February 19, 2003

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Culture Shocked
By Katharine Mieszkowski

Ribbit

THE CELEBRATED JUMPING frog of Calaveras County, made famous by Mark Twain, has a challenger. –It's not some new frog in town, full of braggadocio, ribbiting on about his awesome leaps. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is taking on the legendary Calaveras frog, declaring that unseemly jumping about for human entertainment has just got to stop. Claiming that the amphibian athletes are leaping under duress, the animals rights group has asked the Calaveras County Fair to halt its annual Jumping Frog Jubilee, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this May. In a separate initiative, PETA has also taken a stand against frog dissection, counseling teenage biology students to "cut class, not frogs."

If only Mark Twain were still around to write the story himself.

While PETA is making noise about frog rights on the fairground and in the classroom, on the real front lines of frog defense you won't hear much human chatter. Instead you'll find Homo sapiens silently lurking around urban creeks, ponds, and puddles after dark, intently listening for amphibian mating calls.

It's frog-watch season. And thus, on a recent Monday night, in the basement of the Albany Community Center, a half dozen recruits for the Friends of Five Creeks' volunteer frog-watching brigade are in ribbit training. Their teacher is a twentysomething geologist from Albany named Jesse Quay, who spent three months last summer in the Sierra Nevada surveying frogs. He explains that frogs, because they're thin-skinned, are an "indicator species." Their porous exterior makes them especially sensitive to changes in their environment, like toxins and other pollutants. When the croaking stops at a once-hopping creek, it's time to worry.

The frog survey, which Friends of Five Creeks leads in North Berkeley, Albany, and El Cerrito every other year, is part of a federal effort to monitor frog populations, which are declining worldwide. Quay tells the volunteers that their observations will go into a national database operated by no lesser authority than Frogwatch USA.

The recruits learn how to recognize the distinctive vocalizations of local frogs by listening to recordings of their calls, which range from the cowlike mooing of the nonnative bullfrog to the "cronks" and growls of the endangered California red-legged frog. Fortunately, the most common local variety – the Pacific chorus frog – emits a more pedestrian "ribbit" that any fifth grader could pick out.

The villain in this tale is the bullfrog. ("It almost sounds kind of bad," Quay says, playing a recording of the frog's guttural call.) An East Coast interloper, the bullfrog came west during the gold rush with the forty-niners, providing tasty frog legs for prospectors after a hard day at the diggings. "Escaped, these large, greenish frogs (up to 10 inches) became fierce predators on our native frogs," the Friends of Five Creeks Web site laments. Between one of these bruisers and a petite Pacific chorus frog, it's really no contest. Despite a formidable black mask around its eyes, the chorus frog measures in at just under two inches.

Frogs need both terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and not just any water will do. Elementary school classes that release into the wild the frogs they've raised from tadpoles can be sending them to a watery grave. "If you release them in any of our major creeks, the chances are they'll be swept out to the bay, because the storm flow is too strong," says Susan Schwartz, president of Friends of Five Creeks.

The brass ring of frog watching in the Bay Area is the California red-legged frog, an endangered species so rare that if a frog watcher hears its song – a series of short "unks" followed by a growl – he or she is supposed to try to record it and contact the group immediately. According to Schwartz, these frogs were heard on the UC Berkeley campus in the '60s but haven't been heard from in these parts since.

In the field, frog watching is a mellow pursuit, conducted with equipment no more elaborate than a flashlight, a pen, and an official "amphibian-calling survey form." The flashlight isn't for spying frogs, which aren't partial to light and sometimes freeze up, mesmerized when it's shined on them. The flashlight's for filling out the form – and finding the way home postsurvey.

A half hour to two hours after sunset, the frog watcher stakes out a spot near a body of water (which can be as humble as a puddle), switches off his or her flashlight, and silently listens for about three minutes. If there's a loud noise that might disturb frogs – say, a car backfiring – the frog watcher waits for quiet and then starts over.

The best night for a frog watch is a moist, calm, misty, moonless night. "Moonlight means that they can be seen by predators," Schwartz explains.

Frog watching has seen some recent technological innovation. Quay told his students that researchers at Point Reyes outfit red-legged frogs with radiotelemetry tracking devices to monitor their movements. "It looks like a bikini," he says. "They swear it doesn't hurt them."

"They don't have to wear them," one student grouses.

Quay advises his volunteers not to touch the frogs – it can damage the delicate mucus membrane on their skin. And most important, they learn to report their findings even if they hear nothing at all.

Visit the Friends of Five Creeks at www.fivecreeks.org.

Visit Frogwatch USA at www.nwf.org/keepthewildalive/frogwatch.

  E-mail Katharine Mieszkowski at km@salon.com.