Most people have heard of deformed frogs, but few know the backstory. Their discovery in Minnesota wetlands in 1995 was covered by local news media and then catapulted onto the front pages of newspapers around the world—a harbinger of a new kind of environmental health crisis. Deformed frogs became an issue of national concern in a matter of weeks after they were found. The ensuing public demand for answers challenged the somewhat stately pace of science, a subject covered in detail by William Souder (2000), whose book appeared in the midst of the response, describing what was then a seemingly impenetrable mystery.
More than a decade later, it is high time to check back in on the frogs.
Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist's Quest does just that, and Judy Helgen could not be better positioned to tell the story. As a biologist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Helgen was the point person at the onset of the investigations and remained engaged throughout subsequent efforts to explain the cause of the crisis. Her account of the initial responses to these unprecedented occurrences and the subsequent actions of scientists, bureaucrats, politicians, and members of the public has a you-are-there feel to it. Unfortunately, the author's chronological recounting of events— meeting by meeting and phone call by phone call—can become tedious. Although her writing style highlights the complicated nature of the situations that she faced, the major themes that Helgen wishes to communicate would survive a less detail-oriented treatment.
Most readers want to know, first and foremost, what led to the outbreaks. Unfortunately, they will be disappointed on this front. Seventeen years after the initial discovery, we still do not know what caused the deformities in Minnesota. This book is no victory lap. As an ecologist who has long worked on amphibians, I already knew the broad outlines of the story. I had assumed that Helgen would use the deformed frog crisis as a platform for understanding how we can mount more effective responses to environmental crises, but we do not learn much on that score, either. Helgen focuses on individual incidents that are emblematic of larger forces at work in society, but the individual trees never give way to a view of the forest.
Instead, Peril in the Ponds is about three things: making the case for amphibian deformities as an ongoing cause for societal concern, describing the beauty and worth of frogs and their wetland homes, and providing a window into Helgen's personal life as she deals with the slings and arrows that inevitably arrive as she works to do science while under a spotlight. In the writing of these overlapping themes, Helgen also offers readers a view of how one scientist reconciles her beliefs and her responsibilities as a seeker of scientific understanding. This topic deserves more attention, since much of what is currently being written about scientists and their motivations is often critical but not necessarily informed by scientists' own perspectives (e.g., Sussman 2010).
It is clear that Helgen held tenaciously to the goal of keeping the project funded and moving forward, and her commitment to her work was critical to bringing so much attention to the issue. Less clear is the portrayal of the MPCA (now her former employer) as an unwilling partner in her work. At every turn in the book, funds are threatened, her position is in jeopardy, or the project is destined to be taken from her control and ruined. She repeatedly implies that the people behind these actions may have dark motives. But this is not investigative reporting, and readers are left only with the author's vague sense of conspiracy with little to support it. Whatever the facts, few readers will conclude that the system worked well in this case.
So, what is the bottom line? Perhaps the largest lesson lies with what is still not evident: However sophisticated our approaches, developing an understanding of the causes of certain types of environmental threats will take a great deal of time and effort. Commonly, when an environmental problem emerges, we can readily discern the cause and figure out what we would need to do to remedy the issue. Acid rain offers one clear example. The symptom led us to the cause and to the range of possible solutions (Likens and Bormann 1974). It is with increasing frequency, however, that we are encountering environmental issues that we simply do not understand. Initially, we may not even know how to study them or when we have reached false conclusions about their causes (Sessions 1996, Lannoo 2008). Deformed frogs are a great case in point—one that deserves our attention, regardless of how much we may care about the fate of frogs themselves.
In reflecting on Helgen's story, I kept asking myself what kind of response would have been mounted were the deformities afflicting humans instead of frogs. As Helgen notes in the book, whatever was causing the maladies to frogs could potentially represent a threat to the health of other species, including humans. (At one point, Minnesota families living near ponds with deformed frogs were being supplied with bottled drinking water against just such a possibility.) Undoubtedly, millions of dollars and hundreds of researchers would have been involved—and yet, it might have taken years to work out what was happening. It is not so surprising, then, that the very few who have worked on the issue have not produced a definitive understanding of deformed frogs. Helgen deserves great credit for her accomplishments under the circumstances and for bringing the issue back under our scrutiny.