A search for amphibian truths or chance to muck about in mud? FROGS

August 27, 1994|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,Sun Staff Writer

The place was still as I recalled it in dreams of 35 years ago -- dark and dank, hot and fetid, scummed with algae, swarmed with biting insects, tangled with greenbriar and poison ivy.

Almost perfect.

But too quiet. Where were the shrilling tree frogs, the guttural trilling leopard frogs, the banjo twangs of the green frogs; and most of all, where was the sonorous, basso profundo chuggurrummm of the bullfrogs?

I heard a few notes, but there should have been a whole orchestra. The scene had remained the quintessence of an Eastern Shore freshwater swamp, but the spirit had gone out of the place.

That was the summer of 1993, when I first revisited some of the frog ponds of my youth. I'd been reading and hearing for a few years of a mysterious, growing worldwide decline in populations of frogs, toadsand salamanders.

From golden toads in Costa Rica and red legged frogs in `D California, to Australian gastric brooding frogs and bullfrogs in 00 eastern Ontario, the scientific reports of amphibian problems were piling up.

Of course, the first cause one would suspect was nothing more exotic than plain old loss of habitat -- draining wetlands, spraying pesticides, cutting forests. I had recently come across some fascinating recollections of the Eastern Shore more than half a century ago by Roger Conant, a world-renowned expert on reptiles and amphibians who made collecting sorties down the Delmarva Peninsula in the 1930s:

"On rainy spring nights many of the frog choruses were so enormous and deafening that one species could not be distinguished from another by ear. Sometimes there were so many frogs and/or toads migrating across the paved roads to nearby breeding ponds and swales that we had to stop the car and shoo them out of the way."

Then, on a return to his old stomping grounds in 1975, Mr. Conant wrote:

"The trip . . . was disheartening; [so many] depressed acres that quickly filled with water and attracted earsplitting choruses had been drained or filled to make room for more crops . . . the Peninsula seemed as though it were wall-to-wall fields, to say nothing of the vast chicken farms."

But something scarier seemed at work in the current, global downturns, scientists were saying; because many of the problems are occurring in remote, still-pristine habitats.

No one yet has nailed down the causes. A prime suspect is increased ultraviolet radiation from a thinning of the earth's ozone layer (caused, apparently, by our release of certain ozone-destroying chemicals).

Or it may be an amphibian-killing fungal disease that seems to be spreading around the world. The final answer may include both, and perhaps other human-induced diseases of the atmosphere, like acid rain.

At any rate, the possible connections between the respective states of the heavens and my old backyard were unsettling. Frogs were a memorable part of my growing up on the Shore. Not that I was a naturalist in those days.

Times were slower then, and on spring and summer nights, we sought simple diversions -- like roaring around the county dump on the hood of a car, shotgunning rats; and setting out long after dark, burlap feed sacks in hand, into the region's abundant swamps and gravel pits to capture bullfrogs. Their long, muscular legs, when skinned and fried, made tasty eating and occasionally fetched a good price from local restaurants.

When I was a little older, I was privileged to be invited frogging, with a group of slightly over-the-hill Shoremen who billed themselves as the All-American Team. They came from half a dozen little towns you never stopped in on your way to Ocean City. By day they were businessmen, pharmacists and bureaucrats, caught up in all the normal stresses of life. But on warm spring and summer evenings, in the small ponds that are the province of the dedicated bullfrogger, they were very big fish indeed.

Sometimes the All-Americans and their invitees drank too much, which could lead to poor form, like losing one's hip boots in the muck; or even bad behavior, like dispatching the night's catch by biting their heads off, instead of the time-honored whack-'em-against-the-nearest-hard-object method.

But mostly, they were true professionals and aficionados, who ,, taught me to disdain crass methods of capture such as shooting with a small caliber rifle, or gigging the frogs with a trident on the end of a pole.

Purists in technique

We embraced the purist technique, bare-handed, mano a froggo. Wading as deep as your chest in the swamp, transfixing a pair of glowing eyes in your flashlight beam, you would stalk, ever so delicately to within arm's reach. Then, leaning, slowly, sloooowly toward the frog, light still steady on its face, bring your free hand around behind its slithery body and GRAB! squeezing it firmly before chucking in the sack at your waist. Some nights, when they were clicking, the All-Americans would secure well over a hundred bullfrogs that way.

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