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Peril in the Ponds

Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist's Quest

Judy Helgen

Publication Year: 2012

Peril in the Ponds tells the story of a government biologist’s investigation into the mystery of deformed frogs, an epidemic that grew during the 1990s and continues today. It provides an inside view of a highly charged environmental issue that aroused the attention of the public and the media and sparked controversies among scientists, politicians, and government agencies. By the 1990s, wetlands across the United States were endangered from pollution and decades of drainage to convert them into farmland and urban developments. But when deformed frogs—many with missing legs or eyes, footless stumps, or misshapen jaws—began to emerge from Minnesota wetlands, alarm bells went off. What caused such deformities? Pollution? Ultraviolet rays? Biological agents? And could the mysterious cause also pose a threat to humans? Judy Helgen writes with passionate concern about vulnerable frogs and wetlands as she navigates through a maze of inquisitive media and a reluctant government agency. She reports on the complexity of a growing catastrophe for frogs and broadens the issue as she researches and meets with scientists from around the world. She affirms the importance of examining aquatic life to understand pollution and the need to rescue our remaining wetlands. She also shares the fears expressed by the teachers, students, and other citizens who found these creatures, sensed a problem, and looked to her for answers. Ultimately, this is a story about the biological beauty of wetlands and our need to pay attention to the environment around us.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

So many people have helped along the way I can’t possibly name them all. First, I thank my comrades in wetlands and frogs, especially Mark Gernes, but also many people who worked with us at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency: wetland field assistants Joel Chirhart, Cade Steffenson, and Kyle Thompson; ...

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pp. 1-6

I knelt on the ground in my oversize rubber waders and peered into the metal pan. Its water danced with small creatures we’d just netted from the pristine-looking river below. A variety of immature insects swam about: armored dragonflies and pebble-cased caddis flies, dark-bodied beetles and bugs. ...

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1. The Call

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pp. 7-27

Her voice quavered over the phone as she described a hellish scene: frogs with stumps of legs; frogs missing a leg; frogs with twisted joints; some with extra legs that couldn’t move. A frog with one eye. “Half of these frogs have something wrong. They look really pathetic.” She paused. “We need help.” ...

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2. The Frog Champion

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pp. 28-41

In October of 1995, not long after the discovery of deformed frogs, eighty-four-year-old state representative Willard Munger organized a hearing about deformed frogs and wetlands issues. He invited the school students, their teacher, and me to speak to a mixed assemblage of legislators and citizens. ...

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3. Learning Curves

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pp. 42-67

One thing I knew: to find clues to what caused the deformities, we had to focus on the frogs themselves and the places where they spent their time throughout the year. The most likely scene of the crime lay within the ponds, where developing eggs would be exposed to pollutants or other agents in the water. ...

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4. Wading in and Listening

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pp. 68-76

Before coming to the MPCA, I observed first-hand the vulnerability of wetland organisms to damaging pollutants when I participated with EPA scientists in a research project. Their goal was to field-test the impact of organophosphorus insecticides on the biota of natural wetlands. ...

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5. The Peril Widens

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pp. 77-93

With renewed hope, Mark and I made plans for surveying frogs and sampling ponds. In 1995 we had logged hundreds of misshapen frogs in a few different locations in the state. But what if Granite Falls repeated itself and no deformed frogs appeared in 1996? ...

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6. Science in the Public Eye

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pp. 94-108

The Monday following the EPA’s meeting in late September 1996, we conducted a third survey of the frogs at the Ney Pond. This time a troubling 32 out of 70, or 47 percent of the frogs were deformed, much worse than earlier in September, when we logged 8 percent abnormal, or in July when only one frog out of 124 we collected had a small defect. ...

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7. Government to the Rescue?

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pp. 109-136

After taking a week off for our wedding in early November of 1996, I returned to work with unrealistic hopes that the swirl of media requests and other communications might have simmered down. Instead, I was greeted by a flood of nine hundred e-mails and phone messages. ...

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8. The Quest

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pp. 137-148

“Hey Judy, any chance your field crew could collect some fertilized frog eggs for us from one of your study sites?” asked EPA researcher Joe Tietge during a break at the amphibian meeting in Madison in the spring of 1997. He wanted to expose eggs to some chemicals and to ultraviolet light to see if deformities would develop, he explained. ...

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9. Imperiled Frogs

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pp. 149-171

Death and deformity again stalked Dave Hoppe’s intensive study site in north central Minnesota in the summer of 1997. Frogs were floating, listless, and dying. Dozens of small fish and a couple of painted turtles had died. Young frogs couldn’t swim or hop. Three-quarters of the mink frogs had severe and in some cases multiple deformities. ...

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10. Bureaucratic Strangulation

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pp. 172-187

After the reaction to September’s press conference and the media coverage cooled down, I hoped work would go more smoothly. But I’d had this thought before. Dorothy took a couple of months off to finish her master’s thesis, and, as we expected, she quit her job as fieldwork coordinator when she returned. ...

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11. The Wrecking Ball

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pp. 188-199

The MPCA’s new reorganization plan, optimistically called “Goal 21” for the new century, swung into action with a massive and work-stopping internal move in 1999. During this time, the agency received a bomb threat, preceded earlier that summer by an anonymous message from someone who had threatened to “start shooting employees one by one,” ...

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Epilogue: How Are the Frogs? An Update

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pp. 200-224

More than a decade has passed since the MPCA halted its research on the frogs in 2001 and after my retirement in 2002 to compose the next chapter of my life teaching, writing, and spending time with family. Since then, major environmental disasters, such as the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf ...


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pp. 225-240


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pp. 241-243

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613762011
E-ISBN-10: 1613762011
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499454
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499458

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 830023483
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Peril in the Ponds

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Frogs -- Abnormalities -- Minnesota.
  • Frogs -- Habitat -- Minnesota.
  • Wetland ecology -- Minnesota.
  • Water -- Pollution -- Minnesota.
  • Indicators (Biology) -- Minnesota.
  • Helgen, Judith Cairncross.
  • Biologists -- Minnesota -- Biography.
  • Environmental protection -- Minnesota.
  • Environmental policy -- Minnesota.
  • Minnesota -- Environmental conditions.
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