Turn revulsion into respect for Earth’s amphibians and reptiles

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Sophie Jaro

The fairy tale princess of the Frog Prince leans in to kiss the Panamanian golden frog, one of Earth’s many endangered amphibian species. In the story, the initially skeptical girl falls for the frog. Humans should show a little love to amphibians too.

Diane Huang, Online Editor-in-Chief

“Oh no, it’s a disgusting frog!” the princess squeals, staring at the would-be prince at her door. Disgusting, stupid, thick, ugly frog—according to the Brothers Grimm anyway. However, for all the princess’s derisions in The Frog Prince, the frog remains courteous and forgiving (even after she throws him against a wall!) and eventually becomes a “beautiful prince” whom she marries. 

Despite the happy outcome and generally favorable depiction of the frog’s character, 40.0% of SPA students find frogs and toads scary or repulsive in a recent poll taken from 61 random St. Paul Academy and Summit School students (mammals, including the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, and Polar Bear, received 23.7% of student fear). In fact, Dr. Ernest Small, a biodiversity specialist, claims that people generally feel indifferent or even negatively towards animals because “most are unattractive.” Consequently, people tend to prefer animals that they find cute, attractive, or relatable, which could be why the death of Cecil the Lion received more coverage and public interest in one month than the near extinction of the entire Panamanian golden frog species has in the past 8 years.

While interest in endangered animals has been on a gradual decline (which in itself is a problem), a perplexing lack of interest in the rather alarming decline of amphibian and reptile populations pervades the general population. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red List, 41% of the 6000+ species of amphibians are threatened with extinction and 28% of reptiles. In contrast, only 25% of mammals and 13% of birds face similar risks. Why is it then, that the face of endangered animals is a giant panda, rather than, say, a frog? 

Although amphibians are clearly the frontrunners in the race to extinction, the World Wildlife Foundation, which “is committed to saving endangered species”, lists a grand total of zero amphibians in its species directory. The WWF’s species directory is a list of animals whose protection the WWF believes ‘influences and supports the survival of other species or offers the opportunity to protect whole landscapes or marine areas.’ Apparently amphibians don’t fit the bill.

The WWF’s species directory is a list of animals whose protection the WWF believes “influences and supports the survival of other species or offers the opportunity to protect whole landscapes or marine areas.” Apparently amphibians don’t fit the bill.”

Even though amphibians are overlooked by the WWF, their stake in the world’s ecosystems remains relevant. By controlling insect populations and nutrient transfer from terrestrial to aquatic systems, amphibians are an important part of a variety of ecosystems. In addition to their direct impact on their ecosystems, amphibians serve as an indicator species for the welfare of their environments. Their semipermeable skin makes them very sensitive to the local water quality, so any chemical pollution in the water, such as harmful pesticides washed off from lawns into sewers, quickly affects them.

Human apathy for other species affects more than just amphibians; according to the poll, 61.0% of SPA students are averse towards reptiles in general. Luckily, larger reptiles have been getting a little more attention than our amphibian friends, such as the Chinese alligator and Siamese crocodile, which appear in the WWF directory. However, one reptile hasn’t been getting as much love: snakes. Out of around 3,000 different species of snake only 375 are venomous; yet, 47.5% of SPA students consider nonvenomous snakes scary or repulsive (the venomous diamondback rattlesnake received a whopping 45.9% alone) . A study done by psychologists at Rutgers University suggests that humans have evolved to detect snakes’ slithering, limbless, and coiled body as humans consider snakes as “threats”. However, even Vanessa LoBue, one of the researchers, believes that “there’s really no reason for this overwhelming disgust or hatred of snakes.” Like most animals, snakes have no intention to harm humans, and less than one in 37,500 people (.003% chance) are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. every year. In fact, most snakes are nonvenomous and their M.O. has little to do with biting anyone and more to do with slowly constricting prey animals small enough to wrap their bodies around.

Meanwhile, herpetologists have noticed a sharp decline, or “crash”, in snake populations in the past decade. While many of us would be quick to bid good riddance to these limbless creatures, “snakes are top predator within the habitats they are found in and as such play a potentially important role in the functioning of many ecosystems,” the lead researcher in the study, Chris Reading said. “For example they play an important role in pest control – small rodents [like] rats and mice – in areas such as paddies and sugarcane plantations.”

Humans may never get over their fear and disgust of slimy amphibians or low-bodied reptiles, but that is no excuse to ignore their importance to the world’s biodiversity and ecosystems.”

Fortunately, members of the herpetological community have been avid conservationists of these declining amphibian and reptile populations. Animals considered to be extinct in the wild such as the Wyoming Toad,  and ones that are critically endangered, such as the Antiguan Racer (considered to be the rarest snake in the world and found on only one island), have begun to make an albeit small comeback with the help of devoted zoologists. Nonetheless, these animals deserve the support of all self-proclaimed animal conservationists, and conservationists in general.

Humans may never get over their fear and disgust of slimy amphibians or low-bodied reptiles, but that is no excuse to ignore their importance to the world’s biodiversity and ecosystems, as amphibians and reptiles have the largest and second largest number of distinct terrestrial or semi-terrestrial species. Only through a concerted effort to reduce our part in amphibian and reptile population declines, such as cutting down water pollution and curbing deforestation, and an interest in recovering these populations, can we hope to thoroughly combat our global environmental crisis.