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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Sex in the Water

200 Million Years Old and Still Going Strong

By Tamia Nelson

May 8, 2001

I've been thinking a lot about sex lately. Please don't jump to conclusions, though. It's not my marriage. That's in fine shape, I'm happy to say. No, it's just the voices that I hear in the night. I'm not going crazy, mind. The "voices" I'm hearing are the spring chorus of frogs.

It began a little more than two weeks ago, when the peepers started up. Peepers—scientists have cumbered them with the name Hyla crucifer, on account of the dark St. Andrew's cross on their backs—are tiny things, no more than an inch or so long. They've got big bellows, though. If you paddle close by a marsh where they're getting together for a sing-song, their massed voices can make your ears buzz and ring.

The peepers don't stay alone on stage for long. While they're usually the first frogs to be heard from every year, at least in northern North America, they're soon joined by others. On many quiet evenings, I can already hear a dry, woody rattle in the distance. This is the song of the mink frog (Rana septentrionalis), a rather solitary northern species with the curious habit of giving off a pungent, musky odor when disturbed. In another month or so, when the bullfrogs first sound their unmistakable jug-o-rum, rum rum, rum refrain, the amphibious choir will be complete.

From the rumbling bass chorus of the bullfrogs to the chirpy tenor of the peepers, frogs certainly sound exuberant enough, but they don't necessarily love to sing. Actually, it's just the other way round. They're singing for love. The peeps, rattles and booms now echoing over North American waters are the froggy equivalent of Mae West's famous invitation—"Why don't you come over sometime and see me?"—though in the frogs' world it's the men who make the pitch and the ladies who respond. (If they're of a mind, that is!)

The result is entirely predictable. When I go for an evening paddle along the few places on the 'Flow where emergent vegetation hasn't been replaced by timber seawalls, floating docks, or imported white-sand swimming beaches, I occasionally shine the beam of my headlamp into the shallows. The sight that greets my eyes would be enough to make even a Roman emperor (or Hugh Hefner) blush. So frenetic and indiscriminate is the frogs' knotting and gendering, in fact, that some species have developed distinctive "release calls," protests reserved for occasions when one male finds himself on the receiving end of another male's unsought-after and unwanted attentions. I suppose it's the froggy equivalent of "Get lost, Buddy!"

In any case, there's no escaping the fact that frogs are gluttons in all things. Three summers back, an enormous bullfrog set up housekeeping in a small pool on our slope. His length exceeded the maximum span of my hand, and he had the unshakeable confidence that comes with the certain knowledge that he was lord of all he surveyed. He came and went as he wished. He'd leave in the evening to go courting, then return during the day to feed on whatever came to "his" pool to drink. And he wasn't a fussy eater. Garter snakes, mice, and small birds all found their way onto his menu from time to time. Farwell soon started calling him "Big Bill," in recognition of the Presidential scale of his appetites—and in rueful acknowledgement of his peculiar, even perverse, charm. Sadly, Big Bill didn't return for a visit during the following year, and we haven't seen him since. Nature's less forgiving than the US Congress, apparently.

Like our former, larger-than-life President, however, frogs and toads are survivors. They're direct descendents of the evolutionary line that first established a more-or-less permanent beachhead on dry land, some 350 million years ago next Tuesday. Modern frogs—and their cousins, the long-tailed newts and salamanders—came later. They made their appearance only 200 million years ago, at a point on the earth's calendar that geologists have christened the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. For folks like me who enjoy the frogs' spring chorus, this was a red-letter day.

But nothing lasts forever. Even survivors succumb sooner or later, and there are signs that frogs and toads may have had their innings. Nowadays on the 'Flow, the real voice of spring is the chain-saw, followed almost immediately by the backhoe and the bulldozer. Summer homes pop up like early-season wildflowers, and every new home entombs a pocket marsh or tiny pool. Naturally enough, the summer homes bring summer people, and, naturally enough, they bring their motorboats and jet-skis. But with the resulting increase in boat traffic also comes accelerated shoreline erosion. Seeing their valuable waterfront property washing away, the summer people then do what they're told to do by the "experts"—they put up a seawall. The result? It's not a happy one. The summer people save their beachfront, to be sure, but this protection comes at a price: their last vestige of biologically productive shoreline is destroyed in the process.

Little by little, this takes its toll. Unlike the summer people, many of whom flock to the North Country for four months every year, only to head back to homes or jobs in North Carolina or Florida when winter first begins to bite, the frogs and toads who are displaced from their homes have nowhere else to go. So, like other rootless refugees elsewhere on this increasingly crowded globe, they die, and their voices die with them.

Nor is this all. Nowadays, even the spring rains bring death. When I dip acid-sensitive litmus paper in a drop of rainwater, more often than not the paper turns a deep, corrosive red. It isn't called "acid rain" for nothing, I'm afraid, and every day there's more of it on the wind. Already many of the lakes on the western slope of the Adirondacks are silent and sterile, their eerie, picture-postcard beauty undisturbed by the fertile clamor of chorusing frogs. Soon, perhaps, the 'Flow will follow them.

But not yet. And who knows? Frogs have been raising lusty hell for 200 million years. We humans have been around for far less time. In the high-stakes gamble of evolution, nature runs an honest house, and it's never wise to bet against a favorite. After all, when a wandering asteroid put paid to the dinosaurs only 65 million years ago, frogs and their kin hardly noticed the disturbance. Come to think of it, in all the long history of life on earth, small and sexy has trumped big and brawny more often than not. So maybe it's too early to write amphibians off as a dead end. Maybe the world's ponds and marshes will echo to the spring chorus—the same spring chorus that I look forward to so much—for yet another 200 million years, or more. I'd like to think so, at any rate. I won't be there to hear it, of course, but someone will.

Big Bill

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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