News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

May 18, 2014

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: ‘Amphibians … are kind of like a canary in a coal mine’

Justin Guyer grew up playing outside in rural Illinois, catching creatures lurking in the grass. His love for reptiles and amphibians never stopped growing. In 2012 he founded the Wabash Valley Herpetological Society. Their mission is to improve the level of knowledge folks have with reptiles and amphibians. At a recent Wabash Valley Audubon Society meeting, Guyer wowed the audience with various snakes he brought. While the snakes captivated the eyes of the audience, what he had to say was much more jarring.

“Amphibians in particular are kind of like a canary in a coal mine,” Guyer said. The thing about amphibians is they absorb everything right through their skin. Any herbicides, chemicals in the water in particular go right through their skin and affect them. When you start seeing amphibian populations decline, that is a huge indicator there is something seriously wrong in the ecosystem.”

Watching this epidemic sweep across our nation is Indiana State University Department of Biology Interim Chair Diana K. Hews, who studies hormones and behavior in frogs. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there is mounting concern in the scientific, environmental, private and governmental sectors on a wide range of substances known as endocrine disruptors that may interfere with the normal functioning of a living organism’s hormone system.

“When a scientist asks how important is a hormone you typically manipulate the levels of a hormone either making them high in the female if they may normally be high in the male or making them low in a male, and look at the effects on the development as a trait,” Hews said. “Typically I look at the traits that differ between male and females.”

Endocrine disruption has the potential to cause, reproductive, behavioral, immune system, neurological problems and tumors. Research shows that endocrine disruptors may pose the greatest risk to offspring during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are developing. However, adverse consequences may not be apparent until much later in life. In addition, endocrine disruptors may affect not just the offspring of mothers exposed to endocrine disruptors during pregnancy, but future offspring as well.

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One of the major chemicals under attack is atrazine. It is used on the vast majority of corn in our country and is found in ground water. Guyer says atrazine is in the water three parts per billion and it affects the frogs at 30 times lower than what the EPA says is safe. “You can actually find intersex gonads that have characteristics at the cellular level that look like ovaries and at another part of the organ might look like a testis,” Hews said. “They both have ovarian and testicular tissue in the same organ.”

Atrazine is applied to corn, and corn is fed to animals and found in the majority of processed food products. It has also been directly linked in hundreds of studies to cause a massive population decline in amphibians. Hews says the regulatory agencies are having a difficult time regulating this right now for a variety of reasons.

“One is, I think they have a number of industry people on the panel and the industry people are calling this just like the cigarette and smoking data,” Hews said. “They pick apart the data to an extreme. They pick apart the statistics and in the ends of the arguments are not particularly valid. A lot of times they say they are replicating an experiment and don’t get the same result but when you look at the detail it is not an exact replication.”

Help starts at home

Protect riparian zones. Create a buffer between the edge of farm fields. “It really does influence how many of these compounds run off. Atrazine will degrade if it is exposed to the sunlight enough, but a lot of times it runs right off into the water and will not degrade at the same rate,” Hews said.

Since so much of Indiana’s economy is tied to corn, and atrazine is one of the main chemicals used, change may not happen until more people chose organic. When you support locally grown and organic foods, you are supporting a type of agriculture which is less harmful to the environment. Furthermore, the more people who buy organic, the lower the prices will become.

Additionally, urban sprawl continues to be a problem causing wild animals to lose their home. We tend to dominate or out-compete everything. “When you see toads in your yard when mowing, get off the mower and move them out of the way. You don’t have to pick them up, just shew them,” Guyer said.

I have even added a toad house in my garden, to help protect them from predators. Also, try to pay attention to any animals that might be coming on the road. Road mortality is just horrible for pretty much every classification there is.

Finally, value the ecosystem. The decrease in amphibian population is one humans can recognize. They love to eat flies, nats and mosquitos. An increase in these pesky bugs might cause some to spray more pesticides without realizing they are contributing to the decline in nature’s natural bug repellant.


Those who missed the Wabash Valley Audubon Society meeting presentation with Guyer can catch him at the Vigo County Parks Department event “Creepy Crawly Fest” from 3 to 11 p.m. June 28 at the Dogwood Shelter at Hawthorn Park. All ages are welcome. The cost is $5 per vehicle.

If you are interested in helping to monitor amphibians in your area, you can join the Indiana Amphibian Monitoring Program. Monitoring allows the DNR to keep an eye on frog and toad populations so they can take the proper steps needed to protect them. For more information visit

Support conservation groups. Two are: Amphibian Reptile Conservancy (

Conservancy) and Wabash Valley Herpetological Society (

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at

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