|The Vanishing Toads & Frogs|
Most of us grew up with fairy tales of toads becoming the coachmen for Cinderella's coach, the frog that became a handsome prince with love's kiss, or the congenial Mr. Toad of Wind in the Willows. Then a most famous frog, Kermit, taught a new generation that "It's not easy being green." The message of his song was that green is such a common color, that is was not easy to gain attention or recognition. He thought his would be a better life if he didn't blend in with all the grass, trees and pond scum! Maybe people would notice him if he were fuschia or purple or gold.
One of my fondest memories, is sitting on the wide front porch at the old farm, or lying in bed at night with open windows, on that first warm night of spring. First one lonely voice would begin..."Churrrreeep". Then another would join, and another, until there was a hallelujah chorus of frogs rejoicing that Spring had arrived. In my mind, spring was never really here, until the spring peepers sang. They thrived in the marshy area at the bottom of our driveway, which was formed by the backwaters of Raccoon Creek. They sang on the banks of the ponds. Their joyful song filled my heart.
I don't hear many frogs here, or find toads sharing my gardens. Good gardeners know that toads and frogs consume huge quantities of insects. Those of us who refuse to use harmful chemicals to eliminate bugs rely on the appetites of these helpful amphibians. So, I began to research their needs, in order to encourage them to take up residence here.
The first thing I discovered is that the distinction between frogs and toads is not well-defined. All toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. That is, toads are a type of frog. Generally, toads are wartier, can tolerate drier conditions, walk rather than hop, and have poison glands in their skin. Frogs tend to be a bit more streamlined, prefer to hop, and like a moister living area. The first frogs appeared over 200 million years ago! They are members of the Anura, an order of over 3900 species.
An affinity between toads, frogs, and humans has been evident for centuries. The ancient Chinese believed that the world was held on the shoulders of a frog. Japanese legends portray toads as knowing all the secrets of the world. Many cultures used them as a symbol and source of fertility. Carved frogs or toads were often a gift to a newly-married couple in ancient societies.
Today, the interest in frogs comes from many fronts. Gardeners want them as insect destroyers. Medical scientists want them for the chemicals within the skin glands and egg clusters. Many of these chemicals are becoming important sources of drugs for fighting heart disease, malaria, cancer, and painkillers. Pet stores have discovered a lucrative business trading in brightly colored dart frogs. Scientists want them as bioindicators--living signals of serious environmental changes. Many scientists feel that frogs are among the first organisms to react to global changes. Dozens of studies show that the frog and toad populations of the world are disappearing at an alarming rate! Many species are already extinct, and many more are being added to the endangered species lists. This make scientists wonder if the rapid decline in frog and toad populations foretell a trend for other lifeforms, too.
No one factor has been determined to be the cause. Studies have shown that acid rain, depletion of the rain forest, reduction in the ozone layer, radical changes in land usage, development, diverting of rivers and streams, draining of marshy areas, chemical from agricultural run-off and insect spraying, and disturbance of reproduction sites are main contributors. And, believe it or not, human consumption! The United States annually imports more than 6.5 million pounds of frozen frog legs each year!! When you consider that the legs represent only a fraction of the total weight of a frog, that represents about 26 million frogs! Since it is nearly impossible, and certainly not economically profitable, to farm-raise frogs, all of these frogs are being caught in the wild. Certain "meaty" species, such as the California red-leg and pig-frog have nearly disappeared. India and Bangladesh were once major exporters of frog legs. However, as their frogs disappeared, mosquitoes flourished. The governments realized spraying was costing more than the income from frog sales, so they have now banned exports. Hurrah!
Many scientists believe that frogs are our early-warning system. Like the canaries that coal miners took to the mines to warn of invisible gases, the decline of frogs indicates the need for conserving our environment, and reversing harmful practices, to insure that our world is safe for all living beings.
We need frogs and toads! Make a resolution to make your property frog-friendly! Never use chemical insect sprays. Preserve marshy areas where tadpoles can thrive. Turn broken clay pots upside down to form toad houses in your garden. Walk areas adjoining woods or ponds before you mow. Encourage your children to protect toads. It is false that handling toads can cause warts. However, many toads do have a protective secretion that can cause illness, so you should always wash your hands thoroughly after petting a toad!
There is a huge, fist-sized toad that lives in my main greenhouse. I've named him Churchill. He is quite dignified, but friendly. He does a great job of eliminating any insect that appears on any plant sitting on the floor. He patrols the floor area, and is is likely to pop up unexpectedly when a plant there is moved. Much of the time, he sits in the warm sunshine and blinks. I suspect that as he sits there, his mind is mapping a strategy to somehow reach also the plants on the tall benches. Each year, we hope a Lady Churchill will appear, so we could have lots of toads. Maybe that is what he is dreaming, too.
For fascinating reading, get Tracking the Vanishing Frogs, by Kathryn Phillips; Frogs: Art, Legend, History by Patrizia Ribuoli; or The Book of the Toad, by Robert DeGraaff.