Frogs are mysterious creatures, neither land-living nor water-dwelling, but a bit of each. For a long time we didn’t know exactly what they were. In 1694, in France, it was described as ‘an insect that commonly lives in marshes’. Until the late nineteenth century, they were classified as reptiles, and it was only fairly recently that they were grouped as amphibians – animals which need water in which to breed, but which may live on dry land for the rest of the time. Frogs are certainly associated with damp conditions, which they need to prevent their skins from drying out, but they can be found quite a distance from water once the breeding season is over.
All through the winter, the male frogs have been hibernating, either in piles of deadwood, or under my wooden raised path, or in the sediment at the bottom of the pond. Then, one morning, I’ll look out of my bedroom window to see a cat sitting next to the water, taut with attention, and I’ll know that spring is coming, and the first frogs have woken up.
The male frogs emerge first, and wait around for the females to show. These are more likely to hibernate outside the pond – very sensibly because, as we’ll see, once they’re in the water they’ll be extremely popular.
The male frogs develop special bulges on their thumbs called ‘nuptial pads’. These help to hang onto the female during mating, and seem to have some kind of modified mucous gland inside, although there is no evidence that I’m aware of that they actually ‘stick’ to the females. No, grabbing and hanging on to a female (called ‘amplexus’) seems to be down to brute force and perseverance.
The male frogs sing to attract a female, and on a warmish spring night I can hear the little calls while I’m washing up. Once a female has arrived, it’s every frog for himself. Usually, a relaxed relationship seems to develop. The female carries the male everywhere, and gets on with her day to day business. She is often full of spawn, but it might take her weeks to decide where, and when, to lay her eggs. As soon as she does so, the male frog releases his sperm, and the spawn is fertilised.
Sometimes, however, things go wrong.
This froggy sandwich has been going on for several days, and none of the participants seem very happy. Look at that tangle of limbs! My heart goes out to the frog in the middle. I have rarely seen so much pushing and shoving outside of a Northern Line tube train at rush hour. Frog hands are shoved under frog chins, legs kick and the whole group goes round and round in circles. I managed to capture one such attempt at resolving the situation. If you turn your sound up, you will even hear them singing.
There is much about frogs which is decidedly human in appearance. Their long, muscular legs and elegant fingers have something of the supermodel about them, whilst their big eyes and down-turned mouths always look a little disappointed to me, as if life has not turned out at all as they expected. And for many frogs, dissected in school labs, used in experiments or thrown, legless into a bucket after their limbs have been harvested for cuisses de grenouille, this would be a reasonable conclusion to come to. But for millions of other frogs, living out their lives in the relative peace of back gardens, lakes and ponds across the country, spring is a glad season, full of sex and excitement. It’s followed by a chance to retreat back into the undergrowth and do nothing more strenuous than munch on slugs and flies for the rest of the year. Happy is the garden with resident frogs, chilly-skinned, golden-eyed, and unchanged for 200 million years.Much of today’s information came from ‘Frog’ by Charlotte Sleigh, one of the wonderful Reaktion series on the cultural history of different species. Highly recommended!