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Frog research puts NDSU on ‘front lines’ of conservation biology efforts

Northern leopard frogs have been so abundant we take them for granted. But, now, there is growing concern their numbers could be dwindling dramatically.

Research by NDSU graduate student Justin Fisher may prove instrumental as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers whether the black-spotted frog should be placed on the endangered species list west of the Mississippi River. Fisher, a doctoral student in the environmental and conservation sciences graduate program is trying to find out what is happening to the frog population to help in that decision-making process.

“They are an iconic amphibian species that we have known throughout the North American continent. In North Dakota, they are practically everywhere,” explained Fisher, noting the frogs are found in ponds and swamps across our region in both rural and urban settings.

Funded through a grant from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Fisher is conducting his valuable research under the supervision of Craig Stockwell, associate professor of biological sciences.

Last summer, Fisher took samples from 50 frog populations across the state, and he’ll do the same this summer. “My research is molecular-based genetics work. I extract DNA from the frogs’ toes and I look at the genetic variations of each local population,” he said. “This is useful in identifying populations that have experienced severe population reductions.”

In addition, Fisher is exploring agriculture practices, land-use patterns and precipitation amounts during the past 20 years. He’s studying the environmental processes that may be affecting the frog populations.

“Amphibians are considered good bio-indicators. They allow you to investigate the health of the environment, because frogs have semi-permeable skin that can absorb environmental contaminants,” said Fisher, who earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology at NDSU in 2007. “I am really interested in conservation biology and being pro-active. I like being on the front lines to show how research can mitigate future losses.”

Several agencies have expressed interest in Fisher’s work, and North Dakota may prove to be a national model. “It’s been really interesting because we’re one of the only states probing into this,” he said. “We're helping both regional and federal managers, and we’re using North Dakota as the study site.

A native of Jamestown, N.D., Fisher hopes to teach and conduct research after earning his doctorate from NDSU in 2013.

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North Dakota State University
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Last Updated: Thursday, August 08, 2013 8:33:23 AM