Streams that once sang with the croaks, chirps and ribbits of dozens of frog species have gone silent. They're victims of a fungus that's decimating amphibian populations worldwide.
Such catastrophic declines have been documented for more than a decade, but until recently scientists knew little about how the loss of frogs alters the larger ecosystem. A University of Georgia study that is the first to comprehensively examine an ecosystem before and after an amphibian population decline has found that tadpoles play a key role keeping the algae at the base of the food chain productive.
"Many things that live in the stream depend on algae as a base food resource," said lead author Scott Connelly, a doctoral student who will graduate in December from the UGA Odum School of Ecology. "And we found that the system was more productive when the tadpoles were there."
The results, which appear in the early online edition of the journal Ecosystems, demonstrate how the grazing activities of tadpoles help keep a stream healthy. The researchers found that while the amount of algae in the stream was more than 250 percent greater after the amphibian population decline, the algae were less productive at turning sunlight and nutrients into food for other members of the ecosystem. Without tadpoles swimming along the streambed and stirring up the bottom, the amount of sediment in the stream increased by nearly 150 percent, blocking out sunlight that algae need to grow.
The study is part of a larger effort known as the Tropical Amphibian Declines in Streams (TADS) project, which also involves researchers from Southern Illinois University, Drexel University and the University of Alabama. The project is now in its third round of funding by the National Science Foundation and was initiated by Catherine Pringle (UGA Odum School of Ecology) and Karen Lips (Southern Illinois University) in 2000 through a Small Grant for Exploratory Research (SGER) from the NSF. Connelly and Pringle are monitoring in-stream effects of the population decline on algae, while other team members are studying how the loss of frogs impacts other organisms and the transfer of energy between streams and the terrestrial communities that surround them. Preliminary data show that the number of snakes that feed on frogs, for example, has plummeted after the population decline.
"We were there before, during and after the extinction event and were able to look at the ecosystem and measure how it changed," said Pringle, Distinguished Research Professor in the Odum School and study co-author. "Very rarely have scientists been able to do that with respect to any organism."
Now, this is alarming from a the POV of a normal citizen of the world. OTOH, this is something that the paleo types ought to take note. When we discuss mass extinctions there are impacts that ought to be traceable in the fossil record. The fungal/algal spike at the Permian Extinction might be a case in point: whatever kept the fungi or algae in check suddenly died off and left a mark. Do we see this in other extinction events? Like, oh, say the TJ Extinction? If there was no disruption, why? Looking for these kinds of ecological imbalance markers may well allow us to have a tool to verify that the mass extinction took place instead of us just having a bad case of sampling error.