For the love of amphibians

🕔Jun 02, 2010

Most people don’t think of frogs in terms of rampant carnivoracity, but then most people haven’t met Mark Thompson.

A keen and committed herpetologist, Mark founded the Northern Amphibian Monitoring Outpost Society of British Columbia (NAMOS BC). Operating out of the Prince George campus of UNBC, the society conducts public outreach, education and amphibian-related research throughout the Central Interior of BC.

There are only six or seven species of amphibians in our region, but there are millions of interconnected populations. Populations interact across the entire province, where billions upon billions of amphibians have been milling and migrating about for thousands of years.

NAMOS BC advocates that regional amphibian appreciation should start with knowledge of basic ecology. More than just learning scientific facts, eco-literacy includes knowledge that is gained through personal experience with nature. People who spend time outdoors absorb information about natural systems, and these experiences create an enduring legacy and a love of nature within us.

Where do amphibians fit in this mix? They inconspicuously migrate from pond to pond, travelling under logs and over and around a network of clear-cuts and patches of forest. Unlike other regions of the globe, we don’t see these creatures in our local food market and we can spend our entire lives without ever seeing a single salamander. Amphibian awareness is at an all-time low just when it is becoming urgent.

Shift of focus
Do the benefits of forestry in northern BC outweigh the costs of killing off and fragmenting millions of populations of amphibians? As the saying goes, species are the indelible units of conservation, and as long as a few populations remain there is always hope. But Thompson sees things differently and believes that we need to shift our focus away from species and onto populations, genes, and the entire ecological spectrum. “This,” he states, “is how we can do wonders for the economy.”

In terms of biomass (the combined weight of living organisms), amphibians are huge. The biomass of salamanders alone exceeds that of all other vertebrates (animals with a spine) per hectare of forest. In one study, amphibians consumed more biomass worth of prey than did all mammalian predators combined. They are also important contributors to the ecosystem, particularly as soil-builders. Destroy amphibians and we destroy the soils. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

Amphibians are like energy conveyor belts that run a significant part of the global natural economy. They churn and aerate soil as they migrate from one decaying log to another, then return each season to their natal pond or stream to lay, collectively, billions of eggs. Their very presence changes the properties of nature. These creatures convert an amazing 50 percent of what they consume directly into tissue. For birds and mammals, this energy conversion sits at a meager two percent. “If you want energy efficiency, amphibians are the place to start looking,” says Thompson.

NAMOS BC claims that local amphibians are ideal forest ecosystem engineers that can sustain BC’s forest resource economy. Instead of protecting species, we need to look at the abundant wealth of services they provide. Populations of amphibians recycle nutrients that, in turn, increase productivity and yield of forests and forest products. They also naturally help to store abundant reserves of carbon into soils.

Amphibians are sentinels of the modern extinction wave. Their numbers are declining more rapidly than those of any other vertebrate group: one third of the planet’s amphibian species are threatened with extinction. Although none of our local species are listed as endangered, this does not mean that they are not in trouble. Forestry roads, cut-blocks and other features of human settlement have fragmented the energetic flow of millions of interconnected amphibian populations.

It is well understood that ecological fragmentation cuts off gene flow from one region to the next, increasing the rate and probability of extinctions. Isolated populations are unable to tap into the genetic resources of the larger genetic pool that would otherwise be available as an adaptive buffer against disease. In a fragmented landscape, ranges of species retract and the geographic scope of the benefits they provide is diminished.

Recently a fungal pandemic has wiped out entire species in different parts of the globe, even infecting populations in protected areas. Amphibian kill zones are discovered every year with grisly scenes of floating white bellies of frogs clogging streams. This fungal disease has even spread to Prince George, killing spotted frogs there.

Preoccupation with extinction
Much of conservation biology is preoccupied with species extinctions and endangered legal status. There is no doubt that species are very, very important and irreplaceable. However, sustaining the ecology of the planet is even more important. This necessitates a biodiversity approach to conservation, which includes an appreciation or memory for the local pond that sits somewhere near your community.

The forests, ditches and ponds where we once poked our sticks are places that imprint fond memories into the minds of children. These places are vital to our health and well-being, and this is where a conservation ethic is born. “It’s not only about the amphibians,” says Thompson. “There is a larger, human-based philosophy behind the conservation of smaller critters.”

Currently, within BC’s Central Interior there is no legislation that sets out to protect migratory linkages among amphibian populations. Smaller wetlands inhabited by amphibians can be drained with impunity—although some natural resource managers are ecologically aware and place buffer zones around wetter areas. Beyond good intentions on a stand-by-stand level, the natural habitat and migratory networks that once linked populations have been cut into hundreds of thousands of little pieces by a network of clear-cuts and roads.

Thompson prefers to assume the intelligence of the human species. “One individual is not so smart, but gather together a community of people and humans really show off their genius,” he says.

As a result, he believes in community-based conservation, hoping to build a psychological link between people and nature. NAMOS BC commits much of its resources to education and reaching out to schools, industry, First Nations, government and anyone else who is interested. Ideally, we would like an “eco-army” of citizens to become knowledgeable about the abundance and services of amphibians living nearby. NAMOS BC has taught, hired and mentored biology students from UNBC; developed age-appropriate curricula for amphibian ecology; designed signs for amphibian awareness in parks, and done public presentations.

Amphibians, the future, and us
NAMOS BC strongly supports and encourages children learning about native and local amphibians to sustain a legacy of eco-literacy. Children rank vertebrates high on their list of interests, but for many, such wild creatures are becoming distant. Memories are being replaced with images from books, the Internet and other media.

Eco-literacy education needs a healthy dose of free play, exploration, sensory contact and direct engagement with nature. Nature stimulates the mind and body. It is the very birthplace of intelligence, yet our communities are currently ill-designed for ecosystems. Our roads, fences, and unfounded fears separate children from nature. Through community conservation, Thompson expresses the strength of the human kinship with nature and believes that restoring the mass migration of small creatures is key to ensuring a sustainable future.

For more information, check out, or contact Mark Thompson at As well, the BC Frog Watch program can be accessed online to see the species of amphibians that live in northern BC.