Golden Eyes

Golden Eyes

 When I was a small child, most girls liked dolls; I had a huge frog that squealed. I dragged the earsplitting amphibian everywhere I went, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would seek out the live frogs who inhabited the woods as soon as I could! 

I think my sibling and I were both born naturalists. As soon as my little brother was old enough, we took flashlights into the woods at night to visit a marsh that quacked! We watched bulging gold rimmed eyes and ballooning throats belonging to two -inch masked bandits who ushered in the spring with hypnotic conversation even while sheets of ice still lingered. (This shallow marsh, bursting with skunk cabbage and budded marsh marigolds was our favorite place to visit because frogs quacked, peeped, and croaked there all spring). Deafening. After the third or fourth night, wood frog symphony ceased abruptly. Each year we returned to count the massive amounts of jellied egg clumps that appeared like magic throughout the marsh. These round clusters were always attached to some kind of grass or detritus just under the surface. Black on the top and white on the bottom the freshly laid eggs enveloped in jelly (that held together even when transporting by pail) developed a greenish tinge as algae covered all the clusters left behind – future food for tadpoles. 

I was eight years old when we collected the first wood frog eggs to raise in an aquarium. We changed the water daily. As the tadpoles matured, we fed them bits of lettuce, impatient for back legs to appear. We were careful to make certain that their home became partially terrestrial as the gilled tadpoles transformed into froglets that breathed air through their lungs and skin. I was transported by gold rimmed eyes, the black masks they wore and their coppery brown/tan bodies that shimmered with an iridescent glow…I always had trouble saying goodbye when we returned our catch to their birthplace as froglets. I loved them so.

 Almost 40 years later when I moved to my present home in the mountains, I immediately sunk an old oak barrel into the ground next to the stream with the intention of increasing the local frog population. Green frogs were abundant but few wood frogs lived in my immediate vicinity (I did have peeper springs and a couple of vernal pools above the waterfalls further up the serpentine brook). I had been haunted for years by the threat of eventual frog extinction after reading scientist and visionary Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ as a young adult. She warned us about the dire consequences of the continued use of pesticides/herbicides in 1962. Frogs were especially vulnerable she said because they breathed through both lungs and skin. Our canaries in the coal mine. Because I loved frogs and hoped to help them survive, I wanted as many as this habitat could support. 

The following April raucous quacking split the night in two. Three days later silence, but in the oak barrel attached to some submerged cattails were three clumps of gorgeous eggs that soon became wiggling black tadpoles. I supplemented my wood frogs diet of algae and rotting leaves with tiny bits of torn lettuce, adding a few bugs for good measure just as I had done as a child. I kept a sharp eye out for back legs and when they appeared I placed a wooden raft in the water as well as a ladder made from bark so no one would drown, and by early July pinky sized masked bandits began hopping around my feet before vanishing into lush vegetation reappearing down by the brook.

That was the beginning. I have been raising wood frogs, peepers, and toads ever since. Eventually, I constructed a large vernal pool upstream by digging out debris around a bubbling spring that fed the brook, ringing it with stones and wild greenery. Until recently this spring fed oasis always held water until the eggs of wood frogs and peepers hatched transforming into frogs. When I discovered that salamanders were eating tadpoles, I began to remove the intruders’ eggs transferring them to another vernal depression across the field, a practice I continue to this day.

Every year more wood frogs hopped around my feet. Peepers also laid eggs in my barrel, and because I had so many tadpoles, I was careful to supplement their diet twice daily so they wouldn’t predate on each other. Green frogs took over the barrel after the froglets left. I caught sight of a leopard frog a few times, but this habitat primarily supported wood frogs, peepers, and migrating green frogs. Naively, I thought my efforts had been successful.  

When summer drought became more prevalent (last ten years) my large vernal pool started to dry up in June – too soon. I checked on others further up the stream. All were shrinking or gone. The water table was dropping. That year I took about a thousand tadpoles down to North Pond to release when my shallow pool turned to mud. A desperate move due to fish predation. Outside my door wood frog tadpoles still thrived in their barrel, only because I was able to control the water level. 

