The New Canary in the Coal Mine

I recently saw the Disney Movie, “The Princess and the Frog,” in which the animators recreated the colorful and melodious experience of the Louisiana Bayou. As suggested by the title, the frogs of the Bayou played a stellar role. As I watched the movie with my youngest, I was thinking of the vulnerabilities of these precious wetlands and growing threats to their inhabitants—the frogs.

With the ongoing debate over the health and environmental effects of climate change on animals, increasingly, frogs and their fellow amphibians are becoming the new “canaries in the coal mine.” Since amphibians’ skin is permeable, these creatures are more susceptible to contaminants and changes in their aquatic habitats. By their very nature, they are considered a “sentinel” species, hence, the term of the “canary in the coal mine.”

There are over five thousand species of amphibians worldwide. Many live throughout North America. In Puerto Rico, our favorite amphibian is the coquí—eleutherodactylus coquí. Eleutherodactylus comes from the Greek meaning free toes. Coquí, its popular name, refers to its high decibel chirp “co-KEE.” In general, these amphibians have adapted well to urban sprawl on the Island, however, pollution is taking its toll. While over 16 species are endemic to Puerto Rico, several coquí species are currently threatened. Some species known by their popular Spanish names haven’t been heard in years. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, these small frogs have been introduced to neighboring Islands, Florida and even Hawaii where they are considered an invasive pest.

We all can do something to protect wildlife and the environment in our daily lives. How can we help protect the frogs and their fellow amphibians from environmental contaminants in our own back yard? Well, one of the first steps is to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in our lawn that are carried by runoff and end up polluting their aquatic habitats miles away. By planting native grasses, shrubs, and trees in your garden you also minimize the need for using toxic chemicals around your home. While I don’t recommend kissing a frog, please help protect it and its habitat. A healthy environment is a gift for all.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.