Students Lauded for Naming Official State Amphibian of Texas

Tom Harvey, 512-389-4453,

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AUSTIN, Texas — With help from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, a group of Texas fourth graders successfully enabled the Texas legislature to name the Texas Toad (Bufo speciosus) the official amphibian of Texas.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen of Angleton paid a visit to Danbury Elementary School south of Houston near Brazosport in October to congratulate the children-now fifth-graders-on their accomplishment. Bonnen was House sponsor of the enabling legislation.

"We now have a state amphibian because of Danbury," Bonnen said, according to Brazoria county newspaper The Facts. "Your children someday will be able to look at Texas history and see that there is a state amphibian. You’re going to be able to tell them, ‘I did that.’ This is a really big deal. You’re now a part of Texas history."

The process of choosing a state amphibian got underway last year, when TPWD biologists suggested five candidates for the state amphibian slot to the Danbury fourth grade class: the Texas Toad, the barred tiger salamander, Strecker’s chorus frog, the cliff-chirping frog and the Houston Toad. The students broke into groups, and each group was assigned an animal to campaign for. The campaigns included signs, commercials and speeches, all leading up to a final vote on Nov. 2, 2008-two days before their parents headed to the polls to vote in federal and state races. The Texas Toad squeaked by with three votes over the second-place finisher, the barred tiger salamander.

The Texas Toad was the right amphibian for the job, said Texas Toad campaign spokes-student Hannah Spitler in an interview with The Facts. "It has the word ‘Texas’ in its name."

Once the election drew to a close, the students contacted state Rep. Bonnen and asked him to introduce legislation in the state legislature that would make the Texas Toad the official amphibian of Texas. The legislation passed the state House and Senate before it was signed by Gov. Rick Perry in June.

The designation calls attention to the imperiled status of many amphibians throughout the state and the nation. Amphibians serve as what biologists call an "indicator species"-meaning that they can act as a barometer for the environmental health of a particular region.

"They have skin that is semi-permeable, not protected by scales or fur," said Leeann Linam, a TPWD biologist. "They lay their eggs in water and have a semi-aquatic lifestyle, which makes them especially vulnerable to changes to the environment."

While the Texas Toad is not endangered-in fact, it is among the most widespread toad species in the state-many of Texas’ native amphibian species, including one of the Texas Toad’s competitors in the state amphibian race, the Houston Toad, are endangered. TPWD regulations enacted in May 2007, part of a broader effort to protect threatened turtle and amphibian species, prohibited the harvesting of the Texas Toad on public land or water for commercial purposes. Another effort, Texas Amphibian Watch, enlists citizen scientists in an effort to keep a close watch on the condition of amphibian species in the state.

"By having people in the field as volunteers, we can find out if there are declines or die-offs of frogs and toads," said Linam, who works with the program. Since its inception in 2000, 70 citizen scientists have participated, reporting sightings of 41 of the state’s 42 frog and toad species from 127 sites in 87 counties across the state.

"What we offer is a free monitoring packet, a $5 CD of frog and toad calls and regular training workshops across the state," Linam said. Participants are encouraged to adopt a frog pond and make regular observations there, as well as recording instances of deformed frogs, which can serve as an indicator of an environmental disturbance. More information about the Texas Nature Tracker project, including downloadable monitoring packets and information about each of Texas’ frog and toad species, can be found on the Amphibian Watch Web site.

One of the earliest recorded cases of widespread frog malformations, which raised national attention to the role of frogs and toads as indicator species, occurred in the mid-1990s when a group of Minnesota schoolchildren discovered a pond in which more than half of the leopard frogs had missing or extra limbs. The finding raised national speculation that the deformities, and several similar cases nationwide, might have been caused by a pesticide or other pollutant.

A 2007 study of the case by University of Colorado-Boulder biologists, however, both highlights the value of frogs and toads as visible markers of sweeping environmental changes that can easily pass unnoticed by humans and points to the complex interrelationships that can exist within ecosystems. According to the study, the deformities in the frogs were caused by cysts left by natural, microscopic parasites known as trematodes, which experienced a sudden population boom along with another of its host species, a type of snail whose primary food source, algae, had become suddenly abundant. The increased growth of the algae, in turn, had been fueled by phosphorous and nitrogen runoffs from fertilizers used on nearby farms and ranches.

"The research has implications for both worldwide amphibian declines and for a wide array of diseases potentially linked to nutrient pollution, including cholera, malaria, West Nile virus and diseases affecting coral reefs," said the study’s author, UCB biologist Pieter Johnson, in a statement from the National Science Foundation, which funded the research.

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