Swimming with Frogs

I wasn’t going to do it again. Really. Surely two frog blogs is enough. But you know what they say: ‘Write what you know.’ Do I know frogs? Well, not in the sense that a herpetologist does – I’m no expert – but I have learned a thing or two just by being around them for the past 18 years. It’s a kind of knowledge by osmosis, that passive process of absorption from the environment. Akin to the way frogs absorb water through their skin rather than drinking it down.

But I never much liked that ‘write what you know’ advice anyhow. After all, if every author complied, there would be no science fiction or historical fiction or fantasy. I prefer ‘Write what fascinates you.’ Of course, sometimes ‘what you know’ is also what fascinates you. And I do find frogs fascinating. So here I go again with yet another frog blog.

‘She finds me fascinating. How thrilling.’

Actually, I’m amazed by all amphibians. Of all the vertebrate classes, only amphibians undergo such radical transformation during their life cycle. Baby mammals look similar to adults only smaller and way cuter. Baby birds look like adults only smaller and, in some cases, way uglier – until they get all downy and adorable. Baby fish and baby reptiles emerge from their eggs looking like miniature versions of their parents.

But members of the class Amphibia have a more complex journey to maturity; more akin to some insects, like butterflies or dragonflies. They don’t just get bigger, they are utterly transformed in appearance, habitat and lifestyle.

Living with frogs has given me the opportunity to observe this fascinating journey at various ages and stages. The cycle begins soon after spring melt, as described in Funky Frogs, and carries on with matching and hatching, as I posted in Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs. The female lays jellied egg masses attached to twigs underwater. That’s it for maternal care from mama. She just lays lots of eggs and lets nature – natural selection that is – take its course. As pond levels drop, these egg blobs can be stranded high and dry, like the one I’m holding. By this time I can see the embryos wiggling around in their egg sacs and feeding on the algae that colours the eggs green. I put stranded blobs back in the water to give the wee ones a shot at survival.

The eggs hatch, releasing the little wigglers into the water. At this larval stage the pollywogs, or tadpoles, seem more like fish than frogs. They live and breathe underwater and suffocate without it. They swim like fish, look like fish, live like fish. But unlike the proverbial duck, they aren’t fish. Because they aren’t done yet.

Next comes the magic – metamorphosis! And this is why I am amazed by amphibians, fascinated by frogs. The tadpole sprouts tiny, skinny hind legs. They are useless, dangly things at first. The pollywog keeps on swimming like a fish, swishing its long tail and breathing through its gills. Then forelegs sprout, mere nubs. But the legs keep growing, becoming stronger and thicker.

‘What the heck are these things anyhow?’ (Yes, I had pet tadpoles at one point.)

And then one day the tadpole uses those legs to venture up into the world of air. I can’t help seeing this moment as a tiny reenactment of those very first animals who emerged from the ocean onto land. What a transformation! The pollywog is now a froglet. It is no longer a fishy thing but looks like a tiny frog with a tail. That tail will be absorbed as nutrient by the froglet and will be the only food it consumes during this transitional phase. The gills will also be absorbed and the frog will breathe through its skin while underwater, or its mouth or lungs on land. This aquatic animal has become a creature of two elements: water and air. It is truly amphibious. And that is the miracle of metamorphosis.

Other Things that Change

And now I turn to a different transformation. I left the Highland Holler at the end of May to spend some time with my family on Vancouver Island. When I left, the pond was already low and gungy with detritus. The shallowest pools had separated from the main pond, as I described in Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs in June 2021. There weren’t ‘gobs and gobs of jellied egg blobs’ yet, but a fresh crop of amphibians had begun their perilous journey in freshly-laid eggs.

I returned home three weeks later to a world transformed. The barren brown of spring had exploded into the verdant green of summer. Trees had leafed, shoots had shot up, and the shrubs and wildflowers (aka weeds) were threatening to engulf the cabin. I’d anticipated a change, but the extent of the growth in such a short time was startling.

