Wild Ideas: Nature Notes: Frogs and a new cause of Lyme

By Well Tea via Wikimedia
The chorusing of spring peepers is a sure sign that spring is on its way. By Well Tea via Wikimedia

Is spring on the way? Recent unseasonably high temperatures suggest that this winter not only entered like a lamb but may go out like one, too.

Although I have yet to hear a spring peeper in Rappahannock County, a sure sign that spring is on its way, a few reports of their chorusing have drifted my way. And last Thursday (Feb. 25) I saw a lone one making its way across Thornton Gap Church Road after the thunderstorms that day. That started me thinking about the health of our local frog populations. News of upcoming training for a frog-monitoring program and more dire news about our planet — a newly discovered cause of Lyme disease, and a potential ozone hole opening up above the Arctic — landed in my inbox recently.

FrogWatch USA

To truly know the health of frog populations, scientific monitoring is needed. Fortunately, such a program, driven by citizen scientists, has been around since 1998: FrogWatch USA. Now managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it tracks frog populations throughout the United States.

FrogWatch participants choose a monitoring site that is easily accessible and convenient to listen to frogs that are calling throughout the warmer months. The monitoring is easy, with a bit of training, which the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Front Royal, is offering in April (see sidebar on events). SCBI has been participating in FrogWatch for four years.

Having participated in FrogWatch for a number of years, I find it a great way to not only get to know our frogs’ calls and habits but also to experience the few lovely minutes of mindfulness it takes in the evening to listen for them.

Courtesy Scott Bauer/USDA
The black-legged, or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) — could it be carrying another cause of Lyme disease? Courtesy Scott Bauer/USDA

Newly discovered bacterium carrying Lyme disease

One downside to the relatively warm winter here is that ticks seem to be more active, especially black-legged (aka deer) ticks (Ixodes scapularis), which carry Lyme disease. And as if we need more bad news about this disease here, an article in the Feb. 16 issue of Scientific American magazine says that more than one bacterium may cause the disease. The source of the article is a new study whose results were published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases recently.

The scientific community studying Lyme has argued about the cause since the disease was first discovered in Lyme, Connecticut. While Borrelia burgdorferi, a single spiral-shaped bacterium, or spyrochete, has long been considered by many scientists to be the main cause of the disease, the article says, there have been indications that this bacterium’s ecology is more complex than first thought. Now the authors of the new study, a team of scientists at Mayo Clinic, has found that, in rare cases, Lyme could be caused by a different bacterial species, which they propose naming Borrelia mayonii.

Nailing down the role of B. burgdorferi has been a problem because this bacterium tends not to linger inside the human body, and colonies of it grow slowly, so isolating and growing it is “next to impossible,” according to the article. And it can genetically recombine to create different strains that behave differently inside the human body.

  1. mayonii, on the other hand, apparently proliferates in blood, helping the Mayo Clinic researchers to isolate and grow it easily. It also seems to cause symptoms that drastically differ from the typical bullseye rash associated with Lyme, including nausea, vomiting, spotty rashes and neurological problems, which leads to about a third of patients being hospitalized, according to the Science article. These differences potentially complicate diagnosis and treatment of Lyme. According to the study, only six Americans since 2012 have been infected with B. mayonii, but the spirochete is likely not a new organism, considering its evolutionary tree.

Rifts in the scientific community could be because, as one scientist is quoted as saying, “the complicated and intricate dance that takes place between the ticks, their spirochetes and their numerous animal and human hosts . . . is immensely difficult to track and understand.”

Another hole in the ozone layer?

Remember that hole in the ozone layer scientists discovered over Antarctica in the 1980s? While not exactly a hole, the ozone layer there was thinning to a potentially disastrous extent because of chlorofluorocarbons — “long-lived chemicals that had been used in refrigerators and aerosol sprays since the 1930s,” according to the NASA website Earth Observatory.

