By Lauren Ugol
Walking through Pearson Hall, I hear the sound of crickets chirping, echoing off the white tile floor and tan walls. But its not crickets.
“Isn’t he cute,” Michelle Boone says, holding a small, greenish-brown frog in her cupped hands.
Boone, an associate biology professor at Miami University, returns the months-old amphibian back to its habitat – a 1,000-milliliter beaker layered with gravel, dirt to burrow and leaves. There is a small water dish and a mesh top secured with a rubber band. It is among a sea of beakers just like it, all housing a single Acris blanchardi, or cricket frog.
Not only do the frogs mimic the sound of a cricket but it is also their favorite snack. Among all the frogs in Boone’s laboratory, about 14,000 crickets are consumed each week.
“It’s like a family of 10 grocery bill,” says Boone.
It’s true she appears out of place amid the laboratory’s sterile setting. The typical white coat is replaced with a relaxed, gingham button-down, cropped khakis and a charm necklace with a pendant of the Mona Lisa and another that says, “Smile.”
“Amphibians matter,” says Boone.
They are very abundant in many ecosystems, Boone explains, outweighing the mass of mammals. They eat things we don’t like – mosquitos and other flying insects. Tadpoles also feed on algae and improve water quality in the same meal.
Before Boone got involved with her current research in amphibian conservation, she interned with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., following her graduation from Furman University. Her main task was building metal walls for salamander experiments.
“I sucked,” says Boone, laughing.
But, according to Boone, this was her first time learning how to do science.
Her love of amphibians also allowed her to do research for the government. But the demanding 40-plus-hour workweeks lead her to dream for something bigger – her own research laboratory. After earning a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Missouri in 2000, that is exactly what Boone did.
“Did you show them the graveyard?” asks Boone’s graduate research assistant, Tyler Hoskins.
The cardboard graveyard holds about 100-vialed souls of cricket frogs suspended in a green preservative. All victims from experiments past.
“Many of the amphibians are popcorn for the habitat,” says Boone. They make a tasty treat for birds, foxes and raccoons up the food web.
But they help us, too. Amphibians are a sensitive indicator of the harmful effects of hormone and pesticide exposure, among other things. Cricket frogs have shown signs of sex reversal from exposure to the hormone, atrazine at levels that are below our drinking water, according to Boone’s research.
“That should be a warning for us,” says Boone. “Because we have gonads.”
Yet, if we continue to build high-rises and frozen yogurt shops instead of parks and golf courses, the frogs will have nowhere to go.
And their cricket-like songs will be silenced for good.
Dr. Boone also has an ecological blog that is both personal and scientific. To learn more about her current projects and research visit: http://tolovewhatismortal.blogspot.com/