Discovering a Fantasyland in the Back Hills—The World of Frogs Educational Website

Discovering a Fantasyland in the Back Hills—The World of Frogs Educational Website

Article by Zheng Yaqi

Photography by Yang Zhi-xiong

Once an unprepossessing species in nature, frogs have now taken a lead role in cyberspace. Their images and sounds have become the focus of appreciation to the point that a group of frog enthusiasts now seeks to follow their tracks all around the island of Taiwan. 

“Chirp, chirp…”

As the twitter of birds greets the ears, one should listen attentively to be sure if it is really coming from a bird. Perking up the ears to listen again, one then realizes what that sound is. The bird sound is just a trick, and is in fact the croaking of Swinhoe's frog. Such a curious sound comes neither from the mountains nor from the valleys, but rather from The World of Frogs, an educational website established by Yang Yiru, associate professor and director of the Graduate Institute of Ecology and Environmental Education at National Dong Hwa University. 

As an undergraduate, Yang studied at the Department of Zoology at National Taiwan University, and for a time envisioned a future career as a veterinarian. However, a turning point came when she met a professor specializing in amphibious animals who initiated her to the world of amphibians. The professor’s instruction not only reminded her of the numerous frogs she spotted as a youth near her home, but also inspired her to take the plunge into the fascinating realm of frog studies. Since then, she has formed an everlasting interest in frogs. 


White-lipped tree frog (Polypedates megacephalus).

Photography by Li Pengxiang / Picture from The World of Frogs


From Meager Beginnings—The Birth of a Small Database

In addition to focusing on academic research, Yang shows a keen interest in surveying the habitats and behaviors of frogs. This interest stems from her belief that there is more to frog research than building an understanding of their habitats. To prevent the extinction of frogs, it is vital to avoid habitat destruction. Thus Yang takes frequent jaunts into potential frog habitats accompanied by her husband serving as photographer, and records sightings and observations along the way. In dribs and drabs they have accumulated a small collection of data.


Recent years have seen a global decline in the number of frogs due to destruction of their habitats, climate change, pollution, invasion of foreign species, disease epidemics, and commercial exploitation. Disconcerted by the fact that frogs in Taiwan are hopping toward extinction, Yang has been actively raising public awareness of ecological protection. The first step she took was publishing her debut book entitled A Field Guide to the Frogs and Toads of Taiwan. Yang was somewhat surprised when the publisher requested she write a book on frogs. After all, frogs only take up a small part of the natural world. How many people are willing to learn more about frogs? “To what extent can a book on a subject that presumably appeals to a small number of readers find resonance with a wider readership?” she wondered. 


Her hesitation notwithstanding, Yang was driven by a simple belief that circulation of books among the general public would increase their knowledge of frogs in Taiwan and perhaps of the island as well. Contrary to expectations, her debut became a bestseller. Spurred by this premiere success and her love for frogs, Yang went on to write several more frog-related books, including Frogs: Visiting the Amphibians of Yangmingshan National Park, Frogs in Hualien, and Croaking Frogs. Meanwhile, she kept researching frogs and updating her database. In so doing, Yang hoped to provide more comprehensive information on frogs for all frog lovers.


Froghome: It All Started With A Desire To Share

For Yang, publishing is a form of information sharing; everyone should be able to access accurate information derived from the research and surveys undertaken by experts. However, she wondered if there was a free and more convenient way to achieve the same effect. Aware of the far-reaching influence of the internet, Yang decided to ride the wave of technology; in February 1999, she set up Yang Yiru’s Frog Site. On this website, Yang shared the large amount of text and pictures she had accumulated over the years with online users, and hence became known as ‘The Frog Princess’ among frog lovers. 


As more and more people showed concern for Taiwan’s environment, Yang Yiru’s Frog Site became increasingly popular. This site not only provided a platform for cooperative learning and information exchange, but also served as an online hub for rallying frog lovers.  


