The latest findings of a University of Pittsburgh-based project to determine the environmental impact of routine pesticide use suggests that malathion—the most popular insecticide in the United States—can decimate tadpole populations by altering their food chain, according to research published in the Oct. 1 edition of Ecological Applications.
The doses of malathion in the simulated ponds were too low to directly kill the amphibians, but instead wiped out tiny animals known as zooplankton that eat algae that float in the water. With few zooplankton remaining, the algae, known as phytoplankton, grew rapidly and prevented sunlight from reaching the bottom-dwelling algae, or periphyton, which tadpoles eat. This chain of events occurred over a period of several weeks.
Ultimately, 43 percent of the leopard frog tadpoles did not mature as a result of the repeated application of malathion at very low concentrations. Relyea reported that the multiple low doses were a greater detriment than the single dose, which had a concentration 25-times higher than the multiple applications combined. The single doses also wiped out the zooplankton, but they eventually recovered and the pond reverted back to its original state. The repeated doses prevented the zooplankton from recovering.
"The chain of events caused by malathion deprived a large fraction of the leopard frog tadpoles of the nutrients they needed to metamorphose into adult frogs," Relyea said. "Repeated applications sustained that disruption of the tadpoles' food supply. So, even concentrations that cannot directly kill tadpoles can indirectly kill them in large numbers."