What do Shakespeare and Seinfeld have in common with Ray Bradbury and the Bible? As the title of this might might imply, they all reference amphibians. Shakespeare’s witches had their eye of newt, in Seinfeld George was desperately trying to get Frogger across the road, Bradbury’s book-burning firemen are emblazoned with a salamander, and frogs are rained down in a Biblical plague.
In our new paper in Herpetological Conservation and Biology, we review the contributions of amphibians to ecosystem services. These services that ecosystems provide for human societies include provisioning services (food, water, etc.), regulating services (flood control), cultural services (art, literature, spirituality), and supporting services (ecosystem functions and structure that support the other services). As one of the major vertebrate classes with more than 7,000 species world wide, amphibians have the potential to contribute to each of these ecosystem services directly or indirectly.
Provisioning services provided by amphibians include food (frog legs) and medical advances. Toxins from the skin of frogs have properties of analgesics more powerful than morphine without the potential addictive properties. Other skin chemicals have been shown to inhibit HIV.
Amphibians play less of a role in regulating services but may contribute to pollination in some circumstances.
In human societies, amphibians have a long history in culture. From ancient carvings and mythology, to modern video games and plush toys. As I mentioned at the beginning, amphibians have featured in literature over centuries. This was the section of the paper that was most fun. In no way could I catalog all the ways amphibians influence human culture but I point out a diverse array of influences.
The role of amphibians in ecosystem functions has received more researcher attention lately but is still poorly understood. This was part of my dissertation where I studied the effects of red-backed salamanders on ecosystem functions such as decomposition, nutrient cycling, and plant herbivory. I didn’t find strong effects of these salamanders but other researchers have found that salamander (including red-backed) and frogs can influence decomposition and nutrient cycling in terrestrial ecosystems. More research is needed to understand the conditions that mitigate these effects. In aquatic systems amphibians, especially frog larvae, influence primary production and nutrient cycling.
See our paper for more information on the role of amphibians in ecosystems or just to find some interesting cultural references to amphibians.
Hocking, D. J. and K. J. Babbitt. 2014. Amphibian Contributions to Ecosystem Services. Herpetological Conservation and Biology. 9(1):1-17. (Open Access)
Hocking, D. J. and K. J. Babbitt. 2014. The role of red-backed salamanders on ecosystem functions. PLoS ONE 9(1): e86854. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0086854 (Open Access)