In 2002, Yang Yiru’s Frog Site evolved into The Frog School. This major upgrade to her site, and the further updates that followed, signaled progressive improvements. Inspired by the constant flow of encouraging suggestions from frog lovers, Yang set higher standards for the quality of website content. If users reported problems with picture quality, Yang would make adjustments to her photographic equipment and techniques. If the recording of frogs’ croaking was unclear, some users would directly offer solutions for improving recording quality. In July 2007, Yang’s frog kingdom in cyberspace became even mightier when she founded Discovering the Back Hills—The World of Frogs Educational Website, a project sponsored by the National Science Council.


Digital Archival – Education Becomes an Important Link

Her website having entered the digital archiving phase, Yang organized a specialized team to provide her with the steadfast support she needed to tackle the new challenges. Her team, after learning the concepts and techniques of digital archival, had made significant progress with respect to image processing, sound quality control, and website construction. As a result, the research materials on the website met the demands of the digital archive in terms of quality and archival value. In the course of using the digital archiving system, Yang also found many useful online resources and public platforms for sharing information—Google Earth being an excellent example. 


Google Earth integrates satellite imagery, aerial photography, and topological map information to provide a 3D view of our globe, which permits users to examine every corner of the globe. From 2001 onwards, each of Yang’s research data entries has included the GPS coordinates of the surveyed areas. Once marked on Google Earth, all details of research data such as the data distribution, the quantity of data preserved in different counties, and the distribution of frog species are clearly shown on the maps. Eventually, Yang’s discovery of Google Earth motivated her to set a new goal for herself: develop more free platforms for sharing research data that could be widely applied in various disciplines and industries. 


Regarding website content, Yang decided to make education an integral part of The World of Frogs because its predecessor, Yang Yiru’s Frog Site, benefited children a lot in terms of improving their knowledge of ecology. Now the website provides specific teaching plans that satisfy the needs of elementary school students in different grades. These teaching plans, carefully mapped out by Yang’s team, can be directly downloaded from the website. Teachers may use these teaching plans as the basis for increasing students’ knowledge about frogs, which can in turn let students get the best use out of The World of Frogs.


Enthusiastic Volunteers—Major Contributors to the Success of the Website

Since its inception, Yang Yiru’s Frog Site has offered a platform for sharing information and advice to frog lovers who had similar interests and were keen to protect the environment. Under Yang’s well organized training and planning, these frog enthusiasts have now become volunteers for amphibian research. Some of them are educators, others are public servants, and still others work in the private sector. These volunteers, without a doubt, are some of the key contributors responsible for The World of Frogs becoming part of the Digital Archive. 


Since 2003, Yang has given priority to promotion of volunteer work. She started the Taiwan Amphibian Research Volunteer Training Program, which takes place in a wide area extending from Taoyuan to Hualien and Taitung, Chiayi and Tainan, as well as north Taiwan and the Pingtung region. By 2008, amphibian research volunteers had become ubiquitous on the island.


To avoid data loss and facilitate the compilation of statistics, Yang designed a standardized chart for volunteers to fill out. On the chart, volunteers must jot down GPS coordinates, temperatures, and relative humidity of the target area. Therefore, when carrying out surveys, volunteers must bring a GPS positioning device, a thermometer, and a hygrometer with them in order to record the things they observe in detail. After training, volunteers can count on their eyes and ears to decide on the species, quantities, and behaviors of frogs. Also, they can produce a faithful record of a frog habitat, which enhances the accuracy of stored data. 


Volunteers who assist with ecological monitoring are divided into group volunteers and ordinary volunteers. Group volunteers are usually seasoned frog lovers, who conduct surveys in groups. They monitor frogs on a seasonal basis and then report the species and quantities of frogs and any changes they notice in frog habitats back to Yang’s team. Such information, in turn, becomes the best material for The World of Frogs. Ordinary volunteers, on the other hand, accumulate work experience by performing sporadic monitoring. They also contribute substantially to the website. 


