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Original Issue

Flashy frogs sing world's oldest song

The tailless amphibians shown in color on the next four pages are joining in raucous chorus as they have for millions of years

A fellow told me the other day that he never laughed at frogs. Now, I've known this man for several years, and have considered him quite a well-rounded individual: versed in literature and painting and possessed of a reasonable knowledge of the other arts. But I'd never guessed that he had this blank about frogs. Imagine anybody not laughing at frogs! Something awful must have happened to this fellow in his childhood.

Of course, with the unprecedented growth of urban areas, there are a lot of people who don't get many chances to laugh at frogs, but when they do they react in the proper manner. It is not a case of laughing with frogs, mind you, but laughing at them. The frogs don't mind a bit, and the way they ham it up indicates these deadpan batrachian comics spend most of their time just trying to get laughs.

In the first place, frogs look like small people in formal attire. Some of them wear green tuxedos, even to a black spot on the throat for a bow tie. They sit on a lily pad, or even a gaudy flame flower, as on the opposite page, in complete dignity, and all of a sudden their throat swells out like a kid blowing bubble gum. At the same time they emit a sound that might be a Bronx cheer. Some climb trees and carry on this way. Others crawl in a hole and holler. Some hoot like owls and others let out cowboy yells. When they are smooching the boy holds the girl in his arms and wears a silly expression. And when they are singing they go through the antics of a comedy quartet.

Frogs are comical, yet at the same time their appearance indicates they are wise beyond their status in the biological scale. It may be their form, the way they sit down in such a thoughtful pose, or maybe it is those large, bulging eyes in that solemn face that creates the impression; but it has always seemed to me that frogs know a lot more than they're letting on about. Frogs, if you please, are many sided. Their life history is a fascinating story with many variations according to species.

The life of the individual frog is a series of adventures. He lives with a host of enemies right on his tail, or where his tail would be if he had one. He sits on the bank, and when an enemy approaches he makes a wild leap into the water. Like as not, something down there gets after him and he has to jump out on the bank again. Through all his trials he keeps his comical front to the world, never complaining except in the last extremity. Then he lets out a scream that curdles the blood.


Frogs run the entire scale of personal appearance. Some, especially the toads, are homely; some people even call them ugly. Some are plain types dressed in drab colors. Others are beautiful, as the accompanying portfolio of tree frog portraits in color will prove.

Lastly, frogs have been around a long time. They have been on earth for nearly 200 million years. In fact, frogs were sitting around in Mesozoic swamps yelling their heads off in joyful chorus some hundred million years before man even got his start. My friend, Charles M. Bogert, frog student extraordinary, says it is probable that the first voice in existence was that of a frog. Furthermore, frogs are averse to change, preferring things the way they are. The remains of the earliest known frogs, dating back some 20 million years, are practically the same as the frogs of today.

Poets and other romanticists are always talking about the birds singing in the springtime. They try to indicate that birds are the heralds of spring. I've got nothing against bird-song—I like to sit under a tree listening to the birds just as much as the next fellow—yet I claim that a frog chorus is the true voice of spring. Birds usually sing alone to let other birds know they are on the job with the old nest-building chore.

But frogs assemble in large numbers in a suitable spot and all sing together. I'll admit their voices are not melodious. The calls of various species sound like snores, grunting swine, quacking ducks or screaming women. They emit extended whines, shrill peeps and trills. Theirs is like barroom singing—what it lacks in harmony it makes up for in zest and volume. Yet there is something deeply moving about a great frog chorus in the night; something primordial. And don't forget, the frogs were at it eons before the first bird chirped.

We have been using the term "frogs" to mean all the tailless amphibians. These, of course, include the true frogs, the tree frogs and the toads. There are many lesser variations recognized by the herpetologists, including tree frogs that hardly ever climb trees and frogs that have a close resemblance to toads.

Few Americans realize how lucky they are when it comes to being blessed with an abundance of tailless amphibians. In the U.S. there are 68 species of frogs. New Jersey, which is pretty small as states go, boasts 15 species compared to only 20 species for the whole of Europe. Some of our frogs are spread over large areas, the most widespread species being the leopard frog, which is found from Canada to Panama.

Most of us have childhood memories of the first time we witnessed the miracle of the egg-to-tadpole-to-frog sequence. We remember when we collected the eggs and watched them hatch into tiny tadpoles, watched the tadpoles grow, then saw the arms and legs emerge and the tail dwindle as it was resorbed. Like other boys, I observed this transformation time and again, but there was one thing about it that caused me continuing wonder.

After a frog has gotten this job done there comes a time when he has to try out his brand-new stomach. As a tadpole he mumbled around on delectable scum, but now, after a long period without eating, he is ready for his first insect. He waits patiently until an unsuspecting bug comes along and snares it with his agile tongue. Solemnly he swallows and then sits there with his eyes bulging.

"How does it feel?" I used to wonder as I watched my frog. "What is he saying to himself, 'Mighty good. Very fine stomach.' Or is he saying, 'Ouch! Still a little tender on the inside.' "

Although the tadpole-into-frog trick is an oft-taught lesson in fundamental biology, few persons are aware of the astounding variations in the manner in which it is accomplished. Toads, in general, lay their eggs in long, gelatinous strings. True frogs lay theirs in clusters, although the female bullfrog lays hers in a floating film which may contain as many as 20,000 eggs.

