Speaking of Nature by Bill Danielson: An appeal for frogs

  • I found this young green frog on a summer morning while it was exploring a wet meadow after a long, rainy night. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 5/8/2022 4:01:45 PM
Modified: 5/8/2022 4:00:05 PM

My morning started off just as any other on a school day: far too early. I was out the door and on the road before 6 a.m. and the story I was listening to on NPR was not helping to buoy my spirits. It was dark, it was raining and I kept thinking that I should really turn the car around, go home and get back into bed. Then, all of a sudden, my attention was focused on a little creature in the road before me.

It could easily have been mistaken for a leaf, or other piece of debris, but then it hopped. It was a frog and based on its size I will hazard to guess that it was a green frog (Lithobates clamitans). There was no way for me to determine the sex of the frog as I bore down on it with the unfortunate speed of modern human technology. All I had time to do was swerve to ensure that the car straddled the frog and then hope that it didn’t decide to hop as my car passed over it. I am 99.99% confident that I managed to spare this little amphibian a most unnecessary and untimely death.

From the youngest of ages I was trained to have great concern for frogs and turtles and any other animals in the road. I have wonderful childhood memories from the 1970s of family drives during the nighttime when the car would be brought to a stop and the children would be instructed to “save the frog.” How much fun it was to approach a frog on a rainy night and try to grab it before it had time to save itself. At night, on a dark and deserted country road, this was pure and joyful adventure.

So, it was with any other creature in the road. Countless times, when the conditions were safe, the family car was brought to a halt and the rescue party was sent on a mission. In this way, my parents inculcated into their children a regard for the small, “helpless” creatures of the world; the notion that we should always help if we can. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.

It wasn’t until years later, well into my adulthood, that I was able to truly appreciate the situation of a frog in the road in the beginning of May. This frog had grown up in a pond and managed to avoid being eaten for at least a year. Since an adult green frog has a life expectancy of 5-6 years in the wild, it is possible that the frog I saw was a grizzled veteran who had managed to beat the odds for years. This is particularly impressive when you consider the ridiculously difficult hibernation that an animal like this has to survive.

The green frog, like all amphibians, is a cold-blooded (ectothermic) animal that cannot regulate its body temperature. It requires wet conditions to keep its skin from drying out and atmospheric warmth sufficient to allow it to be active and mobile. The colder it gets, the slower the frog’s metabolism operates, which translates into a slow, sluggish appearance. This is why a frog in the road on a cold, rainy morning in May can barely move.

This is also why frogs cannot tolerate winter. They cannot keep themselves warm and even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to find anything to eat. So, to survive they must seek shelter and wait. For a green frog this means sinking to the bottom of a pond, burying itself in the detritus, and then going to “sleep.” Imagine what that must be like. You would be in the dark and not breathing for months on end, relying on your thin skin for diffusing whatever oxygen you might require. I have always wondered if frogs dream while they are waiting for spring.

Anyway, to survive that once is astounding, but to survive it four or five times is mind boggling. This is why a frog’s death in a road on a rainy spring morning seems such a tragedy to me. To have avoided predation and survived hibernation for years, only to be flattened under the wheels of a car being driven by a person on his way to work seems so terribly sad and pointless. So that is why I always swerve. I don’t want to end any frog’s story too soon.

And why, you may ask, do frogs end up in the road anyway? Well, frogs have an innate drive to go on “walkabout” to see what else might lie over the horizon, so to speak. The wet conditions of the spring provide a great opportunity for frogs to fan out across the landscape in search of new and interesting places to live. Beavers are experts at creating new ponds and to find them our local frogs have to “go for a walk.” They are simply looking for new places to live, love, and lay eggs. The time of romance is just beginning for our local frogs.

Perhaps, after reading this story, you will approach your own morning commute with a slightly different attitude. Perhaps you will scan the road for signs of life and perhaps (especially on rainy mornings) you will start to notice frogs and toads ahead of you. This is much easier to do if you are driving slower and it will give you more time to avoid a sad incident. And, perhaps, on a rainy summer night when warmth prevails, you might even bring your own car to a halt on a dark and deserted country road and “save” a frog yourself. It’s a lot more fun than you might imagine.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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