The banning of ozone-depleting chemicals in 1989, under the Montreal Protocol, put the ozone layer there on the path to recovery — by 2040, according to models — the website says. Thinning of the ozone layer over the tropics and mid-southern latitudes, however, while not as bad, “may not recover for more than a century, and perhaps not ever” because of the impact of greenhouse gas warming.

Now a new ozone hole may open over the Arctic this spring, according to an article in the Feb. 12 issue of Science magazine. The hole comes from lingering atmospheric pollutants and frigid air that have carved “an unusually deep hole in Earth’s protective ozone layer over the Arctic, and it threatens to get deeper this spring.” ‘

According to the article, scientists are concerned about “how extra ultraviolet light might affect humans and ecosystems below and wondering whether climate change will make such Arctic holes more common or severe.” The situation is not good, scientists warn, predicting that, by the end of February, “25 percent of the Arctic ozone will be destroyed.”

© 2016 Pam Owen

Nature Events and Notices

Watershed Course (Wednesdays, Mar. 30-Apr. 27, 7:30–9 p.m.): Registration is open for “You and Your Watershed in Rappahannock County,” offered by RappFLOW through RappU. The course focuses on how well our local watersheds are protected and includes how to take advantage of available information and technical and financial assistance. Two daytime field walks are included. At the Rappahannock County Library; registration is $10. For more information, or to register, go to the RappU website (rappu.coursestorm.com) or call 540-987-0513.

Scholarships Available for Summer Camps and College. The Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District (CSWCD) is offering college scholarships as well as scholarships to Youth Conservation Camp and Holiday Lake Forestry Camp. Applications are due April 1 for camps, and April 12 for college scholarships. For more information, visit culpeperswcd.org or contact Stephanie DeNicola at stephanied@culpeperswcd.org or 540-825-8591.

FrogWatch training (April 9, 2-5 p.m.): Monitor frogs at a site of your choosing, after training at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal. For more information, contact Matt Neff, neffm@si.edu.

Tree Seedling Sale: CSWCD has revived its tree-seedling sale and is taking orders throughout the winter, with April delivery expected. Species that are available are redbud, dogwood, red maple, persimmon, northern red oak and eastern white pine. Seedlings are $5.50 for five trees (one species). Tree tubes and rain barrels are also available. For more information, contact Stephanie DeNicola-Turner at 540-825-8591 or stephanied@culpeperswcd.org.

Rappahannock Plant Sale (Apr. 30, 9–3): This is the perfect time to start planning for your garden. As in past 14 years, this sale has a wide selection of native and cultivated plants offered by local growers. But some great plants, discuss plants with experts and your plant-loving neighbors, swap gardening stories and enjoy some refreshments. At Waterpenny Farm, U.S. Route 211, Sperryville, rain or shine.

“Naturescaping: Using Native Plants to Create Healthy Landscapes” and Native Plant Sale (May 17, 6:00 p.m.). Janet Davis of Hill House Farm and Nursery shares ideas about adding layers of diversity to gardens and how native plants add enhanced livability to our world. Beckon birds, befriend butterflies and pamper pollinators by incorporating these concepts and plants. Plant sale to follow. Virginia Cooperative Extension Office (24 Pelham St., Warrenton, VA). Free.. RSVP to the Fauquier County Master Gardener Help Desk at 540-341-7950 ext. 1 or email helpdesk@fc-mg.org.

“Gardening for Birds” (July 12, 6 p.m.) Learn all about the four things needed to attract birds to your garden — food, water, shelter and a place to nest — from extension master gardener and master naturalist Peggy Schochet, and master naturalist Peggy Kenney. Find out what plants will feed and shelter birds as well as the best garden layout to attract them. At Rady Park (725 Fauquier Road, Warrenton, VA). Free. RSVP to the Fauquier County Master Gardener Help Desk at 540-341-7950 ext. 1 or email helpdesk@fc-mg.org.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”