Species Smarts

When frogs start showing off, are they actually organizing?


Recently a frog broke the rules of the chase and turned himself in—to a herpetologist. Notice the tricky punctuation in that sentence; if the dash were gone, it might sound like the frog had morphed into a researcher. It didn’t. However, it did make certain the researchers took notice in a big way.

Try not to think about Jim Henson here, but this brazen little frog was something of a Muppet dead-ringer, bug-eyed and trumpet-nosed, representing a formerly uncatalogued species. Thankfully, it did not break out in theme songs from children’s television. But it did gain overnight celebrity status.

What biologist does not dream—even at this late hour in evolution—of discovering a “new” species? Many researchers get funding to go on expeditions where they may or may not pretend to be the Indiana Jones of their specialty areas, crawling all over the place in strange lands and peeking into this habitat and that for any mysterious life forms they can name and categorize. On just such an expedition in New Guinea this spring, researchers were assembled at a camp when the aforementioned frog used a bag of rice as a platform for public attention.

The Australian scientist credited with “discovering” the frog recalled the event in an email he sent me. “It was raining really heavily and a large number of people were sitting under a tarp trying to stay dry,” wrote biologist Paul Oliver. “There was something of a commotion as someone, and then everyone, saw this little frog jumping off a rice sack, because everyone knew we were after frogs.” Someone grabbed the frog and the herpetologists identified it as one of the spike-nose tree frog group.

“No one had ever seen anything like it before, even the local villagers who live much lower in the mountains,” Oliver wrote. He went on to explain that this particular frog had been seen from a distance five years ago by other herpetologists but had eluded capture. Now here it was, a male tree frog simply turning himself in. What can we make of this? I say it’s political genius.

My theory, based on serious study of Gary Larsen cartoons, is that the frogs are organizing. Everywhere. In California, for example, they managed to get Fish and Game to uphold a ban on non-native frogs imported for food. A few million American bullfrogs are farmed overseas each year and imported, and over half of these imports are infected with a fungus that is killing the native frogs of the Sierra Nevada. This fungus causes chytridiomycosis, a skin disease lethal to frogs. This disease has lead to the extinction of approximately a hundred frog species around the world. (If my theory is right, the spike-nose frogs can read the writing on the wall.)

Although there was no report of an actual frog appearing, much less upstaging anyone, at the Fish and Game hearing in Sacramento last week, short of having an amphibian testify, the West Coast frogs had world-class advocacy. Save the Frogs founder and director, ecologist Kerry Kriger, did not back down when claims of racism were used to defend frog importation. Kriger stood up to legislators from San Francisco who testified that the Chinese have a 5,000-year tradition of eating frogs and turtles, and therefore the ban on imported frogs was anti-Chinese.

“Cultures necessarily evolve,” Kriger responded. “If they did not, we would have long since eaten the buffalo and the California red-legged frog to complete extinction, as we did the passenger pigeons. As Americans, we are fortunate to have many choices of food, and thus it is our responsibility to act wisely and ensure that our culinary decisions are not unduly impacting our natural heritage and the future of our planet.”

Oliver did mention in his email that the spike-nose frog that showed up in camp did not vocalize. Nevertheless, it spoke up for its kind; it showed up for roll call while there is still a chance for frogs to be counted. Did I mention that frogs are an indicator species? If they can’t make it, neither can we. So I’m glad they’re organizing.

Sonoma County Library