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The Water-Borne Naturalist

Creatures of Water, Creatures of Earth —
The Double Life of Amphibians

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

April 25, 2006

Winter lingers long in far northern New York. Half the year, in fact. It's a quiet time. The hardy birds who don't fly south also don't waste much energy singing, insects aren't buzzing or humming, leaves aren't rustling, and no waves slosh or crash. So when the snow finally melts, filling every stream bankfull, the thrum of moving water is music to my ears. But this is only the opening measure in spring's song. Robins flute urgently late into the evening. Woodpeckers hammer in the trees at dawn. Flights of Canada geese trumpet the news of the sun's return from high overhead. And then there are the peepers. Of all of the voices in nature's chorus, the piccolo piping of these little frogs has the most haunting resonances. It begins on the edge of night early in spring, when a warm breeze rattles the dry stalks of cattails in a nearby marsh. At first the little frogs call tentatively, their scattered peeps a faint hint of better things to come. Then more join in, and soon the whole male choir is in full voice. It's a delight to hear. Science tells us that Hyla crucifer sings only to attract a mate and stake his claim to a few square inches of territory, and for no other reason. But whenever I hear his song, I hear the music of the earth.

Make no mistake, though. Their voices may be loud, but the choristers are tiny. Each one could sit on a quarter with room to spare. Yet their tenacity belies their diminutive size. They spend the winter months frozen in place on the surface of the earth, with only a sparse blanket of leaf litter for protection. A sugary antifreeze in their tissues is their sole safeguard from the deadly frost. Just as soon as warmth returns to the world in spring, however, they waken from their frozen slumber and hurry off to the nearest water. There, each male inflates his balloon-like throat sack and begins his song — a song that's uniquely his. Even if only a female peeper can tell one from another, that's more than enough.

 

Why does the peepers's song stir me so? Maybe it's a feeling of kinship. Paddlers are amphibians of a sort, after all. We, too, live a double life, moving from earth to water and back again. Of course, we're only amateurs at this game. The peepers and their near relations are the real pros. But while peepers may be the most demonstrative, they aren't the first amphibians to respond to the strengthening sun. Eastern newts — also called red-spotted newts — are already moving out and about while the peepers are still on ice.

I got to know newts during the nearly two decades we lived in a ramshackle camp on the 'Flow. Plumbing hadn't been a high priority when the camp was built, and after the noisy pump that sucked silty water out of the shallows beneath our bedroom window died, we weren't tempted to repair or replace it. The water that it brought up wasn't fit to drink anyway. (Most of the other camps along the 'Flow had flush toilets, but few had working leach fields and some had no leach field at all. You get the picture, I'm sure.) So for years after the pump failed, we got our fresh water the old-fashioned way: we earned it, dipping it from a hole in the ice well offshore in winter, or hauling it from a spring-fed cistern in six-gallon plastic jerricans. The cistern's crowning glory was an ancient cast-iron kitchen pump. Priming this antique in sub-zero temperatures meant lifting a small hatch in the cistern's cap and lowering a bucket on a line into the dark recess below. Imagine my surprise, then, when I first shone a flashlight into that underwater world and saw adult newts clinging steadfastly to the concrete walls. From that day forward, I always lifted the hatch to say hello, and as winter waned and the days grew longer, I noticed a change. The newts no longer clung motionless to the cistern's walls. Now they ceaselessly patrolled the bottom, scooting in and out of the leaf litter that had accumulated there.

A few daring souls even climbed up into the air, and before long an adventurous fellow found his way into one of our jerricans. Luckily, we discovered him when we topped up the plastic garbage can that served as our household reservoir. We fished him out immediately and carried him back to his home. He made the trip in a glass jar, and he seemed to enjoy it, playing the role of tourist to the hilt, his forefeet and face pressed against the glass as if eager to take in the passing scene, while his red-spotted, olive-green skin glistened in the evening light. In any case, the word must have gotten round. We found ourselves playing host to newts with some regularity thereafter, and I often saw red efts — the juvenile alter ego of the adult eastern newt — darting about in the dead leaves outside our doorstep on wet summer days.

 

To be sure, newts and other salamanders are just one branch of the amphibian family tree, less familiar by far than frogs and toads, if somewhat better known than the worm-like tropical caecilians. Toads, with their drab, warty skins and squat hopping legs, are common sights in suburban gardens, whereas smooth-skinned, long-legged frogs are more often found among the lily pads on Golden Pond. (A warning to amateur naturalists: Nature doesn't mind breaking the rules from time to time. There are smooth-skinned, colorful toads, for example.) In any case, amphibians have been around a long while. They were probably the first creatures to crawl out of primordial waters and onto the land some 400 million years ago. Among the vertebrates, only fishes can claim a longer lineage. We humans are johnny-come-latelies by comparison, but I like to think that paddlers and amphibians share a special bond. Still, they are the experts, and we're not. No human can absorb oxygen directly from the water through her skin, as amphibians can, and though I've known a few cold-blooded paddlers, not one of them could survive for long as a frozen block. In the watery world, amphibians definitely have an edge.

