mythical,” he said. “I think there has been a loss of people having a connection to the outdoors.”

Nurturing the love of frogs many children experience could help create more awareness and appreciation for northern leopard frogs and other animals that are often forgotten. Pausing to wonder at the things around you allows you to learn, connect, and care about other living things you share the world with.

“As a kid, you tend to look down,” Mooi said. “You’re so small so you’re always looking at your feet, so you’re seeing frogs and snakes, so that’s what we’re interested in.”

Some of my first memories involve frogs and water. As a kid, I’d sit in muddy puddles in the middle of the driveway as it rained. You could find me looking around my grandma’s yard to find any frogs who weren’t in the pond. I’d catch them and cup my hands around their fragile bodies. My older brother and I would sometimes fill a kiddie pool with water to make a temporary home for gray treefrogs and northern leopard frogs. We would keep them for a little before releasing them back into our yard.

Now that I’m older, some things have changed. I don’t seek out frogs in the same way anymore, and I no longer catch them because I’ve learned it could harm them. I still get excited to see gray treefrogs hanging onto the side of the house or a northern leopard frog trying to blend into the grass. I don’t want to let go of that childlike wonder at seeing their slimy skin and running, out of breath from excitement, to catch up with them as they hop away.

A collage of Jura McIlraith playing in puddles as a child with her brother. A frog teddy bear and frog tattoo are in the bottom left corner and a northern leopard frog is in the top right. A quote reads, "I think that by retaining one's childhood love of such things as... toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable." — George Orwell
As a kid, I used to catch frogs and sit in puddles. Now, I appreciate amphibians, including northern leopard frogs, in a different way. (Photos supplied by Andrew McIlraith)

In his essay, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” George Orwell wrote, “I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and… toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.”

I hope my caring for northern leopard frogs does make a future for them here more probable. In conservation, loving something is half the battle. It’s the catalyst for real action. Loving living things makes concrete efforts to preserve wildlife and their habitats worthwhile. I can see the love coming through the work Miller, Pearson, and Mooi are doing every day. For me, learning that northern leopard frogs have been threatened has made me more aware of how everything is connected. It strengthens my resolve to make choices to preserve their longevity. As I’ve learned more, I’ve also learned to love them more.

Now while I lie in bed, I hear the loud buzzing of cars weaving over the rumble strip in the night. The highway has grown since I was little. I can still hear the train whistle at every mile-road crossing but now I can also see the lights from the massive grain elevator about four kilometres from our house. I wonder if the frogs are bothered by the noise and lights that have invaded their home. I know I often am.

In the warmer months, if I lay still enough at night, I can just hear the frogs chirping and croaking back and forth in the pond. The coyotes still howl, and the owls still scratch and hoot. This property has been in my family for a few generations. I wonder what it will look like to any future children I might have. If they can hear the frogs singing, I think there’s a good chance things will be all right. But I wonder how much the landscape and animals they find familiar will have changed when they reach the age I am today. Will they hear the frogs singing amidst the rumble strip, train whistle, and all the other things making noise in the night?

If the frogs are drowned out, how will they know things will be okay?

Jura McIlraith

Jura (she/her) hates hot days and shirts with sleeves. Although she loves frogs, she disagrees with Kermit about the difficulty of being green.
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