 After the vernal pool continued to dry up most years, the once abundant clusters of wood frog eggs began to plummet. Because wood frogs are an indicator species, (masses of wood frog eggs designate a vernal pool as a conservation area) I found this trend alarming. Last year we had a heat wave in April. Two nights of quacking. Wood frogs laid one clutch of eggs in the old barrel, and then it froze – hard. Two more clusters appeared below in the vernal pool. Not one egg hatched. 

I also spend three seasons in protected forest lowlands and have noted adult wood frogs are still visible, not as plentiful as before, but can be seen if one knows where to look for them. My one hope.  

 I recently learned that Dr. Nat Wheelwright, professor of biology at Bowdoin has been monitoring wood frogs for 28 years. In 2013 he lost a whole pond filled with wood frog tadpolesto a ranavirus within 24 hours. There have been other losses, none quite so severe. Apparently, this disease which also affects salamanders, is becoming more of a threat to sensitive indicator species like wood frogs and some salamanders.

As of December 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed 673 critically endangered amphibian species, including 146 which were tagged as possibly extinct. 9.2% of all evaluated amphibian species were listed as critically endangered.

 Fragmentation of forested areas is a direct result of massive amounts of logging and new housing developments in this area. The role that continued use of pesticides/herbicides has consequences we don’t seem able/or willing to measure. Water and air pollution are ongoing factors. A UN assessment done in 2019 found that half a million insect species are under threat of extinction. All frogs need to eat insects, snails, and slugs to survive.

 Unfortunately, studying a frog of ‘least concern’ (LC) like the wood frog is not a priority with researchers/academic institutions/governments so research is scarce. Most frog sites still categorize these frogs as being quite common in Maine.

“When it comes to frogs Least Concern (LC) is total nonsense. All amphibians are seriously threatened,” states Al Falster, Research Director Maine Mineral and Gem Museum (scientist and accomplished naturalist).

Sources vary but frogs have been around for 250 – 400 million years and have managed to survive 4 or 5 extinctions. They are found throughout Alaska and the Northeast, in small numbers further south. Wood frogs are the only frogs who live above the arctic circle. They adapt to cold by allowing their bodies to freeze (a special kind of antifreeze called glucose prevents ice from freezing cellular tissue). The first warm days and nights thaw wood frogs out. Hurriedly, they migrate to vernal ponds and ditches to lay eggs before vanishing into forested lowlands, the most likely place to spot one. They are ready to breed at 1-2 years and return to the same sites year after year. Sexes can be distinguished by looking at the shape of the webbing on back toes. Females have concave webbing, males convex. Females are larger and sometimes a lighter tan and can lay as many as 1000 – 3000 eggs. I am painfully aware that it’s been years since I’ve seen such large clusters around here. 

 As I come to the end of this narrative one question looms: What can we do to support wood frog populations? The first answer to this question is simple. Allow forests to re-wild. Once woodlands have a chance to begin recovery vernal ponds will appear naturally. Healthy forests will sustain them. 

Another option is if you have a low moist area that is partially shaded on your property (necessary now with sudden heat waves) dig in a barrel, vernal pool, or a create a shallow pond that doesn’t support fish, but please make sure that you have a regular uncontaminated water source to supplement shrinking waters if you choose either a barrel that has not been treated, or a vernal pool. Either way make certain the area is planted with local vegetation and stones. Emerging froglets need protection. I put a huge piece of driftwood in the center of my vernal pond. Within a year it had marsh grasses sprouting all around it, becoming a hideout for all.

Once your tadpoles get to know you, they will swim to the edges of their enclosure to visit, eyeing you with curiosity. All have different personalities. I’ll wager you’ll never be the same.

Long live the wood frogs, those masters of genuine transformation! – from egg to tadpole, to frog, these creatures are able to bring forth new life.

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