The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs

What You Need


  • Classroom copies of The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs, by Sandra Markle.
The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs


To develop an understanding of scientific research and environmental conservation by examining the work of scientists involved in studying and trying to save the Panamanian golden frogs.


This lesson is based on the book The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs: A Scientific Mystery, written by Sandra Markle, which is one of the winners of the 2012 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

While student investigations ought to constitute a significant part of their scientific experience, it is not possible for students to discover all the concepts they need to learn, or to observe all of the phenomena they need to encounter, solely through their own laboratory investigations. It is important to back up such experience with selected readings that introduce stories of scientists—of different backgrounds, ages, cultures, places, and times—making discoveries.

The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs follows biologist Karen Lips as she struggles relentlessly to solve the mystery of what is causing the disappearance of the Panamanian golden frog. When she runs into roadblocks, she starts looking in other directions. She enlists the aid of Joyce Longcore, an expert on aquatic fungi, who could possibly hold the key to the mystery. Author Markle doesn’t focus on just one scientist and her work. Instead, she demonstrates how one person's findings spark others to advance the science, and how each uses his or her own expertise and knowledge to contribute to the next vital step in the ongoing process.

Students commonly view scientific work as something performed in laboratories by scientists in lab coats. The book shows how scientists not only conduct experiments in the laboratory, but also work outdoors in the field making observations and collecting specimens.

Students should have some prerequisite knowledge of ecology and environmental concepts for this lesson, which should be reviewed briefly before beginning. The key concepts that should be covered include the definitions of habitat, ecosystem, population, species, pollution, and conservation. Review with students the distinguishing characteristics of amphibians in the Motivation section.

In this lesson, students will answer questions to help solve The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs. They will discover that it took many different kinds of researchers to solve the mystery. Going further, they can learn more about frogs in their local area and share their data with others on the Internet.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
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Planning Ahead

In advance of the lesson, you may want to review the life cycles of amphibians and the key concepts in ecology (habitat, ecosystem, population, species, pollution, and conservation).


To fully comprehend the challenges faced by the golden frogs, it is important that students understand the life cycle of a frog. Students should go through the Frog Life Cycle slide show on the Vanishing Golden Frogs student esheet and review the process of metamorphosis. Once students have had a chance to look at the slide show, you should ask them comprehension questions like these (students can record their answers on the Vanishing Golden Frogs student sheet):

  • How do frogs begin their life cycles?
      (They begin their life cycles in a mass of soft, jelly-coated eggs that stick to plants in water.)
  • What type of living thing is a frog?
      (A frog is an amphibian.)
  • What do the eggs hatch into?
      (They hatch into tadpoles.)
  • What is the next stage that they go through?
      (The tadpoles sprout legs and their tails become smaller. They also develop lungs so they can breathe out of water. They become young frogs.)
  • What happens to the young frogs if they survive?
        (They become full grown frogs.)

Next, engage students in a class discussion about the importance of environmental conservation and the nature of scientific inquiry by directing them to the esheet and having them watch two online videos:

As students watch these interviews, they should think about their answers to the questions on the esheet. They can record their answers on the student sheet. Answers are provided on the Vanishing Golden Frogs teacher sheet.


This part of the lesson focuses on Sandra Markle’s book The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs, engaging students to think more deeply about scientific inquiry, environmental conservation, and the importance of all animals in an ecosystem.

The book follows biologist Karen Lips as she struggles to solve the mystery of what is causing the disappearance of the Panamanian golden frog. As students read The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs, they will learn how a scientist performs an investigation to solve a problem and see that sometimes an investigation is successful only by involving different scientists who are experts in different fields. Students will put themselves in the place of Dr. Lips to solve the mystery, using the Help Solve the Case student sheet. (The activity is adapted from Sandra Markle’s blog Write On!) You can find answers to the questions on the Help Solve the Case teacher sheet.

Explain to students that the purpose of this activity is for them to understand that scientific investigations involve collecting evidence, using logical reasoning, and applying imagination to come up with hypotheses and explanations for collected evidence. Emphasize that hypotheses have value even if they turn out to be incorrect. Additionally, as demonstrated in the book, they will discover that different problems require different kinds of scientific methodology, including collecting specimens, evaluating environmental conditions, experimenting in the laboratory, and communicating with other scientists for their expertise.

After students complete the book part of the lesson, expand the lesson by discussing citizen science with them. Explain that citizen science refers to research collaborations between scientists and volunteers. Volunteers help scientists by collecting data, and at the same time citizen volunteers gain access to scientific information that may affect their communities. Citizen science programs support research questions that are long-term and/or large-scale in nature and that require significantly more data than a single researcher or small research team could compile. As the pace of large-scale ecosystem change increases, data collected by citizen scientists will continue to grow in importance.

To do this part of the lesson, students can get involved through the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Watch site. (There is a Frogwatch program run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums but it requires special training to be able to identify the different sounds made by frogs.) Students should use their student esheet to go to Wildlife Watch resources to get more information about the types of frogs that live in their area and to learn how to use the site before they go outside to look for frogs.

Once students have learned more about the frogs in their area, assign them the task of looking for frogs in the school yard, their backyards,  or nearby parks. They can use the Vanishing Golden Frogs: Find Out More student sheet to help guide them in their research and to learn more about frogs and toads in their area, share that knowledge with others, and discover ways to save frogs.

Once students have had a chance to look for frogs, and if they are successful in identifying some in their area, they should go to the Wildlife Watch site to add the information to the site's database. Before students do this part of the lesson, you may want to be sure to get permission from their parents first, depending on your school's policy about students' use of the Internet.


Students should gain an understanding that scientific research entails using varied techniques to gather data and solve problems, and that open communication among scientists worldwide is important for protecting animals and ecosystems. They should begin to understand the role that citizen scientists can play in helping further scientific research. The student activity based on the reading should help you assess student understanding of the scientific process for discovering what was killing the frogs.

To further assess student understanding, ask students to come up with two possibilities for making frogs safe from the chytrid fungus in the wild. They should state why these ideas might work and suggest any possible reasons these ideas might not work.


These Science NetLinks lessons could be used as extensions:

Students can explore these websites for more information on the Panamanian golden frog and the Bd fungus:

Students could explore these other mystery-based science lessons:

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards