USGS: Contaminants may play important role in California amphibian declines

December 06, 2000

Scientists have confirmed that agricultural contaminants may be an important factor in amphibian declines in California. According to an article recently accepted by the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, a study by scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that organophosphorus pesticides from agricultural areas, which are transported to the Sierra Nevada on prevailing summer winds, may be affecting populations of amphibians that breed in mountain ponds and streams.

Dramatic population declines in red-legged frogs, foothills yellow-legged frogs, mountain yellow-legged frogs and Yosemite toads have occurred in California over the last 10-15 years, but no single cause for these declines has been positively identified. Scientists and managers have been especially concerned because many of these declines occurred in some of the state's most seemingly pristine areas. Declines have been particularly drastic in the Sierra Nevada, which lie east of the intensely agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The red-legged frog is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the mountain yellow-legged frog and Yosemite toad have been proposed for listing.

"While crucial to the agriculture industry, pesticides by their very nature can result in serious harm to wildlife both by directly killing animals and through more subtle effects on reproduction, development and behavior," said Dr. Donald Sparling, a research biologist and contaminants specialist at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. "Unfortunately, now there appears to be a close correlation between declining populations of amphibians in the Sierra Nevada and exposure to agricultural pesticides."

The scientists found proof that pesticides are being absorbed by frogs in both aquatic and terrestrial systems and are suppressing an enzyme called cholinesterase, which is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. Modern-day pesticides function by binding with this enzyme in animals and disrupting nervous system activity, usually causing death by respiratory failure. Decreased cholinesterase activity can indicate exposure to certain commonly used pesticides and can be harmful to animals.

The scientists collected 170 tadpole and 117 adult Pacific treefrogs, a species that still is fairly abundant in the Sierra Nevada, from a total of 23 sites in six locations including coastal, foothill, Lake Tahoe Basin, Yosemite and Sequoia national parks; adult frogs were also collected from Lassen National Park. They found that cholinesterase activity levels in tadpoles were significantly lower in the mountains east of the San Joaquin Valley compared with similar sites farther north and east of the Sacramento Valley where agricultural activity is less intense. Moreover, cholinesterase activity became decreasingly lower in tadpoles from both northern and southern sample sites as the sites moved in a gradient from the coast to the higher elevations. Thus, tadpole populations in the mountains had lower cholinesterase values than those along the coast. Similar but less significant trends were seen in adult frogs.

The researchers also measured concentrations of particular pesticides in the bodies of tadpoles and adults. More than 50 percent of the adult frogs and tadpoles at Yosemite National Park had measurable levels of chlorpyrifos or diazinon, compared to only 9 percent at the coastal reference sites. Frogs at Yosemite National Park also had a higher frequency of detection for chlorpyrifos than those on the coast. Both diazinon and chlorpyrifos degrade very rapidly in organisms, and the detection of either compound indicates recent exposure to the chemicals. Of the pesticides tested in related lab studies, chlorpyrifos and diazinon, both commonly used organophosphates, suppressed nervous system activity and, along with endosulfan, a frequently used organochlorine pesticide, proved the most highly toxic to frogs. Diazinon has recently been targeted for phaseout by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The presence of pesticides and the decrease in cholinesterase activity in Pacific treefrogs suggest that other species, which are more closely associated with water, could be even more affected, said Dr. Gary Fellers, a research biologist and amphibian specialist at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center in California. "Mountain yellow-legged frogs, for example, spend two or three years as tadpoles before they metamorphose and then spend considerable time in the water as adults. Melting of pesticide-contaminated snow could provide a pulse of toxic chemicals at a critical time in the life history of these frogs."

As the nation's largest water, earth and biological science and civilian mapping agency, the USGS works in cooperation with more than 2,000 organizations across the country to provide reliable, impartial, scientific information to resource managers, planners, and other customers. This information is gathered in every state by USGS scientists to minimize the loss of life and property from natural disasters, contribute to the sound conservation, economic and physical development of the nation's natural resources, and enhance the quality of life by monitoring water, biological, energy and mineral resources.
This press release and in-depth information about USGS programs may be found on the USGS home page: To receive the latest USGS news releases automatically by email, send a request to Specify the listserver(s) of interest from the following names: water-pr: geologic-hazards-pr; biological-pr; geologic-pr; mapping-pr; products-pr; lecture-pr. In the body of the message write: subscribe (name of listserver) (your name). Example: subscribe water-pr joe smith.


*This topic and other issues related to amphibian declines and deformities will be discussed at a NEWS BRIEFING on Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m. EST at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, DC. Please call Rebecca Phipps (703) 648-4414 for more information.

*Downloadable photos and B-roll video may be found at:

US Geological Survey

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