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Deafening

Ranger Steve’s Nature NicheBy Ranger Steve Mueller

Little ponds that dry by mid-summer exude great volume to deafen you at night. One of my great joys is to approach one these ponds in spring. One hears a great cacophony but the pond suddenly becomes silent when approached. If the pond is large enough, the noise continues from the far side. 

Adult Spring Peeper.

Walk slowly around the pond and the noise will cease. If you are moving slow enough, the noise will begin again behind you. Sit and listen. Frogs will quiet with your approach but after a short time of sitting, one frog will sing and others will join. It is breeding season for frogs and they gather from surrounding areas to mate and lay egg masses in temporary vernal ponds. Vernal ponds dry or almost dry by midsummer. 

They are the most important breeding areas for most frogs because egg predators like fish do not survive in ponds that dry. Frogs call with songs unique to their species. Species that deafen us are only the size of your little finger tip. So many gather in the small pond that their joint volume hurts our ears. 

The smallest frogs are spring peepers that spend the summer away from the pond feeding on insects. Their song is a single peep repeated over and over throughout the night. When calling males get hold of a female, they squeeze eggs from her tiny body. His sperm is released on the emerging eggs that are in a jelly mass. The jelly encasing the eggs absorbs water and swells to become as large as the frog or bigger. 

Inside the jelly mass, eggs are two-toned. They have counter-shading with dark tops and light undersides. If they are laid in locations like permanent ponds and this occurs, they are somewhat invisible to fish from underneath because the light color blends with the light sky. From above the dark color blends with the dark pond bottom hiding them from predators. The jelly masses are attached to vegetation holding them in place. 

By the time the developing embryos hatch, the jelly encasing them has become green with cyanobacteria that digests the jelly. The tadpole coming from the egg can break free from the jelly without being stuck and killed. As a polliwog, some nutrition is absorbed from the tail. It feeds on floating aquatic vegetation as an herbivore unlike its adult parents that are predators on insects. The adult and kids do not compete for food. As the tadpole grows legs, its tail shrinks and the diet changes from vegetation to animal matter like insects or other invertebrates. By the time the pond dries, tadpoles become frogs and move into the woods. 

Another small frog that shares the vernal pond is the chorus frog. It is as tiny as spring peepers but can be recognized from the peepers by having three stripes on its back from head to rear. Spring peepers have an X on their back. A chorus frog song can be imitated by rubbing a thumb over the teeth of a comb. Ten thousand of these singing with ten thousand spring peepers is painful to our ears at close range. 

A frog found in breeding ponds that is several times larger is the wood frog. It is brown and has a dark Lone Ranger mask over its eyes. Their song sounds like ducks quacking. Their abundance in ponds is great but I think they are fewer than the smaller frogs. They too can be found throughout the forest in summer. 

Green and bull frogs need permanent ponds for egg laying because most young take two summers to mature. They breed in temporary ponds but survival for their offspring is precarious. Survival will be touch and go depending on how long water remains in the pond. Some vernal ponds persist all year but shrink greatly in size. If fortunate the large frogs might survive the winter in small fish-free pools. American toads breed in almost any water they find. Young develop quickly but mortality is high because tiny breeding pools often dry quickly.

The little frogs lay eggs in permanent ponds and bogs where some survive. If they are away from open water with fish they might be protected for development. Few tadpoles survive to become breeding adults. Populations are declining for several reasons but a big one is the filling or draining of temporary ponds. We can share the world with them by allowing vernal ponds to exist and by using few or no pesticides in nature niches.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.


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