from Collapse, by Brandon Ballengée
pHo TogRApHy By vARvARA MIKuSHKInA, couRTESy of RonAlD fElDMAn fInE ARTS, nEw yoRK
The answer hinges on how rigorously
the artist adheres to the scientific method.
Ballengée’s work with deformed amphibians is a good example. After several years
of collecting and cataloguing specimens
and installing cameras to spy on the underwater world of ponds, Ballengée and Sessions produced their results, published not
only in Ballengée’s catalogue but in the
peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental Zoology. The results might surprise skeptics.
The biologists concluded that the amphibian deformities they found resulted not
from environmental toxins or high levels
of ultraviolet radiation, as hypothesized,
but by aquatic predators snacking on tadpole limb buds, thus causing the frogs to
regrow extra limbs.
“While we agree that chemical pollution
and UV radiation are threats to amphibians
and other organisms,” the authors write,
“current evidence suggests that chemical
pollutants are at best only indirectly involved in deformed amphibians of the kind
we have been studying and UV radiation
may not be a factor at all.” This is the cautious, objective language of science. We
may have partly solved the mystery of the
frogs. But there’s more mystery to unravel.
What’s making the aquatic predators so numerous in recent years? We don’t yet know.
“It seems far more likely that a complete
understanding of the deformed amphibian
phenomenon will depend on additional
information concerning the ecology and
evolution of anuran parasites and their
predators,” write the authors. Couched in a
catalogue filled with haunting images, the
clinical language takes on a new depth. It’s
not just the voice of science but the voice
of the frogs: Keep studying. Go deeper. See
us, the silent forms urge, and continue
the work of understanding the mysterious
world, using all of the modes of knowing
you have at hand.
An Orion contributing editor, Ginger Strand
is the author of Killer on the Road.