Amphibians in the Mine

Communication towers inside Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve


“Amphibians were here when the dinosaurs were here, and they survived the age of mammals. If they’re checking out now, I think it is significant.”

 –   David Wake, Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, 1990

They are ancient animals with abilities to survive beyond belief. They live both in water and on land. They can breathe through their skin. They can regenerate limbs and organs. They don’t get cancer. They have been around for 365 million years, and have survived four mass extinctions during the history of life on Earth. Yet today, they are disappearing more rapidly than any other class of animals. By their death, they are screaming: Turn off your cell phones! Now, before it is too late!

Even before cell phones, the proliferation of radio and TV towers, radar stations, and communication antennas in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s began killing off these most hardy, well-adapted, and important forms of life.

The northern leopard frog, Rana pipiens – the North American green frog that croaked from every marsh, pond and creek when I was growing up — was already extremely rare by the end of the 1980s. In the Colorado and Wyoming Rocky Mountains, boreal toads used to be so numerous that, in the words of Paul Corn of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, “You had to kick them out of the way as you were walking down the trail.” By 1990 they were difficult to find at all. Boreal chorus frogs on the shores of Lake Superior, once innumerable, were extremely rare by 1990. In the 1970s David Wake could turn up eighty or more salamanders under the bark of a single log in a pine forest near Oaxaca, Mexico. In the early 1980s he returned and was able to find maybe one or two after searching the forest all day. Until 1979 frogs were abundant and diverse at the University of São Paulo’s field station at Boracea, Brazil, according to Stanley Rand of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. But when he returned in 1982, of thirty common frog species, six had disappeared entirely and seven had decreased in number drastically. In 1974 Michael Tyler of Adelaide, Australia discovered a new frog species that brooded its young in its stomach. It lived in a 100-square-kilometer area in the Conondale Ranges, 60 kilometers north of Brisbane, and was so common that he could collect a hundred in a single night. By 1980 it was extinct. The golden toad lived only in a 320-acre stunted forest in Costa Rica’s supposedly pristine, protected Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. In the early 1980s Marc Hayes of the University of Miami typically counted 500 to 700 males at one of the species’ breeding sites. After 1984 that site never had more than a dozen males. At another site Martha Crump observed a thousand males in 1987, but only one in 1988 and another single male frog in 1989. Today the species is extinct.

In 1990, when I began researching this magical class of vertebrates, there were not many amphibians left in all of Europe. Out of more than five thousand known species worldwide, about a dozen were doing well.

By the time I wrote Microwaving Our Planet in 1996, every species of frog and toad in Yosemite National Park had become scarce. Seventy-five species of the colorful harlequin frogs that once lived near streams in the tropics of the Western Hemisphere from Costa Rica to Bolivia had not been seen in a decade. Of the 50 species of frogs that once inhabited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, 20 were already extinct.

Similar population crashes were occurring in North, Central and South America, Europe, and Australia. Only in Africa and Asia, when I wrote that book, were amphibians doing well. That has since changed. On March 15, 2023, a team of 19 American scientists published a paper titled “Continent-wide recent emergence of a global pathogen in African amphibians.” Amphibians, say the authors, were doing fine on the dark continent until about the year 2000 — which coincidentally is when telecommunications companies began lighting up that continent with cell phone signals in earnest.

A couple of years earlier, in December 1997, I had published an article titled “The Informationization of the Third World.” I quoted President Clinton, who had lamented that “More than half the world’s people are a two days’ walk from a telephone.” I highlighted Bangladesh, where there were plans to bring cell phones to 40,000 of the country’s 68,000 villages over the next four years. In Africa, where several countries still had less than one conventional phone per one thousand people, some two dozen countries were introducing cellular systems. The debate, in the world’s press, was about what this would do to the traditional village, and whether this was a desirable thing from a cultural point of view. I took a broader view:

“An even more important question is what will happen to nature? Can nature survive at all in a distanceless world? I think the answer, if ecologists and environmentalists brought their knowledge to bear, would be a resounding no. Biodiversity depends on distance. What is not often acknowledged is that cultural diversity also depends on distance, and that culture is nature-based. Local dialects, and local handicrafts, and local dress, and local economies, and local varieties of crops, and local varieties of plants and animals — i.e. local ecosystems — depend on the village’s being a two days’ walk from a telephone. The most basic reason for the disappearance of species is that very few of them can withstand the global exploitation that must come when there is instantaneous transportation and communication.”

And then there is the radiation. The effects of microwave radiation in Africa, as cell towers began serving larger numbers of its residents, are now apparent: amphibians have been