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Part II: Rediscovering the Lowly Frog

Recreated from the Nature Notes (Pg 8) in the January-February 2002 (Vol. 12, No. 2) issue of the Hixon Forest Nature Center Friends Newsletter

   Frogs: In this second installment of herpetological editorials, I'll be discussing critters with which I have a particular affinity: frogs.  As a child, I spent many hours running along riverbanks and tromping through muddy ponds trying to catch frogs.  I'll bet that a lot of kids still engage in such activities.  And how could they resist?  There's something indescribably fascinating about these sleek little animals.  Their shiny bodies.  Their powerful hind legs.  The impossibly large distances they jump to escape tiny hands.

   Eventually, however, the inevitable happened.  Many of us (including myself) came to the age where catching frogs was no longer of any interest.  Time could be better spent at shopping malls, music stores, or with friends, and the lowly frog was all but forgotten.  Now that we've grown up and moved on with our lives, most people probably hardly remember what a frog looks like (let alone are capable of distinguishing one type of frog from another).

   To those of you who have fallen victim to this horrible tragedy, I must make a suggestion: reacquaint yourself with that lowly frog who hops through the marsh or hangs upon your window.  Walk along the La Crosse River Marsh trails on a warm spring night and hear the thousands of them calling out through the dark.  Remember the joy these little critters brought you in your youth.

    In the state of Wisconsin, there are nine species of common frogs, one species of common toad, and one species of rare frog.  These amazing animals are found virtually everywhere, including; marsh, pond, prairie, forest and all places in between.  Unfortunately, most people, even those who consider themselves the outdoors type, probably don't even know that they exist.

   Because of their characteristic songs, frogs and toads need not be seen to be identified.  Chances are you've heard frog calls many times, but mistook them for something else.  For example, the tiny chorus frog, with its rhythmic clicking voice that resembles a fingernail running up the teeth of a comb, is often thought to be a cricket.  Even the spring peeper, whose little peeps fill the air at a deadening volume on spring evenings, is many times believed to be an insect of some sort.  How disrespectful we've become become to these little amphibians!  How little we know about them!  If we cannot first recognize them, how can we hope to understand and conserve them?

   Anurans (as frogs and toads are called by herpetologists) are important components of most aquatic ecosystems.  On one hand, they are a primary food source for many of the more "charismatic" animals in our area (such as game fish, herons, and egrets).  On the other, they dutifully consume many of the insects that plague us while outdoors during the summer months (such as gnats, mosquitoes, and flies).  That gray treefrog who expertly hangs on the wall by your porch light is there to eat the insects that the light attracts.  That pudgy little toad that hops across you path as you mow the lawn isn't trying to give you a case of warts.  It's actually moving through the vegetation in search of any bug, worm, or slug that it can swallow.  In fact, C. H. Pope (1947) found that an individual American toad can consume approximately 26 invertebrates in one day and 3,200 in a single season.  Likewise, Johnson and Christiansen (1976) discovered that a single cricket frog (a species that is currently endangered in Wisconsin) can consume up to 4,800 insects annually.  Now, I don't wish to give the impression that anurans can single-handedly control all pest insects everywhere.  However, I'd hate to live in a world where all of the mosquitoes that are normally eaten by frogs and toads survived.

   If the importance of their role in the ecosystem is not enough for you, then consider this: anurans are amazingly adaptable.  Some frogs (i.e. wood frogs, gray treefrogs, and spring peepers) can actually survive being partially frozen during the winter only to emerge in the spring alive and well.  In addition, although they require a fair amount of water to exist, frogs and toads can be found virtually anywhere that people have not destroyed their habitat.  For example, northern leopard frogs and American toads are frequently found great distances from water.  I have personally witnessed leopard frogs on bluff sides that are nearly a mile from any sort of wetland, and toads in the middle of bone-dry corn fields.  This amazes me.  Some might say that I'm easily entertained, however, to think that an animal that is more dependant on water for survival than any other vertebrate (with the exception of fish) can be found so far from moisture, staggers me.

   As adaptable as they are, unfortunately, amphibians cannot keep up with the break-neck speed at which human civilization grows.  Where once vast expansive wetlands stood, now there are shopping malls.  In a landscape that was once covered with ponds, we now have highways.  Therefore, if you still need a reason to respect frogs, be reminded about how incredible it is that they've survived at all during the age of humans.  Soon the lowly frog will have nowhere to go as we convert wetland to concrete and water-way to polluted cesspool.  They will pass into history.  Frogs can jump, but not far enough to escape the onslaught of people, it seems.  Wouldn't it be a shame if a lack of respect by us turned out to be the reason that such fascinating and adaptable critters became extinct?  Therefore, I say again: rediscover the lowly frog.  Learn to appreciate its ways and grow to respect it, so that in the future others might be able to appreciate and respect it as well.

Joshua M. Kapfer, Graduate Student
River Studies Center, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Special Thanks to:
Daniel R. Sutherland (Ph.D.) and Paul E. Drevnick at the U.W.-La Crosse for review and the personnel at the Hixon Forest Nature Center for the opportunity to write.


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