The Skin We Live In

Photograph by Nick Garbutt / Nature PL


Words by Willow Defebaugh

It is during our periods of transformation that we often feel the most vulnerable. But vulnerability can be powerful, too.

“To grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

Madeleine L'Engle

Thank you all for the warm welcome back last week. Shortly after publishing that newsletter, I had a cruel encounter with some strangers that left me feeling shaken. I will never understand what makes a human being lash out at another for simply being who they are. I spent the following few days trying to pretend it didn’t affect me, but that didn’t last. In the time since, I have attempted to process it in the best way I know how, by looking for lessons from the natural world—in this case, on vulnerability. In my search, an unexpected teacher leapt out: frogs. 


Frogs are amphibians, a class of animals that has been surviving and diversifying for 370 millions years (for context, Homo sapiens have been around for only 300,000). Despite this, they’re among the most vulnerable today. Half of all amphibian species are at risk of extinction, according to a study from Science (compared to a quarter of mammalian species). They’ve been called canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the climate crisis, because when they’re in peril, it’s an indicator that the ecosystems we share with them are as well. They also have a central place in the food web, meaning that what affects them affects us all.


Frogs are ectotherms, meaning that their body temperatures are determined by their habitats, making them especially susceptible to changes in climate. Phenology (the cycles of life, including breeding) is also a factor in their vulnerability, particularly as it relates to weather instability; a warm period in late winter can cause some species to begin breeding early, only to be killed off by another cold spell. Frogs mirror their environments in the temperatures and timings of their lives—and somehow our species thinks that we are immune?


The metamorphosis these creatures undergo from tadpole to frog—swimming and feeding underwater while limbs grow and gills gradually shrink—is remarkable. And yet it also contributes to their vulnerability. Because they are biphasic, they rely on both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems during the two phases of their life cycles; should anything happen to either, they are put at risk. Humans are not so different; we evolve from one state or place to the next, and it is during our periods of transformation that we often feel the most vulnerable. 


The main reason frogs are so vulnerable, however, is their skin—and a pernicious pathogen that eats away at it. The chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has been heralded as the most destructive pathogen ever known and the main driver of the “amphibian apocalypse.” It is responsible for the decline of 501 species of amphibians, 90 of which have gone extinct. When you consider all the damage Bd has done in just the last five decades—in the context of the 370 million years they have been around—it’s understandable why scientists are alarmed. 


Frogs might be more vulnerable due to their skin, but it’s also incredible. Their skin is permeable, meaning that liquids and gas are able to pass through it. It’s a respiratory organ; they breathe through their skin, both on land and in water (though they need moisture on their skin to do this, again making them dependent on their climate). Many species of frogs also secrete poison through their skin. The golden poison frog is among the most toxic animals on Earth; one individual carries enough venom to kill ten humans. Vulnerability can be powerful, too.


We are also permeable creatures, inarguably impacted by the world around us. In my own biphasic life, I have wished for thicker skin. But as a friend recently reminded me, that’s not who I am. I am a living thing, which means I am vulnerable. If our own pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that no one is truly safe. And our wellbeing is intricately interconnected. Every time we walk out the door, something could happen. We can choose to close ourselves off, or we can stay open—and embrace how miraculous it is, breathing through such sensitive skin.

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