Agnes Lifelong Learning Introducing New Class on the Biology of Amphibians

Through the Agnes Engaged program, Agnes Scott opens its campus to a different kind of learner: adults who want to expand their knowledge. Non-credit Lifelong Learning courses are offered in business, lifestyle topics, the arts, science and many more.

This spring, we’re introducing the course The Biology of Amphibians taught by amphibian expert Mark Mandica. Learn more about the course and the fascinating world of amphibians in the interview with Mark below.

Tell us a bit about the class. Who is this class for? What will students learn?
Basically in Biology of Amphibians we talk about what makes an amphibian an amphibian, and then learn about the various types of amphibians and how they relate to each other.

We jump right in with what would be an upper level undergraduate course if it were offered at a college, but few colleges offer a course like this. I would not discourage anyone with an interest to take the course, but it would be helpful to have at least a basic level understanding of biology.

It is eight weeks, three hours each and two lectures per class, so it is not short, but it’s fun. There’s no test, so no pressure—although I might create an optional one eventually. We’re also going to try to get outside a couple times for field trips.

Mark Mandica searching for newts.Have you taught a class like this before?
No. Years ago I was asked to teach a course for the Duke Talent Identification Program. It was taught outdoors because there was an ephemeral wetland on the campus where I was working. The kids had never been taught material like this before, but they soaked it up. This course at Agnes Scott is the only time that I’ve done anything similar.

How did this class come about?
One of the other Lifelong Learning professors heard me give a lecture for the Atlanta Science Tavern which is a monthly meet up for science enthusiast at Manuel’s Tavern. I gave a talk on Atlanta’s amphibians and shortly after I heard from Agnes Scott. I was asked if I thought there was enough material to do an entire course on amphibians, and I said to actually do it properly it would need to be a two-part course. This part is biology and taxonomy. The next course, if this one is a success, will be ecology and conservation.

Why don’t many universities offer a course like this?
In my experience, most universities are focusing less and less on organismal biology. Not every university even has a herpetology class, which lumps amphibians and reptiles together, let alone a course just on amphibians.

I think there is also more money in careers focused on molecular techniques and developmental biology. A lot of universities are leaning toward that type of biology in the last ten years or so. Courses that focus on evolution, organismal biology and natural history, are the types of things that are becoming harder and harder to find. I’ve actually never seen a course just devoted to amphibians before, so I’m very excited to be teaching this. 

Crystal and Mark MandicaTell us a little about your educational and professional background.
I grew up in New Jersey where there were no toads or frogs because of human development, but I’ve always loved amphibians. I loved them to the point where I’d get little frog toys when I was young. For my undergraduate I went to the University of Massachusetts. There are fantastic amphibians up there, so I seized every opportunity to do field work and I was able to generate an undergrad thesis on them. I then went to grad school at the University of Miami where I was freer to focus specifically on my interests. I was very fortunate to have advisors that supported my focus on amphibians.

Professionally, I worked at the American Museum in New York. I loved it there; it’s the greatest museum around, but I wasn’t much of a New York City-living person. The Atlanta Botanical Garden brought me to Atlanta where I managed their former amphibian conservation program there for seven years. When they decided to discontinue at least part of their program, that’s when we decided to start the Amphibian Foundation.

Talk a little more about the Amphibian Foundation.
We are an Atlanta-based amphibian conservation nonprofit. We started about a year and half ago and really hit the ground running due to federal and state support that focuses on endangered species of the southeast. We have captive breeding populations of four of the most endangered amphibians that are producing offspring to be released into productive managed habitats.

My wife, Crystal Mandica, is a co-founder and she focuses on educational programming for mostly high school age and younger kids. We’re trying to develop a model where we can provide this exceptional educational programming and use it to raise our own funds.

What is a project that really exemplifies the work of the Amphibian Foundation?
The first project we ever focused on was the frosted flatwood salamander. They are gorgeous, but unfortunately already extinct in South Carolina and there is only one wetland in the state of Georgia that is known to have them. It is in Fort Steward military base in southeastern Georgia. We’ve been sampling the wetlands down there since 2012, but finding very few to none, so this is a species that is right up on the brink. We currently have the world’s only captive population of that species at the Amphibian Foundation, and we’re learning how to breed them. If we’re unsuccessful they’ll certainly go extinct, and if we are successful there is still a lot of problems that need to be addressed before they are released. It is our most sensitive project and because all the eggs are in our basket, there is a lot of pressure.

Frosted flatwoods salamander

What type of amphibians can be found around the Agnes Scott campus?
I haven’t done an extensive survey, but there are some stream salamanders in Shoal Creek which runs right by campus. I’ve also found two-lined salamanders, red salamanders and dusky salamanders.

What about Georgia?
Georgia has five distinctive ecological zones, and the amphibian communities change between each of those. So here in the Piedmont we have about 30 species of amphibians, which is a lot. Georgia is a wonderful place to get involved with amphibians. Atlanta alone has 14 species of native frogs. There are some pretty rare species to the north like the hellbender, which is this continent’s largest salamander. Locals call them snot otters because they live in streams and are big, probably a foot and half long and up to five pounds. They need pristine streams and wetlands, which are becoming harder and harder to find.

What happens if we don’t conserve and protect amphibians?
I first want to mention that conservation efforts need to pair with educational programming because we have to start reaching kids. That’s the only hope we have for conservation. Kids get it and care a lot when you tell them a frog is going extinct.

Through our summer camps and classes we are building an army of amphibian conservationists, while at the same time educating the public about how important amphibians are.

There are three go-to answers to give when explaining the importance of amphibians. The first being that 1,000 frogs eat 5 million bugs a year. That’s a lot of bugs! Atlanta salamanders specialize in eating mosquitos. Very few people want more mosquitos, so we'd better protect amphibians. Second, a lot of wildlife depends on amphibians for food. They either eat the adults, the tadpoles or the eggs. They are right in the middle of the food chain. If I haven’t convinced someone with those two reasons, I’ll talk about how many pharmaceutical compounds have been derived from amphibian skin. They are directly applicable to human health. You have to throw everything at them and see what sticks.