Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"Where Have All the Frogs Gone?"

                                                                                                                 May 27, 2015
                    Sydney M. Williams
Notes from Old Lyme
“Where Have All the Frogs Gone?”

“Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.”
                                                                                                                           Pete Seeger
                                                                                                                          “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” 1955

Every spring morning, once the swimming pool has been opened, I clean the filters. Inevitably, there are one or two frogs who wandered into the pool during the night. This is common after a night’s rain lured them on a nocturnal stroll looking for snackable insects. The temptation of cold clear water causes them to hop in. Unfortunately, finding no easy way out, they lose strength and get pulled by the currents into the filters. By the time I get there, most have drowned.

This year there have been no frogs. Not being a herpetologist, or even much of a naturalist, I could think of no reason other than the cold winter, with its heavy blanket of snow, or some fungi that had become rampant. Ignorant of an explanation, I read and contacted some experts. Frogs are amphibious, meaning they can live on both land and water. The cold winter should not have affected them, as frogs are ectothermic, meaning they rely on the environment to regulate their body temperatures. They also survive long periods without eating. In the winter, frogs find a cozy place known as a hibernaculum that protects them from extreme temperature changes, as well as from predators. It is only when their resting spot warms above freezing that the frog body thaws. He awakens, ready to eat and to mate.

The males emerge harrumphing, uttering mating calls, a sound with which those of us who live in the country are familiar. For the females that respond, their burden – after a few moments of delight – has just begun. She typically lays around 10,000 eggs, making my mother who raised nine children look like a piker. She lays such a large number because the odds on survival in this Darwinian world are small. (I wonder if my mother had similar thoughts?) Within a few weeks, the eggs that survive become tadpoles. In two to three months, tadpoles become small frogs. Life expectancy varies by species, but generally lasts between six to eight years.

Writing about frogs got me reflecting on the extraordinariness of nature and the interdependency of all species. Frogs, for example, are pretty far down the food chain. Like most people, I marvel and seek to understand what I understand least. Ospreys, one of nature’s most beautiful birds, have returned in abundance to the marshlands at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Dr. Paul Spitzer, a naturalist who grew up in this area, explained that their return is due to the Menhaden, which has resurged. The Menhaden is a foraging fish often used as fertilizer or crab and lobster bait by humans, but found especially tasty by Ospreys. In this “knee-bone connected to the leg bone” world of nature, the Menhaden’s return is due to Plankton, which grows in abundance in our creeks, and to the fear of Bluefish, Striped Bass and other predators that inhabit the Sound. The Osprey’s real name, for even those who are not interested, is Pandion Haliaetus, which derives from Pandion, a mythical king of Athens and haliaetus, which means a sea eagle. To watch them soar and then dive, talons poised for a fish having no idea that his life is about to end, is a beautiful sight to see – except, of course, for the fish. No matter, the Osprey is worthy of such a distinguished name.

While Osprey feast on fish, their feathered friends, seagulls and hawks have been known to toss down a frog or two. So frogs, when not drowning in my pool, play a critical link in the food chain among shore birds in our marshes. Typically, frogs eat insects, ridding us of natural pests. Having no teeth, they swallow whole whatever they have engorged. In turn, they are also eaten by fox (one of whom lives under our hedge) and swallowed whole by various snakes that slither about.

Living at the mouth of the Connecticut River is an extraordinary blessing. The marsh and the creeks that abut it, with the River and Sound a short swim or kayak ride away, are abundant with life. The estuary is one of the Western Hemisphere’s “40 Last Great Places;” so proclaimed the Nature Conservancy.

But to return to my concern about frogs: There are, from what I have learned, eleven species living in Connecticut. Among those that have found their way into my pool and its filters have been Wood Frogs, Pickerels and Bull Frogs, but most commonly Green Frogs, or at least that is what I believe from looking at pictures in the “Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians” by Roger Conant.

Like the flowers that Pete Seeger wrote and sang about, frogs die, as do all living things. Not only the individual, but also, over varying periods of time, the species. “The history of life,” wrote Evolutionary Ecologist James P. Collins in 2004, “is a story of extinction: ninety-nine percent of the species that ever existed are now extinct.” Regardless of what actions we may take, the same fate ultimately will be mankinds. We do what we can to survive – we try to limit our impact – but eventually nature wins. Its forces exceed anything man has devised.


In the meantime, however, I was happy to hear from Gregory Watkins-Colwell, collections manager for Herpetology and Ichthyology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. In response to my question about no frogs appearing in my pool, he told me that the cold winter had delayed their regeneration and mating. He added that a dry spring meant fewer nocturnal wanderings. He assured me they would show up. Wait, he said, for a morning after a good night of soaking rain. It hasn’t rained, but I remain vigilant and hopeful. 

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