When you speak with some amphibian conservationists and ask them directly why people should care about extinction threats, many of them will tell you that frogs are valuable because they are an “indicator species.” This term can have various meanings but among them is that it refers to a species that is sensitive to changes in the ecosystem and can therefore be a gauge of environmental degradation. The favored analogy is that frogs are the “canary in a coal mine.” This phrase has been used by countless news outlets including NPR, The Washington Times, and The New York Times (all the way back in 1992), and time and again the source of the analogy is not the clever journalist but the scientists being interviewed themselves. It has become so ubiquitous that it feels almost sacrilegious to read Martha Crump (who may have one of the greatest natural history book titles in existence to her name: Headless Males Make Great Lovers, a tour of sexual cannibalism and other incredible behaviors from sea cucumbers to bats) and James Collins’ section of their 2009 book, Extinction in Our Times, that disputes the scientific premise behind the whole canary-in-the-coal-mine analogy.
In order for amphibians to truly qualify as ecological indicators they would need to meet at least ten criteria, according to Crump and Collins. These range from “background variation in species diversity and population density of the indicators should not be so great as to mask significant variation…” to “the group’s characteristics…should change quickly with environmental changes that might also affect the remaining biota and the ecosystem as a whole…”. According to the authors and a handful of other researchers, amphibians don’t meet any of the criteria and there is no evidence to suggest that frogs are any better than other species at indicating biodiversity or ecological health.
So why is this analogy still around, haunting nearly every article on amphibian declines? The truth seems to be that it has found continued use by amphibian conservationists because it’s been a pretty great marketing tool for their cause. According to Kathryn Phillips, author of Tracking the Vanishing Frogs: An Ecological Mystery, “By linking the frog to this classic story, scientists not only captured journalists’ and their readers attention, but managed to elevate the lowly frog’s status from simple hairless creatures to benevolent and important herald.”
This issue opens up a much wider one about the major role that communications plays in conservation efforts. For better or for worse, conservationists are dependent on people like you to care about an animal or place in order to get money for their research and initiatives. Can this lead to compromising behavior or exaggerations on their part? As the recent global-warming-email-fiasco or decades long amphibian/canary campaign seems to indicate, sometimes it can. But there’s still no way to get around the symbiotic nature between conservation and communications even if this relationship will sometimes challenge the integrity of a handful of scientists.
During a recent interview at the National Zoo, Zimbabwean wildlife biologist Brian Gratwicke articulated this relationship and the unique struggle to find funding and grants for amphibian conservation. “We’ve never ever before been in a situation like this as a conservation community where we’re talking about whole members of an assemblage vanishing. But from a grant perspective, we’re in the same place as everyone else: elephants, pandas, the fluffy stuff. Some people want to put all frogs in the same basket but there are 6,000 species of frogs. If you want to compare apples to apples, you can put a Panamanian golden frog in the same basket as a panda,” he said. “A lot of it depends on really good communications because conservation is a human values based endeavor. We can call it science but it’s not. It’s a battle for the hearts and minds of people.… People don’t care about things they don’t know about.”