Humane Education: Monitoring Frogs with Children’s Village

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has conducted programming with Oakland County Children’s Village for more than eight years, instilling reverence and respect for wildlife and wild places through gardening, education and conservation programs. Children’s Village provides a safe, structured environment for children and young adults that includes secure detention, residential treatment and shelter care services. Our collaboration initially began with a humane education-focused gardening program, which is still flourishing, but our programming has evolved over the years and we’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of young people there in various capacities.

One of our most recent endeavors was conducting FrogWatch USA training with some of the teen girls that we work with. FrogWatch USA is an amphibian conservation and citizen science collaborative effort among the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S. Citizen science programs teach volunteers to collect data using the same protocol and methods, so all data can be counted as part of a scientific research project. One scientist working alone could never collect the amount of information a group of trained citizens can.

I recently went to Children’s Village along with Rebecca Johnson, the DZS’s associate curator of amphibians, to facilitate the FrogWatch USA training onsite. Rather than a traditional four-hour training, which takes place in one sitting, we divided up the training to take place over the course of two days in late March. The girls learned all about amphibians, how to identify frogs and toads by their breeding calls and what information we need to include on the data sheet when we go out and survey. We discussed how monitoring helps provide important information for each site, such as the diversity, population size and health of the particular frog or toad species that are present; whether or not there are rare or nonindigenous species in the area and what the overall health of the wetland is. Knowing which species are present at a site can even help improve the management and protection of a wetland and all species living there.

The girls have been working hard to learn the different frog and toad calls – they’ve been listening to a practice CD and identifying key characteristics that help to distinguish the different calls from one another. For example, a Western chorus frog call sounds like someone is running their fingernails along a fine-toothed comb and a wood frog sounds similar to the quacking of a duck.

Becky and I have accompanied the girls on their first outing to conduct surveys. This work must take place at least a half hour after sunset, so we went to our selected site at 8:30 p.m. There were 10 girls, three Children’s Village staff members and the two of us. When we arrived at our designated location, we remained still and quiet for two minutes per FrogWatch USA protocol, and then we listened and collected data for three minutes immediately following.

We heard a few different birds calling and something rustling in the reeds, which, much to our excitement, turned out to be a muskrat who eventually swam across the pond. A few of us even saw the space station travel overhead! But unfortunately, no frog or toad calls were heard. Fortunately, we’ve seen many American toads and even some tree frogs in the almost nine years that we’ve been facilitating the gardening program onsite, so we know we’ll hear calls soon. In the interim, it’s important for us to note on our data sheet that we didn’t hear anything, just as it will be important for us to document the calls that we will eventually hear.

To have a meaningful impact, we’ll need to collect data at least eight different times – no more than twice in one week – through August. Becky and I are planning to go out for another evening observation soon. After that, the girls and Children’s Village staff will continue on their own. I’m excited to see what unfolds this summer. It’s been an amazing experience for all involved thus far.

– Lisa Forzley is the curator of humane education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Take Part in the Detroit Zoo’s FrogWatch USA Conservation Program

By late winter and early spring, many people are looking forward to warmer weather, longer days and the fun the coming months will bring. I also look forward to this time of year, not only because of the warmer temperatures, but also the rains of spring and the wonderful creatures that will wake from their long, winter hibernation.

I am, of course, referring to frogs and toads! Here in southeast Michigan, most amphibians depend on rain to help them get “in the mood” for the breeding season. Soon after moving from deep winter to early spring, frogs and toads will make their presence known in full chorus, emitting sounds that also help to protect them from predators.

In 2011, the Detroit Zoological Society began hosting a local FrogWatch USA chapter to collect data on the frogs and toads living in the tri-county area. FrogWatch USA is an amphibian conservation and citizen science program managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Citizen science programs teach volunteers to collect data using the same protocol and methods, so all data can be can be counted as part of a scientific research project. One scientist working alone could never collect the amount of information a group of citizen scientists can.

There are currently 144 chapters of FrogWatch USA held throughout the U.S. and data has been collected since 1998. Training classes are primarily taught at AZA institutions, but may also be offered at nature centers, museums or colleges. The project focuses on frogs and toads – both amphibians and some of the most sensitive creatures on the planet. They are also indicators of a wetland’s health – if something toxic or lethal invades the wetlands where they live, they will be the first species to become sick, die or disappear.

All monitoring is done outdoors, so it gives volunteers the opportunity to spend time outside in the wetlands and natural areas of their community. Monitoring helps provide important information from each site, such as the diversity, population size and health of the particular frog or toad species that is present; whether or not there are rare or invasive species in the area, and what the overall health of the wetland is. Knowing what species are present at a sight can even help improve the management and protection of a wetland and all species living there.

Four-hour volunteer training sessions are offered at the Detroit Zoo just prior to the frog and toad breeding season, which is just about to begin. Each session includes:

  • An overview of what amphibians are and why they are valuable to the environment
  • Descriptions and key characteristics of the types of wetlands found in Michigan where frogs and toads may be found
  • Information about the locations of monitoring sites and the ability for participants to register
  • An explanation of the monitoring protocols that volunteers will use in the field
  • Information about how to identify the 14 native Michigan frog and toad species by their breeding calls (Identifying a species by its breeding call is by far the best part of the process. Even though it may be a bit challenging at first, surveying by ear is easy on both the surveyor and the frogs and toads, and it can be a lot of fun.)

Once training is complete, a volunteer’s first priority is to find and register for a site to monitor.  While most volunteers come in already knowing where they want to survey, some do not and we help them find locations in the area. Some sites are in backyards where frogs have been heard for years and others are in wetlands seen from afar and believed to be full of amphibians. Once the nighttime temperature is above 35 degrees Fahrenheit, volunteers can monitor at their sites throughout the FrogWatch season, typically February to August, at most twice a week.

Monitoring must take place at least 30 minutes after sunset. Darkness not only brings more amphibians to life but it also puts the noisy daytime animals, such as birds, to sleep. Whether volunteers have hiked into a wetland via a trail full of crunching leaves or are sitting on their back porch as quiet as can be, everyone must allow at least two minutes for the creatures around them to acclimate to their presence. Immediately after two minutes have passed, volunteers will listen for exactly three minutes to identify each species they hear. At the end of three minutes, the monitoring session is complete.

Monitoring the same site year after year is a great way to keep track of the health of frogs, toads and wetlands. If we lose amphibians, we lose a very precious resource and some really amazing creatures.

I hope you can attend one of the FrogWatch USA training sessions coming up at the end of this month, in February and in March. It is a fun and easy amphibian conservation program that anyone can take part in! Click here for more information: https://detroitzoo.org/press-release/leap-conservation-joining-frogwatch/

– Rebecca Johnson is the associate curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the National Amphibian Conservation Center.