Kings of the jungle: amphibians are at the very centre of our finely balanced ecosystem. Image: Christian Ziegler/ Minden Pictures
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An unexpectedly vital part of the ecology

The disappearance of frogs and toads contributes to the appalling modern phenomenon that conservationists are now encountering everywhere: “trophic cascade”.

What is it with poets, frogs and toads? “Stop looking like a purse,” says the poet Norman MacCaig, carrying a toad outside. “How could a purse/squeeze under the rickety door and sit,/full of satisfaction, in a man’s house?” The pair of toads Jamie McKendrick encounters find their own exit: “they make for the hallway with sagging hops/like small encrusted beanbags on the move”, he says in “Right of Way”.

Frogs and toads live on all continents except Antarctica, in 24 different families and more than 4,000 species. In children’s literature they are gently comical, but the amphi in amphibian reminds us that they belong to two worlds.

They disappear in a second, leaping from one medium into another, and global folklore invests them with darker powers than Kenneth Grahame. A life cycle of spawn, tails and legs means they incarnate metamorphosis: you kiss them into princes, get turned into one by witches. In the Rig Veda, Great Frog supports the universe. They are familiars, boiled up by the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, and the “great kings” of slime terrify the boy in Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist”.

Frogs and toads are an unobtrusive but vital part of the ecology, and their loss contributes to the appalling modern phenomenon that conservationists are now encountering everywhere: “trophic cascade”.

As children, we used to put bricks up on end in a long wavy line, then tip the first and watch the whole circuit ripple to the ground. Imagine a similar sequence in a South American forest, with frogs at its centre. The frogs live in delicate balance with nine other species: lizards, mango trees, mango-eating ants, monkeys, wild pigs, owls, wasps, mosquitoes and a microbial parasite. They breed in riverbank puddles created by the rootling wild pigs. Mosquitoes breed in those puddles, too. The parasite they carry infects monkeys that eat the mango fruit, spreading its seed in fertilising scat, but few monkeys die, because the frogs’ tadpoles eat most mosquito larvae.

The lizards eat the ants; they also eat wasps that nest in holes in trees. Owls compete for these nesting holes and keep the wasps in check.

Now men kill off the pigs. No more puddles – so the frogs die out, but the mosquitoes breed in rainwater instead. Uneaten, they multiply, along with their parasites, which kill off the monkeys. With no monkey-scat, the mango trees die, along with the mango-eating ants. This halves the lizards’ food and they fade away. No lizards means more wasps, which crowd the weakening owls out of nesting sites. The owls go. Only three viable species are left: wasps, mosquitoes and their parasite, which will now turn on the cause of all this - man.

Trophic cascade could happen here. Frogs are disappearing globally into extinction. Two diseases are ravaging amphibians worldwide. Chytrid fungus has extinguished hundreds of species, and thousands of British frogs are dying from ranavirus.

Conservationists are working against time to save them. Scientists from the Zoological Society of London have swabbed amphibians in ponds across the UK and are collaborating with other organisations on the Garden Wildlife Health website, which asks for the public’s help in monitoring British wildlife. ZSL has also rescued, through a unique conservation programme you can see in action at Regent’s Park, the Majorcan midwife toad – until 1979 believed extinct – whose males carry new-laid spawn on their back until the tadpoles hatch.

Glyn Maxwell has written a poem to these toads, not now entering human houses but being saved – just – by human beings from exiting the world. “We are back who were never gone,” they sing. “We were here and you never knew./We thought you’d died out too.”

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war