The great devotion these enthusiastic volunteers have impressed Yang immensely. For example, a senior volunteer once spotted farmland tree frogs (Rhacophorus arvalis) in northern Taiwan. This came as a surprising discovery because farmland tree frogs are normally found in the southern counties of Taiwan, including Yunlin, Chiayi, and Tainan. After further confirmation with this volunteer, Yang eventually affirmed that those frogs were indeed farmland tree frogs, which might have been brought to northern Taiwan by humans. Yang further requested the volunteer to conduct continued monitoring to detect any change in frog population and habitat range. Fortunately, under close surveillance, the farmland tree frogs did not proliferate in northern Taiwan. Because of the meticulous care of one volunteer, a possible ecological disaster may have been averted. How could Yang not be tremendously moved?


By using a GPS positioning device, one can verify the distribution of frog population and conduct better monitoring.


Working Weekends – Nonstop Expansion

Through untiring collaboration between Yang’s team and the volunteers, The World of Frogs has become a brilliant success. Despite the success, Yang still hopes that this educational website can reach out to an even wider audience. In the beginning, she started her promotional tour at the elementary schools in Hualien, where she held a number of seminars aimed at teachers. Next, she and her team made their way to other areas such as Yilan, Taitung, Taipei and Pingtung to continue their promotions; eventually, their footprints spread across Taiwan. In each of Yang’s seminars, at least thirty minutes are set aside at the end of her lecture to promote The World of Frogs and encourage the audience to visit it. To increase promotional opportunities, Yang would actively send seminar-related information to schools she has not yet visited written in the form of official documents. She hopes that sometime in the future school textbooks can provide information about The World of Frogs, making this excellent website even more accessible to students and parents. 


Aside from the teacher seminars, workshops are held to attract children, parents, volunteers, and people from all walks of life to the study of amphibians. For these workshop participants, The World of Frogs becomes the best teaching material. One can gain a comprehensive knowledge of frogs and put it into practice in the field when studying frogs. After the workshop activities, those who are interested in frogs can log on to the website where they can study or practice by themselves, and post and answer questions. Therefore, the website forum often gets lively discussions coming from all areas. 


As “The Frog Princess,” Yang has a professional background which earns her speaking invitations from many ecological institutes and foundations. During her lectures, she takes every opportunity to introduce The World of Frogs. Besides her profession as a teacher, these lectures and teacher seminars occupy the better part of her time. No matter how far away the destination or what the travel costs, Yang and her team jump on every chance to promote digital archiving and the use of digital resources across Taiwan. 


Wide Viewership Even Benefits B&B Proprietors 

Under the guidance of the National Science Council and with Yang’s active promotion, The World of Frogs has attracted many people to tap into the digital archive on the website. Users who visit the site are mainly frog enthusiasts; however, as they come from a broad range of professional backgrounds, The World of Frogs user base has become more and more diverse.


A case in point is San Fu Garden and Resort located in Yilan, a farm which occupies 14 hectares of land. This farm has operated a non-toxic, pesticide- and herbicide-free, sustainable gardening business for over ten years. One of its proprietors, Xu Benyu, stumbled upon Yang’s website while searching for frog-related information on the web. Since then, Xu has exchanged information with other frog enthusiasts on the website and learned more about frogs. In the course of time Xu has become a member of the volunteer group, using his San Fu Garden and Resort as a monitoring station, and reporting his findings on a seasonal basis. 


According to Xu, The World of Frogs provides a learning-oriented platform for beginners who want to know about frogs in Taiwan. Its digital archive has the most comprehensive information for helping users differentiate frog species. By using this website, one can observe the physical features of frogs, and even hear the vocal sounds produced by 32 frogs native to Taiwan. Additionally, after reading all the digital materials, beginners can evaluate their learning by playing interactive games on the website. These games test users’ ability to identify frog species and prepare them for conducting fieldwork. 


However, the digital archive on The World of Frogs does not merely help users to distinguish frogs in Taiwan; educating people to recognize frogs is just the start. Hopefully this knowledge might also inspire them to take action to protect frogs and their habitats. The tour guides working in San Fu Garden and Resort also take advantage of the archive. They pore over the archived information, pass down their acquired knowledge to tourists, exposing them to the wealth of frog resources in Taiwan. 


