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Worldwide Mystery Of The Frogs

Frogs, salamanders, and other amphibians are mysteriously dying all over the world, and no one can figure out why. CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg filed this first-person report about a biologist who's trying to help solve this scientific mystery.

From a dirt road near the peak of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, I looked down the steep drop to the rain forest. My first thought, peering down at the 70-degree grade over mud, shale, and boulders was, "Why did I forget to bring a rope?"

In 23 years at CBS News, I have never had a rope when I needed one. Dense vegetation made many parts of the forest dark and virtually impenetrable.

My guide that day was Ken Dodd, a biologist for the U.S Geological Survey.

He had agreed to allow me and a CBS News camera crew to accompany him on one of his periodic "amphibian expeditions," in which he records trends in frog and salamander populations. There is good reason to do such work, even though it involves getting your hands - and everything you’re wearing - dirty.

Amphibians, the biological class that includes frogs and salamanders, are mysteriously dying in places all over the world. Some types have actually become extinct. And no one can figure out why. Dodd’s research is part of a growing scientific effort to find some answers before the amphibians are gone.

CBS News Correspondent
Eric Engberg
The biologist and his two assistants seemed to move quite easily down the steep mountainside. Lacking their skills, I chose to slide downward with hands reaching out for leaves and branches to slow my fall.

The result was a 30-foot, clumsy skid down the mountain that ended when I came to rest against some boulders. Next time, I’ll bring a rope.

When our sound technician, following me down the same treacherous route, called to the cameraman, Deeter Mellhorn, to ask how he should react if he started to fall, Mellhorn shouted back, "Butt down, gear up," a position that would at least limit damage to the sound equipment. That Deeter has his priorities right.

For the next several hours, in this part of the Smokies which has been called a "salamander paradise," Dodd’s team pored over the ground, slowly lifting up logs and rocks, to record every species they saw. That information, along with weather and elevation data, was recorded in notebooks to be added to a computer database Dodd is building at his USGS reserarch center.

In the months ahead, Dodd and his co-wokers will return repeatedly to the same site, for exactly the same amount of time, to run a census on the salamanders.

If the numbers start getting smaller, indicating population loss, alarm bells will ring.

It’s tedious business, but necessary. Before going to the Smokies, I had attended a meeting in Washington of 50 prominent scientists from around the world who have studied amphibian losses. I was struck by the seriousness and certainty of their findings.

The death of frogs and salamanders is not some faraway, potential environmental problem; it is going on right now, and the scientists who know the subject have been warning for almost 10 years that a crisis is upon us.

One of the more prominent scientists I talked to was Dr. George Rabb, director of Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

The amphibian, an animal which can move from living in water to land, and whose skin serves the same function as human lungs, is an "indicator" of how humans might be affected by environmental change, Dr. Rabb said. "We co-exist with these creatures, and we better listen up. They are telling us something is not right out there in the environment," he warned.

Watch the CBS Evening News Tuesday night for Part II:THE MYSTERY KILLERS

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