March 3, 2009

Once Upon a Time....

I remember with crystal clarity the day I realized the impact that the amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis - Bd) was having on mountain yellow-legged frogs in the Sierra Nevada. It was July 2000 and my field crew and I were surveying lakes and ponds along the Monarch Divide and Cirque Crest for amphibians and fish. I'd been as excited as a little kid to get into this area and see some of the most remote lakes in the Sierra, places where several years earlier a backcountry ranger had made observations of many mountain yellow-legged frog populations. When the trip was over 20 days later I felt like I'd been hit over the head with a hammer. The future of frog restoration in the Sierra Nevada had just gotten a lot more complicated than I ever imagined it would be.

Up until that trip the available data on Bd and its impacts was still sparse and remained an abstraction to me. The observations made by Dave Bradford 20 years earlier of frog die-offs in western Sequoia National Park were worrisome but were surrounded by enough uncertainty regarding the cause that I wasn't paying those observations much attention. Afterall, for the past five years I'd surveyed hundreds of lakes and the effects of fish were as clearcut as could be. But there were a few lakes that I'd run across during all of those surveys that did give me pause. There were those lakes near Pavilion Dome that contained fabulous frog habitat but in which I found either no frogs or only the decaying carcasses of frogs that had died the previous winter. And that lake between Lake Basin and Dumbbell Basin where I'd seen lots of frogs during a backpack trip in the early 1990s but by the time we surveyed that site there wasn't a frog to be found. These observations nagged at me but still lacked any broader context. In contrast, my recent analyses of survey data from more than 2000 lakes had clearly shown the negative effect of fish on frogs, and early results from two fish removal experiments conducted by me and by Vance Vredenburg showed dramatic increases in the frog populations at these sites just a few years after fish removal. Restoration of frog populations wasn't going to be easy because fish were so ubiquitous but at least we had the tools to reverse the decline of the mountain yellow-legged frog. To my eyes, the future looked bright.

The first lake I surveyed on that Monarch Divide trip was at the head of the Gorge of Despair. Looking down on the lake from above I could only smile. There should be gobs of tadpoles in that warm cove on the north side of the lake, I thought, and adult frogs will be sunning by the hundreds on those granite slabs near the outlet. An hour later I had finished the survey and could only shake my head. I'd found only four mountain yellow-legged frog tadpoles and had not seen a single adult. Even more alarming was that the tadpoles were clearly sick. We didn't have an accurate method of detecting Bd in those days but my notes on the datasheet that I filled out that day had an ominous tone: "All four tadpoles were large (~3 years old). The one individual I was able to catch had only a partial beak and no toothrows. Skin had a mottled appearance. Chytrid fungus?". Every subsequent day produced similar observations. In lake after lake where frogs had been abundant just a few years earlier we found either no mountain yellow-legged frogs or only a few tadpoles, all with mouthpart deformities suggestive of Bd infection.

Twenty days later, surveys completed and out of food, we hiked down the Copper Creek trail to Cedar Grove. On that long hot descent I struggled to put all of the pieces together. Frog die-offs in western Sequoia National Park in the 1970s and 1980s, healthy frog populations throughout the eastern portions of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and now evidence of recent and ongoing die-offs along the Monarch Divide and Cirque Crest.... Could it be that Bd had been spreading from west to east across this part of the Sierra Nevada since the 1970s and that even those huge frog populations in places like Barrett Lakes Basin and Sixty Lake Basin might someday also succumb to this plague? The thought sent shivers down my spine and haunted me for years.

I called Dave Bradford the next day and before I could describe to him what we'd seen on our trip I somewhat immodestly blurted out, "I know what wiped out your frogs on the Tablelands - the chytrid fungus!". I don't know what he thought of my remark or the subsequent description of lake after lake with hardly a frog to be found, but I had seen the future of the mountain yellow-legged frog and it filled me with a profound sense of dread. All that I knew was about to change and the frogs that to me had become as much a part of the Sierra Nevada as the towering granite peaks were soon to be pushed aside by an unseen and unstoppable force.

And so it has come to be. Many of the lake basins where I counted thousands of frogs in the late 1990s are now frogless.
When I walk along a lake shoreline no frogs jump into the water from their grassy hiding places. The shallows where tadpoles used to congregate by the thousands on warm afternoons, thrashing frantically in their retreat to deeper water when I approached, are calm and placid now. The mayflies and beetles are still in abundance in the nearshore waters and on the surface the lakes are as beautiful as ever, but these lakes are profoundly changed, perhaps forever. The same could be said of that idealistic young biologist....

Back to The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Site.


  1. "Many of the lake basins where I counted thousands of frogs in the late 1990s are now frogless."

    I remember growing up in California. As kids, we'd trek off to the local creek and collect bucket fulls of western newts. BUCKET FULLS!

    Today? They're all gone.

    Great sadness... Cat