Tryone Hayes and the global decline of amphibians

By: Justin Scioli

Dr. Tyrone Hayes is the kind of guy that is impossible to not admire. While growing up, a young Hayes spent his free time chasing frogs, his greatest passion, through the swamps and woodlands of his native South Carolina. He took his passion in Herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles, all the way to Harvard University to receive his undergraduate biology degree and to UC Berkeley to receive his doctorate and later to join the faculty. But the most admirable thing about Hayes is that he is a hard-nosed scientist, keeping his data unbiased even when the results are ugly truths that many people don’t want to face. And some of Hayes’ findings are quite ugly, especially to some powerful chemical corporations.

Hayes has been primarily studying the effects of chemicals, specifically pesticides, on development of amphibians. Many of his studies examine the effects of Atrazine, the most commonly used herbicide in the United States and one of the most common in the entire world. Atrazine is used to kill weeds in crops, however like all chemical pesticides it is easily spread through runoff. This runoff carries the potent pesticide into nearby rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water where it affects the flora and fauna there.

In 2002, Hayes published a study that examined the effects of Atrazine on the sexual development of African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) which have been introduced in North America. The results showed that even a very small amount of Atrazine was capable of causing a tenfold decrease in testosterone levels in male frogs, making them into hermaphrodites. Hayes believes this is because Atrazine induces Aromatase which promotes the conversion of testosterone into estrogen. This basically means reducing the stuff that makes boys into boys. Of course this has detrimental effects on the sex ratio of frog populations, and Hayes believes the use of pesticides could be a major factor in a worldwide decline in amphibian populations.

Since the 1980’s amphibians, like frogs and salamanders, have been declining severely. The rate of extinction in this group is 211 times the background extinction rate, meaning that they are going extinct 211 times more frequently than rate of natural extinction recorded due to geological and ecological changes in the environment. Many causes are believed to contribute to this massive decline. In addition to pesticides, culprits such as sound pollution that interferes with vocal communication, the spread of a fatal fungus, as well as climate change and habitat destruction that is affecting nearly all life on earth. The loss of an entire class of animals would spell serious damage to food webs from the tropics to temperate regions, and some ecosystems are dependent on amphibians as an entire trophic level of organisms. What Hayes and other biologists are extrapolating from the amphibian decline is even closer to home for us.

Amphibians are a very sensitive group, largely because they absorb water through their skin. This makes them an ideal “canary in the coalmine” for seeing the levels of chemical toxicity due to pollution in a given environment in which they are naturally occurring. When amphibians are dying, that is a good sign that toxicity levels are increasing. More and more studies are showing the detrimental effects of pesticide exposure on human health. In a talk given in 2008, Hayes discussed that levels of toxicity are shown to be lower in breastfeeding women. This is due to the fact that they are excreting toxin through their breast milk and thereby transferring it to their child. Frog or human, developmental stages of life are much more sensitive to toxic pesticides than adults. This spells compromised immune systems for the young and developing, and the fact that Atrazine is the most common contaminant in ground, surface and drinking water is concerning for many.

The European Union banned the use of Atrazine in 2004. The United States on the other hand continues not just to use it in agriculture but to allow a given concentration of it in drinking water. Recent studies show that the allowed amount of Atrazine can lead to low birth rates, birth defects and menstrual problems. Despite this, the EPA continues to suggest that there is no need for concern and is not officially suggesting water filters to pregnant mothers. They will not review those studies until next year at the earliest, and in the meantime pregnant women throughout the U.S. could be sipping up Atrazine any time they drink from a tap.

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Filed under Biology, Chemistry, Ecology

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