Fifth graders study deformed frogs

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(Host) Sightings of unnatural-looking frogs by school-aged pond watchers this summer has led to an exercise in ecological research for fifth graders in Vernon.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) Ten-year-old Kendall Farabaugh was disturbed by the grossly swollen frogs he and his Mother found at the Vernon pond this summer.

(Farabaugh) “They’re all fat and icky and their legs – they can barely move because they’re so oversized and overweight, and it’s just awful.”

(Keese) So he did what any nature loving Vermont boy would do. He consulted a herpetologist. One thing led to another, and this week Kendall and his classmates – many of whom had also noticed the odd frogs – were back at the pond. With them was a team of biologists on loan from Entergy Vermont Yankee, the school’s next door neighbor.

Biologist Alex Gonyaw can more commonly be found monitoring the Connecticut River near the Vermont Yankee plant. On this day he’s instructing kids in the basics of scientific research. The students are equipped with data sheets and long-handled nets.

(Gonyaw) “What you’re going to do here today is go around the edge of the pond and look for frogs. Using these nets, catch any that you can and if you see some but don’t manage to catch them, just tell us about them.”

(Child, looking for frogs) “Oooh – there was a baby one right here….”

(Keese) Catching a healthy frog isn’t that easy. Especially now that the weather’s turning and they’re starting to burrow into the mud where they spend the winter. Catching a frog that’s so bloated it can barely move isn’t quite so hard. Gonyaw picks up the only frog the kids have captured on this day. It’s a baby, floating motionless in a bucket, its swollen legs splayed helplessly.

(Gonyaw) “Anybody who’s caught a frog in their life knows that frogs normally don’t just sit on your hand and sort of let you handle them like this.”

(Keese) Gonyaw turns the frog over to reveal enormous fluid-filled sacs on its underbelly and thighs. Its skin is stretched so thin you can actually see its thighbone.

Gonyaw thinks the problem is more likely a natural phenomenon than a case of deformities caused by human-generated contamination. He suspects it’s a parasite that will run its course without endangering the long term amphibian population. Other species in the pond appear to be healthy.

(Gonyaw) “And so we’d have to do more work here to see whether this was indeed something that was caused by human beings or it was just a natural part of the ecosystem.”
(Farabaugh) “Are you going to do water testing, of like, water in the pond?”
(Gonyaw) “Yes. We’ll take some environmental measurements.”

(Keese) The Vernon fifth graders – with Kendall’s mother Peggy Farabaugh leading the charge – will be watching and taking notes to make sure that happens.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Vernon.

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