Frogs. Are. Cool.
Not just cold-blooded. Although that is cool.
As a lifelong batrachophile, I was probably the wrong person to put on this story. As little kids, my brothers and I went down to a (but we didn't know it) highly polluted stream called Lipstick Lady, to dip our hands in and come up with sloppy handfuls of spawn. We also tried, not without success, to midwive the eggs into tadpole stage, and watch while the tadpoles grew limbs, lost their tails, and became bullfrogs. One of the dumbest things I ever did was to put some tadpoles in the same tank with some tropical fish. I put them in when they were the same size. I thought that would work. Everybody got along together for a while … until things changed …
If you, like me, go back with frogs a long way, go over to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and see the exhibit Frogs: A Chorus of Colors, which opens Feb. 4 and runs through May . Created by Clyde Peeling's Reptiland in Allenwood, Pa., the exhibit features 15 species of frogs from all over the world, with a total number of … well, no one at the Academy knew. "I could go in and count, if you want," said Rachel Lanning, Reptiland zookeeper, where the frogs come from. On her face was the unspoken sentence, "Please don't make me do this." Let's say plenty of frogs.
Each species is in its own little recreated habitat, behind glass (you'll see why in a moment). The American Bullfrog is here, because America, yo. If there was ever a successful, entrepreneurial frog export, the American Bullfrog is it. There are large bullfrog tadpoles, vigorous, big long tails, recapitualiting phylogeny in being very fishlike.
But the enormous, heavy African Bullfrog is also here. Mike Kaczmarczik, assistant manager of outreach programs at the academy, says it's "one of the biggest frogs in the world, has a huge mouth, and what that big mouth allows it to do is eat just about anything that it can fit inside of it, from other frogs, to small mammals mice." I didn't know frogs had teeth, but this one does: "a pretty strong set of chompers, teeth, and a very strong bite."
OK, that's scary.
Also here, however, are the Giant Monkey Frog from the Amazon Basin, a truly moving study in evolution and its myriad triumphs. This is a weird looker, with limbs and claws suited for climbing trees rather than hopping. A flat head on which to rest your beer can. But do not touch. It secretes a toxin that, if absorbed through the skin, causes explosive and long-term gastric distress, shall we say. That explains the gloves.
This is one of the hundreds of species that can change colors, chameleonlike, according to their surrounds. As I went from case to case, I often had to try really hard to discern the frog, who, key to success, was blending right in.
Frogs play a big, good role in the environment, eating a lot of critters (which is good for agriculture); getting eaten a lot, which forms an important link in the food chain; and being a kind of ecological early warning system, since, when pollution sets in, they tend to dwindle. Ned Gilmore, herpetology collection manager at the Academy, says there are "close to 500 species that are currently in peril of being extinct" across the world, thanks to "a variety of different causes, acid rain, pathogens, and habitat modification."
Incredibly successful, yet also endangered. Really slimy and ugly, and yet some of the most delicate, beautiful creatures in the world. And they can sing. Frogs: A Chorus of Color reminds us of how strange, diverse, resourceful, and precious frogs are.