Moreover, under the careful maintenance of the operators, the clear descriptions of the habitats of frogs found on The World of Frogs have proven to contain many useful tips for operating San Fu Garden and Resort. Therefore, eco-friendly improvements can be seen everywhere on the farm. By adopting measures that ensure the integrity of the food chain, the farm has succeeded in making all living things grow and reproduce naturally. As a result, frogs begin to congregate, clean water leads to the success of firefly conservation, and butterflies can be found everywhere in the garden. 


With the help of tour guides, the archived digital content found on The World of Frogs is now made visible to people from all over the country and even to tourists from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. A thorough knowledge of frog habitation will make people better cherish and care for frogs and their habitats in Taiwan. 


An Eiffinger's Tree Frog (Chirixalus eiffingeri) guarding its eggs.

(Photography by Li Pengxiang / Picture from The World of Frogs)


Environmental Education Arouses Respect for Life

Aside from frog-loving B&B proprietors like Xu whose ecological tours include data from the digital archive, many environmental education teachers from national parks in Taiwan conduct their own online learning by working through the e-learning tutorials on The World of Frogs. Afterwards, they continue monitoring frogs at the national parks and compare their results with the content on the educational website. These teachers not only photograph frogs, record their sounds and make handmade frog illustrations but also seek professional guidance at Yang’s seminars on amphibians. After the seminars, they share what they have learned with tourists visiting the national parks and thereby spread the digital archive content far and wide. 


There was also a housewife without any ecological background who, to share learning with her child, used her spare time to collect ecological data and in the process started using The World of Frogs. Before long she was transformed from a layperson into an expert on amphibians. While on a family tour, she and her child observed frogs living in ponds and gutters. Once her husband and child caught a ‘fish’ and gleefully brought it to her. Upon seeing it she could not help breaking into wild laughter because she knew what they had caught was an amphibian that would grow legs a few days later! She was glad to pass on her ecological knowledge to her child in a fun, hands-on way. In this way, children can enjoy learning and become aware of the intrinsic worth of all living creatures and develop a respect for life.


Another example worth mentioning is that of an engineer who chanced upon a frog living in the ecological pond owned by his company. This encounter sparked his desire to learn more about frogs, so he conducted searches on the internet until he came across The World of Frogs. There he found the correct name of the frog he had shared time with that memorable afternoon—a Japanese tree frog. Since then, he has paid more attention to his surroundings. Whenever he spots frogs, he will log on to The World of Frogs to look for information about his sightings.


Otherwise, most users visiting this website are teachers. This is because they are drawn by one of the important features of The World of Frogs—example of teaching plans. When educating students on ecological issues, they use the course development units on the website to seek teaching plans that suit the level of their elementary school students. These teaching plans help teachers introduce the frogs in Taiwan to students in the shortest time possible. Therefore, the website has attracted many teachers. Some teachers even modified the teaching plans to suit the ecological features of their school environment and then uploaded their reworked plans onto the site for others to use. 


Two examples serve well to illustrate teachers’ efforts: Jiang Sujuan used the digital learning CD to educate her third-grade students about frogs; Wu Qizhou at Ming Lien Elementary School in Hualien used the digital archive resources to develop a teaching plan composed of four units covering 18 class periods. Mr. Wu brings ecological knowledge and the concept of ecological conservation to his fifth-grade students through the use of his unique teaching plan that incorporates in-class lecturing, digital teaching, and activities outside the classroom. His teaching plans are now available to all teachers via The World of Frogs.


“Dancing Fireflies and Croaking Frogs” has been one of the featured educational and entertainment events targeted at teenagers held annually by Taoyuan County over the years. Bai-Ji Elementary School has earned the right to host the event for many years, not only because its school environment is noted for its ecological importance but because their use of The World of Frogs has greatly facilitated this annual event. Wu Guozhen and Li Youshan, two teachers from Bai-Ji Elementary School, pointed out that the digital archive on The World of Frogs opened their eyes to the rich ecological life in their environment. By capitalizing on digital archive resources, members of the ecological group at the school enrich their knowledge and bring increased exposure of frogs to their young students. In so doing, ecological education can be thoroughly implemented. 


