First off, don’t be fooled by the title: A Plague of Frogs: The Horrifying True Story would be more aptly, but less apocalyptically, entitled A Plague on Frogs: The Disconcerting True Story. I eagerly dove into William Souder's real-life scientific adventure/mystery with neo-Biblical visions of amphibians raining upon good Lutherans in rural Minnesota dancing in my head. Rather, this book is not about what frogs have done to us, but what we most likely, tragically, have done to them.
Souder, a journalist from Grant, Minnesota, who first reported on this story for The Washington Post, has given us a balanced, thoughtful, well-written and compelling report of a recent outbreak of extravagant deformities among frogs and other amphibians along the northern tier of the United States and southern Canada, with Minnesota as its apparent epicenter - an outbreak that may or may not have dire implications for human health.
The human concerns stem from the fact that many scientists view frogs as "sentinel species," environmental canaries-in-a-coal-mine that act as early warning alarms for the system at large, and for vertebrates - including humans - in particular. Frogs are in recession throughout the world and this is alarming because frogs have been exceptionally successful animals, existing largely unchanged for 350 million years.
Yes, their habitat is being crowded by human development, but simple encroachment does not explain their precipitous decline over the last 30 years, with many species being reduced by as much as 80%, and an across-the-board reduction in the size of individual animals. Frogs are particularly susceptible to environmental insult because they are literally permeable. As Souder puts it, "A frog's skin is less a barrier against the outside world than it is an open portal."
Plague is peopled with a large cast of flummoxed scientists, baffled bureaucrats, and bemused bystanders who are too often a name and a very brief introductory description: the teacher who first reports the deformities, Cindy Reinitz, is simply a "tall, attractive woman with long red hair and a purposeful stride" (there is much purposeful striding over glade and glen in these pages). Amid the burgeoning cast and the acronyms - MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences), DAPTF (Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force - picture a swat team of herpetologists), and the EPA, among many others - my brain was periodically aswim like Donald in Mathemagic Land.