But something unexpected and delightful also happened while I was away: L’il Pond was full again, totally rejuvenated by the June rains that fueled all that plant growth. All the pools had filled and joined to form one large pond. The egg blobs were gone, hatched into tiny tadpoles, hidden amidst the bright green aquatic plants. The water was crystal clear, fresh from the Highland lakes.

All this meant it was time again – time to swim with the frogs! I don’t get this opportunity every year. Often the pond is too shallow and gungy by the time summer rolls around. I was lucky last summer, as described in Ups and Downs in the Holler, and now I was getting another chance.

I hauled my pond gear through the brush and out to the gravel point, which was mostly submerged. I set down my chair and beach bag and was gazing around, trying to decide where to get in, when – Eek! There he was! He was big. He was green. He was a Green Frog. And he was just. Right. There.

If I want to swim, I have to share the pond with this fellah. He’s as big as my hand.

Green frogs are the biggest frogs we have here in Cape Breton. (We don’t, so far as I can determine, have bull frogs on the island.) I wrote about them and other frog species last June, but here’s the recap. The tadpoles take two years to mature and by their second year are bigger than some frog species will ever be. The tads are bizarre looking creatures. To quote myself, they ‘look positively freaky, a kind of FrankenFrog with a full-sized frog-head attached to a tadpole-tail but no torso. Seeing dozens of these scatter in the shallows is a strange sight indeed.’

Given the size of the tadpoles, it’s no surprise that these frogs are the jolly green giants of the pond. And their mating call is as loud as they are big – a percussive ‘Gurnk!’ that echoes around the Holler. Get a bunch of them going at it and they keep me awake at night. Noisy party-animal neighbours! They are also the last to leave the party, still gurnking away long after all the other male frogs have given up on getting lucky.

Absurdly, I felt a bit intimidated about going swimming alongside this guy. It’s not like frogs prey on people, like some Creature from the Black Lagoon. But … he’s just so … there. There are all kinds of critters in L’il Pond: Snakes and newts and a myriad of insects at various stages of their complex life cycles. Swimming in the Holler is not for the squeamish. And I’m kind of squeamish. But it just seems silly not to go swimming in my own pond. So, with some hesitation and dithering, I finally waded in, launched myself forward and dove under. It was refreshing and absolutely lovely – and not a single sneak attack by a rogue frog.

What creatures lurk beneath that calm surface?

Then I sat down to dry off, relax, and enjoy the view. The pond level was so high that I set my chair in the shallows. I glanced down and there, right beside me, the miracle of metamorphosis was underway. This froglet seemed unaware of me, perhaps too perplexed by the strange turn his life had taken to care about the giant looming nearby. We hung out together for quite a while, pondering the mysteries of transformation.

Now it is August and the pond has once again drained to levels too shallow for homo sapiens swimmers. It’s only fit for frogs and bugs and snakes and newts and for the ducks, sandpipers, kingfishers and such that feed on them. The frogs are content, with a surface cover of lily pads to keep them shaded and hidden from predators, and lots of lovely silty detritus on the bottom.

Happy as a frog in muck.

So I will leave the pond to the local critters now – they need no longer fear a gigantic primate invading their watery habitat. Unless, of course, a post-tropical storm brings buckets of rain to the Holler and refills L’il Pond with clean Highland water. Then I will once again be swimming with the frogs. You can count on it.

Sue McKay Miller
August 10th, 2022

p.s. Uh oh! Look who just landed!

A great blue heron arrived today and is stalking the shallows – watch out Froggie!

Need more frog blogs? Check out:
Funky Frogs and Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs from May and June of 2021. These cover more frogs species – including spring peepers, wood frogs, pickerels, and leopard frogs – that live in the Holler alongside the green frogs. As always, click on any photo to see it full-size, and please feel free to comment below with observations or corrections.

5 thoughts on “Swimming with Frogs

  1. Finally the stars have aligned and I got to read this wonderful account on your tadpole and frog neighbours. Quite the neighbourhood watch program you have going on. Keep it up. Thanks for an enlightening read.

    Liked by 1 person

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