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Detroit Zoo to hold classes on collecting frog, toad data

February 5, 2014

» click to enlarge «
Becky Johnson, associate curator of amphibians at the Detroit Zoo, stands next to a display about native frogs and toads, and their sounds, Jan. 31. The data that residents collect on frogs and toads will be shared with a national network called FrogWatch USA.
Johnson holds a Northern Leopard frog, which is native to Michigan. Beginning later this month, the zoo will host classes to teach citizens how to use their ears to collect data on frog and toad populations near their homes.

ROYAL OAK — If you ask amphibian conservationists, frogs and toads play a much more vital role to life on earth than just simply croaking and scaring children in the schoolyard.

For one, they are an integral part of insect control.

“At both juvenile and adult life stages, amphibians can eat an astounding variety and quantity of insects, helping to control insect populations, including those known to spread disease and damage crops,” said Rachel Gauza, Citizen Science Program specialist for FrogWatch USA.

Perhaps more importantly, they act as the canaries of the wetlands — indicating via their population numbers the overall cleanliness of a nearby creek or stream.

“They are a good indicator of how healthy your environment is,” said Becky Johnson, associate curator of amphibians at the Detroit Zoo.

Johnson explained that they breathe through their skin. Any pollutants within the water go straight into their organs. Thus, their sudden decrease in a certain area should cause alarm.

“That’s the kind of information that is really important to us so we know that we have to pay attention to that site, and maybe go out and investigate it,” Johnson said.

That’s why conservationists since 1998 have created a nationwide system of citizen scientists — armed only with their ears and pads of paper — to collect data on the populations near their homes or their favorite city parks.

As a local chapter of FrogWatch USA, the Detroit Zoo has been holding classes for four years, teaching people how to identify frogs and toads by their breeding calls.

This year’s classes will commence Feb. 8 at the Detroit Zoo’s Ford Education Center, followed by several other dates leading to the spring — when frogs and toads will begin mating.

Each class session is four hours long, and volunteers need to attend only one session each year to obtain the skills needed to collect frog data.

Among other things, volunteers will learn the breeding calls of the various species, the varying types of wetlands and how, in order to get a true reading of the population size, to be silent for precisely two minutes before surveying.

“It’s all ears,” Johnson said. “You’re just listening. You’re going to a site and trying not to disturb anything.”

Volunteers will then take a test at the end of each class, Johnson said. While everyone will be able to collect data no matter their test scores, only those who score above 80 percent will be certified data collectors, Johnson said.

The data becomes part of a nationwide survey that FrogWatch USA shares with land developers and leaders across the country.

Traditionally, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — the parent organization of FrogWatch — summarized the data into reports and newsletters. Recently, though, it has shifted toward providing a massive online database that anyone can access.

“AZA has shifted focus to promoting data accessibility and usability in order to get data into the hands of the researchers and decision-makers that need them, as well as the volunteers that collected the data and make the program possible,” Gauza said.

Earlier this year, FrogWatch debuted an innovative online data entry, mapping and analysis platform, Gauza said.

While much of the country is still under a deep freeze, frogs and toads will be anxiously awaiting the first sign of spring to begin mating season. Therefore, data collection, which officially began Feb. 1, will really kick off once the weather warms up.

The zoo is looking for volunteers living anywhere from urban to rural areas.

Johnson said people who have assumed they live nowhere near a wetland sometimes attend one of the classes and are surprised to find out they live right by one.

“You’d be surprised where you can find some wetland areas that frogs and toads have lived in for years,” Johnson said.

Johnson, for example, surveys a wetland in Troy that is sandwiched between a hardware store and condominiums.

For those who truly don’t live near a frog and toad enclave, Johnson said there are plenty of places in metro Detroit in need of surveying.

Those looking to learn more about FrogWatch USA or to explore the new database can visit

Those looking for more local information or to register for classes can do so by contacting Johnson at



The Detroit Zoo will be holding FrogWatch classes at the Detroit Zoo’s Ford Education Center on the following dates:

• Feb. 8, 12-4 p.m.
• Feb. 19, 5-9 p.m.
• Feb. 23, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
• March 6, 5-9 p.m.


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