At Roger Williams Park Zoo, a lesson in frog-speak

Hope Joyal doesn’t have a favorite species of frog per se, but there’s one, whose name escapes her, that she really likes because of the squeaking sound it makes when it’s mad.

“It’s glorious,” said the 12-year-old, who was sitting next to her mother on Sunday at a citizen science class on frogs hosted by the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

The program, called FrogWatch USA, trains citizen scientists in how to identify certain frog calls and collect data from the surrounding environment on different frog species, about two-thirds of which are threatened with extinction, according to Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs for the zoo.

“We wanted to make sure that we were doing our part and using citizens to gain information that we could use,” said Perrotti, who teaches the course. “It’s a great way to engage families and get them outside.”

During the two-hour class on Sunday, about 20 attendees listened to varying frog and toad calls that ranged from small squeaks, to long, deep-throated bellows. The trainees then had to pass a test before officially becoming data collection volunteers.

As volunteers, they are expected to observe frog calls at an environmental site of their choice about once per week during breeding season, which lasts from March to August, and report back to the zoo with their data, Perrotti said. The zoo then submits the data to a national FrogWatch database, which collects information from all over the country.

Roger Williams Park Zoo has been hosting the program for 12 years and has trained about 1,000 volunteers, many of which have remained consistent participants over the years.

“Long-term monitoring is our goal,” Perrotti said.

Keeping track of how frog species are doing is particularly important because the health of amphibians often indicates the well-being of the surrounding habitat, he said. Frogs and toads have also been used in human medicine and compounds from their skin are currently being tested for anti-cancer and anti-HIV properties, according to FrogWatch USA.

Elizabeth Varkonyi, 23, of Cranston, attended the training on Sunday with her coworker Olivia Barsoian, 36, of North Kingstown. The two work in an insect lab at the University of Rhode Island where they have firebelly toads as lab pets.

“We have some weird hobbies,” Barsoian said.

The women, who work in their lab with bees, another important species that has become increasingly threatened in recent years, said they care about protecting all different types of creatures.

“They don’t have a voice,” Varkonyi said, “so I feel like we need to be the ones to kind of help them out and try to conserve their species.”

Barsoian said her fascination with the environment goes back many years.

“My love for nature started as a child,” she said. “I just always had an appreciation for it. Now that all these species are going extinct or are in decline, it just really upsets me.”

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

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FrogWatch USA, trains citizen scientists in how to identify certain frog calls