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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times