"Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist’s Quest"

October 15, 2013



"Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist’s Quest"

By Judy Helgen
University of Massachusetts Press, $24.95


In mid-August of 1995, at a small farmhouse pond near St. Paul, Minn., Judy Helgen dipped her hand into a bucket of frogs captured by local students.

As she grasped a squirmy amphibian, her stomach churned.

The first frog she examined was missing an entire leg. It looked like a total amputation, except that the skin was normal.

The second frog had only a stub of a leg, half the normal length. And there were others with extra limbs, even some with missing eyes.

"This is awful," she recalls saying to the expectant students and their parents.

So begins Helgen’s page-turning tale documenting her work at Ground Zero of what would shortly become an international biological crisis — amphibian deformities and the dramatic global decline of frogs.

The 1995 incident wasn’t Helgen’s first experience of finding deformed frogs.

She started work as a biologist in 1989 for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, on a year-by-year grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a wetlands researcher.

She first documented abnormalities in Minnesota frogs in 1993, but that report appeared to be an anomaly.

Two years later, when she got the panicked phone call from a local teacher asking what was happening to the frogs, Helgen thought again. She immediately redid her complex work schedule and went in person to see what was going on.

For the next nine years, Helgen constantly juggled her EPA-funded work identifying new biological indicators for wetland health with her passion for what gradually emerged as a crisis in the amphibian world.

"Peril in the Ponds" is a detailed account of how one scientific researcher began to grasp the complex biological, social and political issues surrounding this controversial topic.

At the heart of her work was Helgen’s fear that what was happening to frogs in the rural environment of Minnesota might also have implications for human health.

That question is still unanswered. But what is perhaps most striking about her storytelling is the political naïveté she initially brought to the work.

At first, Helgen firmly believed that her state agency was squarely on the side of environmental justice. As the years rolled on, she came to the reluctant conclusion that politics was playing a more important role in limiting crucial scientific research than she thought was appropriate.

So Helgen actively defied those politics whenever she could, while still maintaining her role as a researcher and spokesperson for amphibian decline.

She attended local, national and global conferences on the amphibian crisis, often risking her funding in the process.

With the help of local teachers, residents and other amphibian researchers, she carefully documented the extent of frog deformities throughout Minnesota, even after she was criticized for using "non-scientists" in her work. And Helgen slowly came to understand the complexity of issues that were potentially affecting global amphibian populations.

So what was causing the deformities?

In "Peril in the Ponds," Helgen details the many theories that emerged from researchers worldwide, as well as her own reasoning about why each causation factor might — or might not — be a source worth further scientific investigation.

Parasites, habitat loss and hormone interference from pesticides were all on her list of possibilities.

Helgen’s conclusion is that pesticides are the most likely — but not the only — culprit for the harm being done to some of the world’s oldest inhabitants. And that conclusion brought her up against a new political reality within her own state agency.

During the decade or so of Helgen’s research in Minnesota, where some of the first U.S. frog deformities were documented, a national shift in scientific policy-making was under way.

Even before the mid-term election in 2010 — when Tea Party and other ultra-conservative politicians were elected to national and state legislatures — Helgen saw a dramatic shift in support for scientific research in her own Minnesota agency.

She documents how it became increasingly difficult for her and her staff to continue their work on amphibian decline, while still holding onto the essential EPA wetlands funding that was the basis for her job.

There is still no defining answer to this global amphibian mystery.

In her final chapter — written after her retirement from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2002 — Helgen lucidly revisits the recent research on the various possible causal factors and examines the theories one by one.

Although she has moved on to teaching and is no longer engaged in amphibian research, Helgen clearly retains her passion for solving one of the world’s greatest environmental puzzles.

And make no mistake — while "Peril in the Ponds" is a fast-moving and highly-readable story of amphibian decline, there are no final answers here. Only remaining questions.

Karen Schaefer is an SEJ member and freelancer based in northern Ohio.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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