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Big data may be a key to saving California's state amphibian - the red-legged frog landed on the endangered species list in the threatened category after it was overhunted for its legs and lost much of its habitat to development. Sam Harnett headed out into a swamp to see how a scientist and a tech company are working together to try to keep the frog population afloat.
SAM HARNETT, BYLINE: The sun has just set over a swamp east of Santa Cruz, Calif. Gary Kittleson is putting on a headlamp and waders.
GARY KITTLESON: Cabela's waders.
HARNETT: Kittleson is an environmental consultant, and he's searching for red-legged frogs. Some years, he says, he'd be ecstatic to find just one or two This marshland is called the Watsonville Slough, and it's vital habitat for red-legged frogs. A local land trust hired Kittleson to count them so it could determine whether the population is growing or shrinking. It's no easy task.
KITTLESON: So watch your step.
HARNETT: Kittleson has to spot frogs in thick brush and pick out their low calls from all the high-pitched chorus frogs.
(SOUNDBITE OF FROGS CHIRPING)
HARNETT: Mere mortals like us wouldn't be able to do it, but Kittleson can hear red-legged frogs even while he's talking.
KITTLESON: They've become the most consistent red-legged - I've just heard a red-legged frog.
HARNETT: Kittleson cocks his head to listen.
KITTLESON: And because I was talking it probably is going to stop.
HARNETT: (Laughter) I can't believe you heard that (laughter).
HARNETT: It was, like, midsentence.
KITTLESON: Yeah, so - but it was that chuck, chuck, chuck.
KITTLESON: So three - it was three pulses.
HARNETT: Kittleson is so good at this his nephews call him the frog whisperer. This is the old way of counting animals. It requires a lot of time and manpower. And you only get a tiny slice of data because a guy like Kittleson can only stand out in the swamp for so long. This is why the land trust is partnering with Conservation Metrics. With Kittleson's help, the company has put up song meters. They're these little green boxes with microphones that record all night and capture everything.
KITTLESON: There's the song meter, mounted on fence posts. It's recording us now.
HARNETT: Conservation Metrics employees load the recordings into a computer. Then they write algorithms that comb through the hours of audio to find the red-legged frog calls. CEO Matthew McKown says what would normally take an whole team of field biologists can now be done by one person and a computer.
MATTHEW MCKOWN: Our whole point is to make conservation better, so we are trying to make it as cheap as possible.
HARNETT: McKown founded Conservation Metrics three years ago. He says big data is a the tool in conservation to study endangered animals and threatened habitats.
MCKOWN: What you're going to start having is cameras, acoustic sensors, satellites trained on these important parts of the world.
HARNETT: Back at the Watsonville Slough, night has fallen. Kittleson is waste deep in swamp water. He's shining his headlamp around the pond, looking for the glare of frog eyes. And then he spots one.
KITTLESON: Beautiful adult red-legged frog.
HARNETT: It's sitting on a log floating by the water's edge. Kittleson isn't optimistic about the future of this little guy's species. But he says the only way to know if conservation efforts are helping is good data.
(SOUNDBITE OF FROGS CHIRPING)
HARNETT: For NPR News, I'm Sam Harnett in Watsonville, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FROGGIE WENT A COURTIN'")
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Mr. Froggy went a-courtin' and he did ride, uh-huh. Mr. Froggy went a-courtin' and he did ride, uh-huh. Froggy went a-courtin' and he did ride, a sword and pistol by his side, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. He went down to Miss Mousie's door, uh-huh. He went down to Miss Mousie's door, uh-huh. He went down to Miss Mousie's door...
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