frog spotting on the eve of a Great Turning

(sorry, I’m dealing with a persistent issue where uploaded photos are rotated incorrectly, please bear with me and leave a comment below stating if you see them right side up, and what browser you are using)

On the first evening of spring, I welcomed back Dr. Michael Finkler, a biology professor at Indiana University. During our Bioblitz last summer, he led the herptile team, surveying for reptiles and amphibians.

nets at the ready

This night, we were on the hunt for Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus). Dr. Finkler had secured a permit from the DNR to harvest a limited number of frogs for research. He is trying to understand how these creatures can withstand the cycles of freezing and thawing that are pretty normal for March in Indiana.

there’s one!

I took him to one of our vernal pools, one of Indiana’s more unique and imperiled habitats. These shallow pools fill up with winter and spring precipitation, just long enough for salamanders and frogs to breed & lay eggs. The heat of summer dries them out, preventing fish populations from being established. Adult frogs and salamanders “head to the hills” and live their life overland, hibernate through the winter, and do it all over again.

got a couple, they are hard to spot!

Many a vernal pool, unfortunately, has been lost by negligence or apathy, to the relentless onslaught of development and agricultural drainage. Widespread herptile populations that existed for millennia with the continent’s first human inhabitants are now small, fragmented communities. Each thoughtless attempt at a new road, “fishing pond”, or drainage tile chips further away.

a successful haul

As much as I felt I got outdoors as a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I don’t feel like I had the truly wild upbringing that so many baby boomers report to me. Of countless hours wandering woods and marshes. As a mostly 9-5 ecologist (at work anyway), I miss 2/3rd of the action. There’s just so much to see!

And so I was truly thankful I made the effort to get out. MAN WERE THOSE THINGS LOUD! Dr. Finkler told me he measured their call in the lab once and it registered 105 decibels. It frequently left my ears ringing. The water was practically bubbling up with little beady eyes flitting around.

Here, he explains how to ID a Wood Frog:

Well, and we all know why frogs are calling, right? They were matching up as fast as possible, with that ever-present urge to leave one’s genetic heritage.

two Wood Frogs in “amplexus”; the females (below) are noticeably larger than the males

Sorry, no privacy in the wild. This is the first time I had ever observed any sort of herptile laying eggs.

Once a male has found his mate, there’s no giving up. He has special pads on his fingers to grab hold and not let go, if you look carefully below.

But Wood Frogs weren’t all! We saw three other species in the same vernal pool. (You can see descriptions and hear calls for all of Indiana’s frogs on the DNR website).

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). Notice the X-mark on the back and the diminutive size of this adult.

Not nearly as abundant as the spring peepers in this pool, we managed to grab it’s cousin, a Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata). Note the stripes.

Last, but not least (and most visible in the summer) is the appropriately named Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens). Due to ongoing wetland restoration efforts and attention by conservationists, the Northern Leopard Frog was recently removed from Indiana’s list of Species of Special Concern.

Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)

After collecting the necessarily specimens, I thanked Dr. Finkler (during these times of pandemic, without a handshake!) and drove home with a glimmer of something like satisfaction.

The hope was ephemeral, just as the water. But it will rain again.

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