by Judy Helgen

My mother had bitterly warned me to steer clear of the sciences because having a family aborted her own career. She majored in chemistry and earned a master's in microbiology in the 1920s, taught, had children in the late 1930s and abandoned science. I fell in love with zoology in the late 1950s at Mount Holyoke College.

As a zoology major in college, the new molecular biology captured my interest-cells, DNA, RNA. That was the future. I spurned natural history, where biologists studied pickled specimens and identified species. Too old-fashioned.

Many years later, with a family in tow, I completely changed direction, wanting to study how pollution affects aquatic life. I entered a Ph.D. program in zoology at the University of Minnesota. I had read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" (1962), which documented extreme harms to the living environment caused by pesticides. In the 1970s, I'd seen firsthand the beautiful diversity of creatures that thrive in clean water-insects, molluscs, small crustaceans-and the paucity of life in polluted water.

In 1989, at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) I helped promote a new paradigm for monitoring water pollution: survey assemblages of fish and aquatic invertebrates, not just a few chemicals. Luckily, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wanted states to develop biological indicators of pollution in wetlands and started funding my work. I waded in. Protecting wetlands quality, I soon learned, was controversial.

Then came the frogs.

During the mid-1990s, young frogs with deformities-missing and partial legs, multiple or branched limbs, missing eyes-hopped out of ponds across Minnesota and many states. Other countries reported this new phenomenon. My concerns deepened about the future of frogs, so long-evolved, and now so globally threatened with deformities and extinction. Each time I held a grossly deformed frog, my heart broke.

I had to investigate, at least to document this peril in Minnesota's ponds and show people that wetland species also require good water quality.

Political wariness about frogs and ponds prevailed and contentious issues frequently arose. We analyzed pesticides as one of several causes of the deformities and were accused of conducting a witch hunt. Others accused us of training "wetland vigilantes" in our new volunteer monitoring program. One writer claimed I had "Rachel Carson syndrome" because we investigated chemical causes. He thought it was natural.

Our funding was erratic. For years, my colleague and I were at risk in nonpermanent positions. Our belief in the importance of what we were doing-documenting polluted conditions in wetlands and seeking answers to the frog deformities-kept us going.

Deformed frogs are still appearing all over the country, sometimes at high frequencies. This mystery has not been solved. Who's looking?

Judy Helgen lives in Roseville and is a retired research scientist from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Her new book, "Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist's Quest" (2012), has been published by the University of Massachusetts Press.

Participate in MN Dept. of Natural Resources Frog Call Surveys by going outside on three evenings through spring and early summer and document which species you hear and their intensities. The information is collected by MN DNR staff to spot trends in species populations through the state.

Contact: Heidi Cyr at the MN DNR,


Get involved in biological monitoring of local wetlands. Helgen and a colleague started the Wetland Health Evaluation Program (WHEP) in the 1990s. It is active in Dakota and Hennepin Counties.


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