by Greg Mayer
In a previous post here at WEIT, I’d reported on some toads and a painted turtle that I’d rescued from stair and window wells, and then released back into the wild last spring. I’d mentioned at the time that I periodically check these places, especially a deep (ca. 20 feet down) window well on the west side of the building my office is in, because it faces a pond and woods, and animals coming out of the woods regularly fall down into it. So at the beginning of the semester in early September, I took my vertebrate zoology class out during our first lab period, and we investigated the window well. There was a pretty good ‘crop’ this fall– eleven American toads (Bufo americanus), and 23 green frogs (Rana clamitans).
The toads fell into two size classes: medium (in picture above), about 55 mm snout-vent length, and small, about 40 mm. The green frogs were all about the same size– 35 mm. These latter were probably all a single age class, having metamorphosed from tadpoles earlier in the summer, and then hitting the building and falling in the window well as they began to disperse away from their natal pond. Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) are also common in the pond, but we’ve never found them in the window well– they must have different dispersal behavior.
Frogs and toads are collectively known as anurans— it means “not having a tail”– and adult frogs and toads do, of course, lack tails. The anurans we rescued from the window well had been there varying lengths of time, but most were in at least decent shape, though some were thin and dehydrated. We kept them in the lab for a couple of weeks, feeding them and rehydrating them. We then released them on two warm days just as autumn was about to begin. My colleague Chris Noto was teaching a lab on a floor looking out over the woods, and he saw me encumbered with toads as I attempted to take their pictures and carry them back out to the woods. He came down and helped with the pictures and the release (which were featured in two “Spot the __” posts, on frogs and toads).
The green frogs were released a few days later.
[JAC: a video of the release. I have to commend Greg for both taking the time to rescue these frogs and also calling them to our attention. Frogs are not only underappreciated animals, but are harbingers of human damage to the environment, climatic and otherwise. And I’ve always said that if frogs hadn’t evolved, we simply wouldn’t be able to imagine them!]
There are at least a dozen or more different sorts of anurans around the world that are worthy of their own vernacular name, but because only two sorts occur in England, we are stuck with calling them all either “frog” or “toad” in English. The American toad and the green frog do, however, correspond to the two sorts found in England (what are sometimes called the “true toads” and the “true frogs”, respectively).
Anurans are amphibians, and like most amphibians, have a complex life cycle. The word “amphibian” alludes to this– it means “both lives”, because a typical amphibian lives both on the land and in the water. Reptiles and their descendants (the amniotes, including birds and mammals), do not have this dual life cycle. One of the former candidates for the title of “first reptile” was the 270 million year old Seymouria, which has reptile-like features; but when it was found that its close relatives had aquatic larvae with gills, it was clear they were not reptiles, but rather led the “both lives” of an amphibian.
“Both lives” does not seem to adequately summarize the life of a typical amphibian, such as the American toad. They begin life as eggs in water, hatch out as tailed, gilled, tadpoles, that then swim about, eventually losing their tails and gills and sprouting legs to transform into toadlets, which then move onto land. After sexually maturing, they return to the pond each spring, to resume an amphibious existence, there to mate and reproduce. The adults then leave the pond for the summer to live wholly on land, while their eggs begin the complex cycling again. To paraphrase The Who, “Amphibians? They’re bleeding Quadrophibians.”