Dunraven is another favorite of mine. It has beautiful old-growth forest with lots of small, manageable wetlands to survey. Even better, the hike is super majestic and downright enjoyable. You honestly expect trolls and fairies to pop right out and strike up a conversation. Despite its awesomeness, this year was a bit of a mess when it comes to Dunraven. It was intended to be a one-day survey that turned into a two-day depressing event. To make matters worse, all this went down on my field partner’s birthday. Not good.
All was smooth sailing and we were more than halfway through our survey sites when we happened upon my absolute favorite wetland. I was so psyched to get there and I was telling my field partner all about how awesome it is and how it’s usually packed with tadpoles and such. As I approached the wetland, I was surprised to see that it had shrunk in size compared to previous years. I mean, it was half the size. This was a bit unusual, especially since this year was considered to be fairly wet. I was disappointed but not too floored by this because I have a theory about Dunraven being extremely dynamic and that it’s becoming thermal (no one seems to agree with me on this though). So I was bummed to see my favorite wetland had shrunk but not totally shocked.
Another thing I noticed as I approached was that the water was moving and hundreds of little tails were breaking through the surface and splashing about. This is the kind of stuff that makes a herper jump for joy. So although the wetland had shrunk, the frogs didn’t get the memo and they were still doing their thing. Aces! Just in my first few net swipes I had more spotted frog tadpoles than I could count. This was going to be a fantastic survey! Well, you can guess what’s coming next…
About five minutes into my survey I began to discover that something was very wrong. I netted a dead adult frog, and then another. I stopped and took a good look at the water around me and I saw many dead or dying tadpoles. They were swimming in circles, sometimes upside down, and then just dying. It was extremely eerie. I abandoned my survey, told my field partner that we had ourselves a problem, and then instead of counting the living, we began counting the dead. We searched that wetland with a fine-tooth comb and found two dead adult spotted frogs and about thirty dead spotted frog tadpoles. This is of course not accounting for the hundreds of tads whirling around the surface doing strange stuff.
We both agreed to cut the day short instead of contaminating the other wetlands with our equipment. Being the amphibian lovers we are, all we could feel was dread. Any creature that even so much as walked through that wetland could be spreading something awful throughout the ecosystem.
That night I was able to contact my supervisor, who then contacted the disease specialists for the Park. That crew went out to take samples and either they went to the wrong location or they need eye exams because they couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary.
A few days later we resumed our surveys of Dunraven and on our way out we collected samples for the disease crew. We needed to collect a dozen dead tadpoles, slice their bellies open and place them in vials of alcohol. Since I love blood and guts, I was the slicer and my field partner was the wrangler. She had no problem finding dead things, to the point where I couldn’t keep up with her and we had our dozen within minutes. The place was certainly in worse shape than we had left it the first time.
I am sad to report that as of right now, months later, we still don’t have any answers. It could be chytrid or it could be something new for all we know. Amphibian die-offs are not a priority in the Park. And even though they are considered species of special concern, that seems to be just on paper. It’s extremely frustrating. You risk life and limb to gather data for absolutely nothing. It all seems so futile at times. As with any job, you have to find your own meaning for doing it or you’ll be miserable and in this case I’ve found it, thankfully.