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Scientist-Artist Turns Scary, Deformed Amphibians Into Art to Promote Environmental Awareness

Oct 11, 2016 04:10 AM EDT

Expected to continue until December 17, 2016, biologist and environmental activist Brandon Ballengée showcases his 20-year collection of artwork and research, highlighting the abnormalities and amphibian developmental deformities with the twist of communicating the stories of ecological mishaps to viewers and spectators.

Ballengée’s exploration started with the reported cases of frogs with deformities found on ponds from Michigan to California. According to the Smithsonian, citing a 1996 article from The New York Times, researcher Judy Helgen of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency mentioned that the incident really scared them. This sparked the urgency for experts and researchers to conduct further investigation to understand the reason behind the deformations.

According to the study of Ballengée and Stanley K. Sessions of the Department of Biology in Hartwick College published in the Journal of Experimental Zoology, it was found out that the abnormality will not definitely affect humans the way it affects the amphibians since it is all due to selective predation. Their observations, backed up with laboratory experiments, have provided evidence that the reported deformations on wild common toad (B. bufo) were due to the predation of Dragonfly nymph (Sympetrum sp.), injuring the tadpoles and toadlets which are at the metamorphic stage. Injuries, later on, resulted in total amputation of limbs or regeneration, resulting to more legs than normal.

Read: Sad News: Last Known Living Member of Rare Tree Frog Species in Captivity Died in Georgia

Though proven even with surgical simulation on other frog species and amphibians, Ballengée and Sessions have situated the widespread abnormality as an indicator of ecological imbalance. Since predation naturally occurs in a healthy environment, the authors have also concluded that the predator-prey ratio had a crucial role behind the incident. There could be an unobserved change in the population of the predators of the amphibians or decrease in prey population, leaving the swarm of dragonfly nymph to severely injure available tadpoles and toadlets. They have also mentioned about possible vulnerabilities of the amphibian species to water contamination, making them weaker preys.

Around 100 of Ballengée’s exhibits and artworks included photos of the amphibians with abnormalities, mounted skeletal system of fish species and avians preserved with their feathers’ natural colors displayed with artistic lights and creative designs to catch the viewers attention.

“…I try to do it in a way that is not so much hitting people over the head with a message, but actually having them experience it," Ballengée told the Smithsonian in an interview. “I call them ecoactions. Basically it's a kind of citizen science or participatory biology. It gets people involved and interested, but I'm learning from them too. What do they know about these wetlands or these species? I'm often a tourist as a researcher. I'm going in for a year or two and don't have the background of growing up in the area.”

The exhibits following the “Museum as Classroom” approach located at the Art Museum places of the University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming. Check out some of his artworks here.

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