Engystomops pustulosus, a small frog found in Panama, kicks up a white foam on top of the water. This floating island of foam supports the eggs above the water until the tadpoles hatch. The male of the European midwife toad obligingly carries the eggs around between his hind legs, and the marsupial frog of the Andes keeps them in a pouch on the back. And then there are some tropical frogs that lay their eggs out of the water, and the transformation takes place inside the egg. At hatching time the little frog jumps out of the egg, complete and ready for business. The variations are endless.

Frog songs are love songs. When mating time comes the males assemble in ponds, swamps or marshes in large numbers and try to outdo each other in letting the females know they are around. The call is made with the mouth and nostrils closed. Most frogs have one or two throat sacs which are inflated during calling, sometimes the throat sac being larger than the frog. When in full voice the frog shunts the air back and forth over his vocal cords to produce a song that may not seem charming to human ears but which has the desired effect of luring the female frog.

Sometimes in the southern part of the country when 10 species and thousands of individuals are calling in a swamp simultaneously it makes a thunderous, nocturnal chorus unlike anything else you could ever hear.

For those who haven't the opportunity to go out and sit in a swamp at night to hear a frog chorus I would suggest getting Mr. Bogert's record called Sounds of North American Frogs. Mr. Bogert, who is chairman of the Department of Amphibians and Reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History, has spent many years studying frogs, photographing them and recording their songs. His long-playing chorale is gotten out by Folkways Records. It is the last word in frog recording, not a rock 'n' roll approach but a faithful capturing of solos and symphonies, with a masterly interpretation by Mr. Bogert, the Toscanini of the frog world.

This swampland opus took me back to the time when, as a lad, I discovered that the shrill piping in roadside ditches in early spring was made by an inch-long frog, Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper. The voice of Bufo americanus, the common American toad, brought back the hours I had passed beside some pond watching the ballooning throats of these creatures as they emitted their long, whirring trills in the May moonlight.

In the bass range there was Bufo marinus, the giant toad of the American tropics, which reminded me of a specimen I brought back from Panama and kept in a Manhattan apartment for two years. My wife got tired of this phlegmatic Bufo, so I turned him over to the old New York Aquarium which stood at the Battery. There he sat for seven more years in a niche in a rockery and ate 40 earthworms every Thursday.

Included among the voices is the deep, resonant "jug-o-rum" call of Rana catesbeiana, the American bullfrog. This is a fine bass song, but I'm afraid there are many Americans who think of the bullfrog mainly in epicurean terms. Frogs' legs are shipped from Louisiana and other states, and the American bullfrog has been introduced into a number of foreign countries where its descendants produce frogs' legs for the American market. They have done well in Cuba and were even taken to Japan, from which country frozen legs are shipped here so that the Americans can live high on the frog.

Individual frogs have received considerable public acclaim, but usually it has been in fiction. There was Mark Twain's Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Toad, of Toad Hall, who consorted with all those other delightful creatures in The Wind in the Willows. There was one actual frog, however, that attained national fame here in the U.S. This frog, a specimen of Rana clamitans, the green frog, became a celebrity by being a blonde.

Back before World War II word got out that the late Dr. G. Kingsley Noble was studying an albino green frog in the department of experimental biology at the American Museum of Natural History. Furthermore, it was said that an adult albino green frog was as rare as human quintuplets. Newspapers over the country carried the story, and somehow the very idea of an albino frog with pink eyes struck the public fancy. Dr. Noble was besieged by press photographers, reporters, newsreel men and hosts of others. The frog became known as Whitey, and public clamor became so great that she was put on exhibition in a cage in the museum foyer where thousands filed by to stare, and laugh, at the pale, pink-eyed frog.

Six weeks after Whitey's rise to fame she became the star of a Mark Twain centennial celebration in New York's Central Park. They had a frog-jumping contest in honor of Mark Twain's jumping frog. During the contest Whitey, in a glass case, rested on a seven-foot throne overlooking the greensward. Ten little girls dressed in green-and-orange frog costumes went through the jerky motions of a frog dance around the throne. A frog poem was read and Whitey was crowned Queen of Frogs, with the crown on top of her cage. Never has a frog attained such heights.

In his book A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern North America, published last year by Houghton Mifflin Company, Roger Conant says that interest in frogs has increased vastly in recent years. This is a good thing. Frog study takes you outdoors, and the deeper you get into it the more fascinating it becomes. If the trend continues, as I'm sure it will, more people will be getting more chances to laugh at frogs.



Hyla ???: A recently discovered Mexican tree frog that has not yet been named. This one was caught at an altitude of 12,000 feet.



Hyla lafrentzi: This sprightly specimen makes its home in the coniferous forests of Mexico and can usually be found near pools and streams.



Hyla gratiosa: A gray phase of the barking tree frog, which abounds in the southeastern U.S. Recently one was found in New Jersey.



Hyla baudini: A giant among tree frogs, this species lives in Texas and Mexico. Large specimens are up to three and a half inches long.



Hyla eximia: Many frogs undergo color changes at the slightest provocation. These two specimens belong to the same species but they wear different patterns here. They hail from the Mexican plateau.



Hyla cinerea: Sometimes bright green and sometimes dull brown, this slender tree frog is common throughout America's deep South. Around Lake Okeechobee, Fla., they can be heard calling in millions.



Hyla gratiosa: Another specimen of the barking tree frog displays its ability to change its color when subjected to a change in its environment. Kept in sand at 100°, this fellow turned chrome yellow.