Most cope pretty well on land, too. In fact, it's this ability that gave them their name. Amphibians do indeed live double lives. Fast-swimming tadpoles, who'd be like…err…fish out of water if removed from their natal ponds, grow up to become frogs or toads, equally at home where it's high and dry. But water always remains important to them, as it is to us. We humans can't live long without drinking the stuff, yet the amphibians' need is, if possible, even more fundamental: they have to have water to reproduce. Many amphibians must lay their eggs directly in water, others only require a damp hollow. Either way, though, water is the key to their survival — not just as individuals, but as species.

Given the complexity of their lives, it's also no surprise that amphibians have developed wonderfully intricate survival strategies. Take my old friends from the cistern, the bold, red-spotted eastern newts. It requires a leap of imagination to make the connection between them and their juvenile alter egos, the red efts that I sometimes see hunting in the leaf litter on the forest floor. And just how does such a brightly colored creature survive in a hungry world? To find the answer you only need to look skin deep. Eastern newts' skin secretes a poison, and that poison is found in its most concentrated form in the skin of the juvenile red eft. Their bright orange color — the "red" eft's red is more orange than scarlet — advertises this fact to any would-be predator. It's camouflage in reverse, a sort of warning flag. "Make my day," it proclaims. "I'll be a meal you won't be able to forget." Sure enough, most of the birds that prey on small creatures learn this lesson quickly. (The warning flag isn't so effective against more subtle attackers, however. A poisonous skin doesn't do anything to discourage blood-sucking leaches, for instance.)

Other amphibians rely on more conventional camouflage, and — when all else fails — on their prodigious powers of locomotion. Frogs don't hop just for the fun of it, after all. But no defense is ever perfect, is it? And we humans are among amphibians' most relentless enemies. Remember the three witches in Macbeth? Eye of newt and toe of frog were essential ingredients in their magical pharmacopeia, as was envenomed toad. Amphibians have long suffered from bad press. Carolus Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century botanist who developed the system of binomial nomenclature we still use to classify living things, once dismissed amphibians summarily as "foul and loathsome creatures." So much for scientific objectivity! For some reason — maybe it's their warty skin; or is it their air of self-contained superiority? — toads come in for special scorn, particularly from writers looking for a metaphor to tag something they don't like. Take the poem "Toads" by the late Philip Larkin:

Why should I let the toad work
 Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
 And drive the brute off?

Well, why not? Few of us like to go off to work. But why make a toad out of it? That's the question. Still, amphibians have their supporters, too. Kenneth Grahame poked gentle fun at the boastful Toad in The Wind in the Willows, but his was an affectionate portrait for all that. And George Orwell, the journalist and social critic whose Nineteen Eighty-Four is still the definitive sketch of the mindset of the police state, wrote a delightful essay celebrating the annual emergence of the common toad ("Some Thoughts on the Common Toad"), noting in passing that "the toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature" and comparing it to the semiprecious gemstone chrysoberyl.

I couldn't agree more. The golden eye of the toad is a lovely thing, as is the metallic brilliance of green and leopard frogs when caught by the long rays of a slanting sun, and the luminescent yellow of the dots on the gloss black skin of the formidable spotted salamander. They all make me want to pick up my paintbrush and dash off a watercolor. Sadly, though, amphibians are under threat everywhere. Poisonous skins and strong legs are no match for acid rain, chemical pollution, introduced fungal diseases, habitat loss, specimen collectors, and speeding cars, to say nothing of the changes now pushing the earth's climate closer and closer to the tipping point. Many species have already disappeared without a trace. Others will soon follow.

Does this matter? It does to me — and to anyone else who waits impatiently each year for the earth's song to begin again. There's little to celebrate in a silent spring.

Newts still amuse and amaze me, just as the annual chorus of peepers lifts my spirits and helps me shake off the torpor of winter. I never tire of seeing red efts darting through the leaf litter on the forest floor. And I'm always cheered to find a self-possessed toad sitting square in the middle of a birdbath on a hot summer night. Why? Perhaps it's because I, too, am a creature of water and air — though by election rather than design. Whatever the reason for the curious bond of sympathy between me and my amphibian neighbors, however, I hope that our paths will continue to cross, and that the spring chorus will long return to delight all those who choose to listen.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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