Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When Frogs Go Wrong

Copyright © 2010 C. R. Edmunds

I got to my gate this afternoon and noticed that the muddy water in the biggest rut had just about dried up. In the few shallow pools left, tadpoles were wiggling around, struggling to survive and sure to fail because there’s no rain coming today or probably even tomorrow.

Some toadly mom made a bad choice.

OK, before I go any further, I know some of you are going to tell me that the tadpoles in the ruts and arroyos of my ranch aren’t going to grow up to be frogs, since they’re spadefoot toads. But guess what – spadefoot toads aren’t even true toads, but are a burrowing frog after all. Confused yet? That’s OK, so are the rest of us.

Back to Mrs. Spadefoot Toad, who made a bad choice for her tads. There were a bunch of those little critters, some frantically wiggling in the few piddling pools of water remaining, some already stranded in mud, their gold bellies exposed, their little mouths open and closing, gasping for air. Well, not air, I guess, but water to flow over their gills. A sad sight, I’ll tell you.

I confess yesterday I rescued three or four stranded tadpoles from another puddle. I felt monumentally stupid, but I was very pleased to see them right themselves and wiggle off, apparently no worse for the wear. I poked at the few desiccated-looking bodies left in the mud but there was no response. I don’t know how many froglets had been growing in that puddle, but it had been a lot more than just the few I’d rescued.

Who’d have thought that this morning's big water-filled rut, home to so many more tadpoles than yesterday’s puddle, would lose six inches of water in just the few hours since I’d left earlier?

I was formulating a plan of action: Operation Toadlift. I’d need something like a plastic cup to scoop them up – the soft tadpole bodies might stick to the sides of an aquarium fish net. I’d need a bucket. I’d need some mosquito repellent – the little bloodsuckers sure do breed when the monsoon rains come. I looked around for a suitable arroyo with plenty of water – after all, I didn’t want to be doing this over and over.

And then I stopped. What the heck was I doing, interfering with nature like this?

The spadefoot toad mom produces hundreds – even a thousand or more – eggs each mating season. The tadpoles in my arroyos and ruts have just a month to eat, grow and transform into little froglets. They eat plant stuff, bugs and other invertebrates - critters without spines - including each other (but interesting enough, apparently not their siblings). For all they look like squishy, spineless, fragile things, Mother Nature has made them pretty darned tough; still, most of any batch of eggs doesn’t make it to adult froghood.

Of course, if every one of those hundreds of spadefoot toad tads survived, walking around my ranch would be a pretty icky proposition, what with the ground being carpeted with hundreds of thousands of froglets hopping around. When Mrs. Spadefoot Toad lays that many eggs it’s her gamble that at least a few will make it – the more that do, the more the likelihood of her genes being passed on. It’s the way nature works with frogs and toads and pretty much everything that doesn’t take part in the raising of its offspring: You have loads of babies and some survive, or you have only a few - or even just one at a time - if you will be there to care for them till they can care for themselves.

I’m sure you know about the survival of the fittest thing –the weak are weeded out and the strong live to reproduce, ensuring (as sure as anything can be in the world) that the species survives.

Note that the species is the survivor – not the individual. Mother Nature didn’t intend for every tadpole to survive – only the strongest, the most fit for the environmental conditions. My saving four tadpoles might have made me feel a little better, but it probably wasn’t in the best interests of spadefoot toad species survival. Mother Nature always has the last say, though - not only did our Mrs. Spadefoot Toad, who laid her eggs in a shallow rut in a driveway, make a bad choice, but my Operation Toadlift came to nothing either. The second puddle will be dried up by now and all those tadpoles – include my “rescued” ones – will dry up, too. There won’t be any risk of passing on the kind of genes that makes for bad decisions about which body of water to lay eggs in, so that’s good for the species.

And maybe that’s a little lesson about environmentalism for a do-gooder, too.

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