The Great Stakes at Glenmere Lake
By Dr. Jonathan Micancin, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology at The College of William and Mary.
What to do about the Northern Cricket Frog and Glenmere Lake? An endangered frog has jumped in the way of real estate projects and manipulation of a public water supply in Orange County. To eliminate this obstacle, a bill has recently been drafted to remove the Northern Cricket Frog from New York State’s list of endangered species, despite the fact that cricket frogs, like many other amphibians around the world, are in decline.
We should consider what is at stake for every person that is affected by this issue. A vocal few have money, pride, reputation, ethical convictions, and/or preferred lifestyle on the line. Many more drink the water from Glenmere Lake and will be affected by any economic development that occurs nearby. A far greater number of people have a stake in what happens to cricket frogs and Glenmere Lake in the next few years: every person on earth. This is no exaggeration, but it requires an explanation.
It was only about 25 years ago that scientists began to recognize a pattern of amphibian decline in supposedly pristine areas like cloud forests in Central America and mountain lakes in California. It is only recently that we have realized that amphibians are dying out everywhere, whether they live in national parks or in backyards. Of the more than 6000 known amphibian species, at least 42% are in decline and at least 32% are threatened with extinction or are already gone forever. Amphibians are especially sensitive to human disturbance and most receive a double-dose of it by living in water and on land. These factors make it difficult to point to a single cause for the decline or extinction of even one species. Habitat loss and a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis (“kit-trid” for short) are major killers. Climate change is also implicated in amphibian declines, as is a long list of other manmade problems.
A major concern for people that study amphibians is that some probable causes of amphibian declines can also affect humans. Perhaps the most insidious among these is pollution. Banned chemicals like DDT and PCBs and wildly popular herbicides like Roundup and atrazine can be toxic, but even if they do not kill, they persist in the environment and their effects may be terrible. One reason is that, like the substance BPA that was recently removed from plastic bottles, they are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors emulate hormones found in frogs and people and they have been linked to such human health problems as cancer, brain disorders, miscarriages, and other reproductive maladies. Children appear to be particularly vulnerable to endocrine disruption.
The precautionary principle holds that in the absence of information showing that some action will not harm the environment or human health, it is better to act with caution than to assume that no ill effects will occur. With connections between amphibian and human well-being becoming clear, opportunities to study amphibian declines in areas where many people live are increasingly important. Because cricket frogs have declined over large and diverse areas (the upper Midwest, the Southeast, and New York), multiple causes are probably responsible. By comparing Glenmere Lake and the area around it with places in New York where the Northern Cricket Frog no longer occurs, we could begin to determine the causes of the decline of the species, which in turn could indicate potential threats to human health. Such work would inform amphibian biology and public health far beyond Orange County. Because the Northern Cricket Frog is already endangered in New York, it is safe to expect that any substantial changes to the habitat of cricket frogs around Glenmere Lake will reduce their numbers and diminish the opportunity to learn from them. This is why every person on earth has a stake in Glenmere Lake.
I was born in the Hudson Valley and as a boy I explored its rivers, lakes, and ponds. Catching amphibians became one of my favorite pastimes, but I never saw or heard a cricket frog. I have since earned a Ph.D in Biology by studying two species of cricket frogs in North Carolina. Safely removed from the controversy that surrounds them back home in New York, I see that it is good news for the people that depend on Glenmere Lake for water that cricket frogs can thrive there. The presence of the Northern Cricket Frog suggests that Glenmere Lake is relatively clean and protected. To our peril, few things in nature stay that way for long.