Volunteers brave heavy rains to count frogs, toads in hopes of better understanding local ecology

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Win Everham and a volunteer crew of 10 others strolled along a boardwalk on the Florida Gulf Coast University campus Wednesday night during some of the heaviest rains of the summer. 

"I'm not sure whether it's the noise from the rain and we can't hear the frogs or if the frogs are just smart enough to say 'my job is to be heard so I'm going to wait until the rain stops,'" Everham said, water steadily dripping off the bill of his FGCU baseball cap. 

Undeterred by the weather, Everham, an FGCU professor and researcher, kept listening and looking toward a nearby wooded area for any signs of frogs or toads. 

The work is part of a two-decades-long research project that aims to document the rise and fall of frog populations in Southwest Florida. 

Hearing nothing but rain, the group made their way to their vehicles and drove to the next spot, one of 13 that would be monitored that night. 

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In a steady downpour, Win Everham, an Florida Gulf Coast professor and researcher documents frog-toad sightings and sounds on the FGCU campus on Wednesday June 16, 2021. The work is part of a two-decades long research project that aims to document the rise and fall of frog populations in Southwest Florida.

At each spot they listened for three minutes and recorded notes regarding what species was found. They also recorded an estimated volume level that represents the amount of frog or toad activity. 

"There are routes all through Lee, Charlotte and Collier County," Everham said of the frog monitoring program. "This is just fun to do, go out at night. See a frog. What else will you find? A spider web? Maybe a panther. We think it's going to be a panther every month." 

This group goes frog finding the third Thursday of every month between June and September, which is the height of frog and toad activity. 

"Is that a cricket frog," Everham asked the group rhetorically. "You guys hear it? It's like marbles clicking together." 

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani was with the initial group that started monitoring frogs here in 2000.

In steady downpour, Matt Metcalf, right, an Florida Gulf Coast professor and researcher holds an non native cuban tree frog that was found off of Alico Road on Wednesday June 16, 2021. The work is part of a two-decades long research project that aims to document the rise and fall of frog populations in Southwest Florida. The frog was documented as part of a long term study.

"We were starting to wonder what was going on here with wetlands and frogs and we thought monitoring frogs would be a good way to measure the health of the wetlands," Cassani said.

Everham said the group of researchers working on the frog-toad project will analyze data collected over that past two decades and publish a paper. 

 "You are plugging into a long-term data set in a really cool way," Everham said. 

Cassani said climate change is causing rain to be more sporadic in the summer than it was decades ago, when he said the daily rains were predictable and generally came in the afternoon. 

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In steady downpour, Matt Metcalf, right, an Florida Gulf Coast professor and researcher listens for frogs and toad with students, from left, Kira Dowdy, Idalis Gomez and Ella Guedouar, center,  on the FGCU campus on Wednesday June 16, 2021. The work is part of a two-decades long research project that aims to document the rise and fall of frog populations in Southwest Florida.

"The manifestation of a warmer atmosphere and more water vapor and more extreme rainfall and more extreme hydrology is well on its way to being here right now," Cassani said. 

Everham said if daily rains have been throw off kilter, then some animals, like frogs and toads, may find it difficult to adapt. 

"It's not necessarily that we get less rain, it's that we get a lot in a short period of time and then breaks in between," Everham said. "From a frog's perspective, that screws you up. If you lay eggs in water and the water dries up a week later because there hasn't been any rain, then your eggs die."

Throughout the night the group found species like the southern and oak toads as well as the dangerous cane toad. 

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A non native cane toad is documented  by FGCU researchers and volunteers off of Three Oaks Parkway on Wednesday June 16, 2021. The work is part of a two-decades long research project that aims to document the rise and fall of frog populations in Southwest Florida.

But a nearby church held several native species. 

"At Three Oaks Park we found a bunch of cane toads, and over by the Coastal Village student housing apartment there were just more cane toads," said volunteer Taylor Hancock, an FGCU graduate who works at the Water School. "But at (Summit) church it  was pretty much all natives, and I think four different species we were able to visually identify."

Taylor said the study will help researchers better understand the energy cycle of frogs and toads during the summer breeding season. 

A native squirrel tree frog is doumented by FGCU researchers and volunteers in a swale off Ben Hill Griffin Parkway on Wednesday June 16, 2021. The work isÊpart of a two-decades long research project that aims to document the rise and fall of frog populations in Southwest Florida.

"What this study really hinges upon is listening to the calls to tell us the frogs are there and they will only spend that energy when conditions are right," Hancock said. "Mating is very energy intensive, and they need the extra energy to make the calls and for mating." 

Taylor said the night ended on a bright note. 

"We saw some frogs mating, and that's a really good sign of the heath of that wetland," he said. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.