Citizen Science Initiative

“Would you want to help scientists understand malformed frogs of India?” asks Madhushri Mudke

It isn’t surprising that the need for human consumption has left our environment and the biodiversity that it hosts, under siege. Studies from across the globe show that amphibians (largely frogs and toads) are suffering massive population declines. Evidence also points out that amphibian populations have declined by over 80% in the last four decades. Considering the case of a developing country like India, not just climate change but also rapid landscape modifications has put our biodiversity and natural habitats at stake. We know that amphibians are declining faster than any other known tetrapods to have walked this planet. But just what is it about amphibians that make them more susceptible to changes in the environment than other animals? Well, amphibians are known to breathe from their largest organ, their skin. Breathing through their skin informs us that amphibian skin is permeable to water and air unlike our own. So if a given water body is polluted, pollutants enter the animal’s body through the skin and can do irreparable damage. Not only can polluted water wipe out large swarms of frogs and toads, but the same polluted water also predisposes them to abnormalities like skin ailments, missing limbs, severely deformed bones and other malformations.

Let me take a moment to put amphibian malformations into perspective for you. ‘Malformation’ literally translates to‘in bad form’. Malformations in most animals are an unintended lack of symmetry or an imbalance in body structures. For example, body structures could be reduced or absent, may be abnormally duplicated (or multiplied) or could be present in an otherwise abnormal shape. Largely, malformations are divided into skeletal and soft-tissue malformations. Skeletal malformations involve injuries or deformities to the internal skeleton (i.e. the bone tissue), whereas with soft tissue malformations the cartilaginous structures, skin or muscles are damaged sparing the bones.

Photos showing soft tissue (absence of eye – microphthalmia) and skeletal (absence of hand – ectrodactyly) malformations inUperodonmormoratus (Rao, 1937) and Minervarya cf. syhadrensis (Annandale, 1919)

There is enough turmoil among scientists about the causes of these disturbing malformations. One of the most pioneering studies on malformations was done in Minnesota. In 1995, a group of students found massive numbers of frogs and toads with missing limbs, abnormally positioned eyes and additional limbs in a lake. Later, it was found that amphibian malformations and deformities could have links to pollution, ozone layer thinning and excessive pesticide usage that could have washed down into the lake from nearby fields. Some years later, it was confirmed that a common pesticide containing atrazine used in corn fields was one of the major contributors behind the disturbing number of deformed frogs and toads. Although this is an established fact, there are gaps that need to be filled via large-scale controlled experiments in different landscapes. This could probably help unpack the mystery behind these malformations. Also, even if our research is fully able to understand malformations, it is vital that we understand the impact of these malformations on amphibian populations and the future of amphibian biodiversity.

In India, amphibians are gaining limelight due to the increased number of taxonomic studies on amphibians. A number of researchers are focusing on describing new species of frogs and toads. While taxonomy is critical, efforts must be made to fill the gaps in other facets of science. In India, there are only a handful of papers that report malformed or deformed frogs from across the country. Keeping this knowledge gap in mind, I along with my adviser, have launched a citizen science program with the India Biodiversity Portal called Malfrogs. This is a platform for people like you to report any malformed frogs and toads in your vicinity. There is no doubt that citizen scientists can help enhance scientific data and enable science to reach great heights- something that a lone researcher cannot aspire to do without mass support. With this long-term data, researchers like me can point out several factors that could feed into a better understanding of the amphibian diversity crisis in India. This could also enable targeted conservation action plans along with significant contributions from citizens like you.

In conclusion, we are aware that the mystery around amphibian malformation remains unresolved till date, however with more data we will be able to understand the causes of amphibian malformations and their consequences on the ecosystems and on us.

About the Author /

Madhushri is pursuing her PhD from ATREE, Bangalore. She maintains a blog called Part of her research is funded by the ZSL-EDGE fellowship for studying the threats and ecology of Micrixalus kottigeharensis. Before the EDGE fellowship, she was awarded a grant by SSAR (Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles). Madhushri has written a pocket frog guide called ‘Frogs of Manipal’. Her work has been featured in various publications like FrogLog and newspapers like Bangalore Mirror, TOI, DNA and more.

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