Through Yang and her team’s hard work, The World of Frogs is now reaping the fruits of their long-term efforts, as can be best proven by its wide usership. Regarding the future development of the website, Yang aims to go on promoting the concepts of free access, resource sharing, and circulation, and improving exchange on this open platform that is so conducive to the circulation of shared knowledge. 


Therefore, Yang will continue to offer training sessions for volunteers and teachers, and on-line courses for the general public so the various resources on The World of Frogs can be widely applied. These resources will initiate people to the world of frogs, enhance their appreciation of frogs, encourage the promotion of frog conservation through ecological education, and assist in monitoring the environment in Taiwan. Although The World of Frogs is a virtual fantasyland, what has been archived therein is a collection of raw data coming from the real mountains of eastern Taiwan. By working hand in hand with every volunteer participant, this educational website is moving in a direction which hopes to turn Taiwan into an ecological kingdom. 


During a nocturnal investigation, volunteers conduct monitoring of frogs in pitch-black darkness. Their findings not only enrich the digital archive but also enhance the credibility of the archived content on The World of Frogs.


Character Profile: The Frog Princess Works Her Magic on Ecological Education

Yang Yiru, hailed as The Frog Princess, has a great passion for frogs. During her university years, a course on amphibians inspired her to start down the path of frog research. After her graduation from the Department of Zoology at National Taiwan University, she entered the Graduate School of Zoology at National Taiwan University to further her studies. Her master thesis was entitled The Reproductive Behavior of Rhacophorus taipeianus. Her postgraduate research into Taipei tree frogs kindled her interest in their DNA, which then became the focus of her doctoral studies. Her doctoral dissertation was titled, Reproductive Ecology and Population Genetic Structure of Taipei Treefrog (Rhacophorus taipeianus).

Frogs were both Yang’s childhood playmates and the object of ardent research during her student years. Theory and practice are like two parallel lines that seem to never cross, and yet Yang has been able to move freely between the two with great ease. To ensure the longevity of her beloved frogs in Taiwan, the Frog Princess, an expert in both ecological conservation and environmental education, has been making untiring efforts to raise people’s awareness and respect for ecology and life. 


Yang Yiru


The Team Behind The World of Frogs

The World of Frogs, subsidized by the National Science Council, was set up in 2007 and is now entering the second year of the subsidized project. The team behind it is headquartered in Hualien and has 13 members. The director of the project is Yang Yiru, associate professor and director of the Graduate Institute of Ecology and Environmental Education at National Dong Hwa University. The co-director of the project, Bai Yifang, is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Compulsory Education at National Dong Hwa University. Other members of the team have their unique individual strengths and roles to play. 


The Team behind The World of Frogs.


Postscript on the Digital Archive: Strictly Abiding by the Principles of Digital Archiving, Ensuring Accuracy of Information, and Adopting CC (Creative Commons) Licensing

Ensuring information accuracy is one of the principles Yang Yiru strictly adheres to; she requires that all the information on The World of Frogs be accurate to the utmost degree. Compare to the popular Wikipedia, The World of Frogs also takes in information from users. However, all the content of The World Of Frogs came from  experienced frog surveyors and were carefully screened by Yang’s team. Therefore, users can be assured of the credibility and accuracy of information shown on Yang’s site. 

Yang also puts great emphasis on intellectual property rights. While she embraces the beauty of sharing, she is unwilling to infringe on intellectual property rights. Therefore, The World of Frogs adopts CC (Creative Commons) Licensing so that users can download and use what they need from the website for non-profit ends. It is because of Yang’s concern for intellectual property rights that pictures without clear origins or copyright are nowhere to be found on the website. In this way, users can access its digital content without worrying about copyright infringement. 

※The article is an excerpt from “Collection of Daily Life Works”

Publisher: The Academic and Social Promotions and Applications of Digital Archives and e-Learning Project—Sub-Project II: Academic Applications and the Dissemination of the Cultural Heritage Project