These amphibious indicators of the environment are the kind of discovery that, for a Ph.D. candidate, can be the makings of a career.
So, it says quite a bit when Sarah McMenamin of Stanford University says she would give it all up for a different result.
"I was always of two minds when I kept coming with these results. It's exciting because it's going to be a paper with a large impact. But on the other hand this, this is frightening," said McMenamin.
Sarah spent three summers in Yellowstone Park studying common frogs and a species of salamander. She compared their numbers with a study done in the early 1990's and found significant declines in the amounts of water, hatching eggs and populations.
These are all a direct result, not of short-term weather, but long-term climate change.
"Amphibians have never faced anything like this. They've seen plenty of environmental and climatic change, but never on this scale," said McMenamin.
These findings are significant because amphibians are an indicator species. As they go, others follow. More significantly, we are seeing these changes in an area we thought was protected.
"If we can't protect an ecosystem as large and intact, and complicated as Yellowstone, from the effects of global change, it's… it's very depressing," commented Stanford biologist Liz Hadly.
Dr. Hadly supervised the work on this study and notes that amphibians were the first creatures to walk on land some 365 million years ago.
They have been survivors, until now.
This study, and others, indicates that they have been dying off at an alarming, unprecedented rate.
McMenamin says, "If it affects amphibians, it's probably going to affect everything else."
Hence the depression of a young researcher on the cusp of her Ph.D. She likes the concept of being a doctor, but not the diagnosis.