MADISON — Volunteers power the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this spring as North America’s longest running frog calling survey, and organizers hope even more people will hop at the chance to listen to frogs at a wetland near them to see if frogs are beginning their calls earlier.
“People often wonder how they can help conserve frogs because they have fond memories of catching frogs in their childhood,” says Andrew Badje, a Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist who coordinates volunteers for the frog survey. “The traditional surveys and our newer phenology research are great ways to help frogs and we are looking for volunteers for both efforts this spring.”
Open routes for the traditional survey (exit) are found on the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey web page. Volunteers drive specific roadside routes to listen and document the calls they hear. Participants stop at 10 locations a night in each of three periods: early spring, late spring and summer.
Listening during the three periods helps assure volunteers are surveying frogs during the peak calling windows for each of species. Volunteers record the relative abundance of different species’ calls and information about the weather conditions at the time, Badje says.
The newer effort, tracking frog and toad phenology, is open to anyone and can take place anywhere in the state, unlike with the traditional survey, which is generally limited to two routes per county, Badje says.
“We’re asking volunteers to help us listen at their backyard pond for five minutes a night to help the DNR understand when frog and toads begin calling each year,” he says. “Ideally, surveys would be completed every day, but fewer visits per week will still provide valuable information.
“We’re hoping this information will tell us if we need to change these calling windows for the driving survey and to decipher how frogs are adapting, if they are adapting.”
New information has been added to the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey website to help people join in the phenology research.
Concern about declining frog populations spurred survey
The Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey is known as the longest running frog calling survey in the world and is also notable because the survey is primarily conducted by volunteers, says Rori Paloski, a DNR conservation biologist whose story about the survey is featured in the April 2016 Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, soon available at newsstands and online.
“It’s a great example of how citizens can get involved in the outdoors and of how much professional biologists rely on the information they contribute,” Paloski says.
The survey was created in 1981 by DNR scientists Ruth Hine and Mike Mossman over concerns over declining frog populations, primarily northern leopard frogs, Blanchard’s cricket frogs, pickerel frogs and American bullfrogs.
Mossman was involved with amphibian research at the time and Hine, a wildlife ecologist, had just finished editing Dick Vogt’s classic book, “Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles of Wisconsin.” Hine decided to create a roadside survey to monitor frogs, similar to the highly successful federal Breeding Bird Survey, Paloski says.
Since then, thousands of people have been involved in the survey and their information has helped conservation biologists determine the status, distribution, and long-term population trends of Wisconsin’s frogs and toads. DNR creates annual reports sharing the data, has produced several peer-reviewed papers from that information, and uses it to steer management actions, Paloski says.
“The information from the frog and toad survey helps us pinpoint which species are having problems,” she says. Then, department staff can follow up with specific monitoring, research and management strategies to better understand what is contributing to the declines. “Volunteers are our eyes and ears to target where we should be going” in terms of monitoring, research, and management.
Those long-term data are particularly important for understanding what is going on with frogs because their populations can naturally fluctuate significantly in response to weather and other short-term environmental conditions, Paloski says. Having long-term data enables the DNR to tease out whether the population is a short-term fluctuation or a trend.
Volunteers have helped the survey detect long-term increases in spring peepers, gray treefrogs, and American bullfrogs and detect declines in populations of northern leopard frogs, pickerel frogs, American toads and mink frogs, she says.
Globally, frog and toad populations have drastically declined in recent decades as a result of habitat fragmentation, wetland loss and emerging diseases including the chytrid fungus.
Find more information about each of these species on the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey website www.wiatri.net/inventory/frogtoadsurvey/ and view videos on each on the Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network Youtube channel at www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9D56BECB996C4012.