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X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Spot
Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The Spring Peeper is tan with a darker X on its back. Photo is in the public domain.

The music is about to begin with different members of the orchestra joining in proper sequence. Every member has its assigned seat and music score. There is pushing and shoving for the best seat in the wet swale. The first to tune up their vocal instruments are the Western Chorus Frogs, Northern Spring Peepers, and Wood Frogs. Before all the snow is gone, they move to temporary pools called vernal ponds or swales. They also congregate in permanent ponds, swamps, and marshes. 

The chorus frogs and spring peepers are tiny and are about the size of an adult person’s thumb nail. The wood frogs are two to three times that size. Chorus frogs start the spring music and are quickly followed by peepers and wood frogs. They require vernal pools for breeding and temporary standing water is ideal. The frogs migrate to the pools and begin singing before ice has completely melted. 

The chorus frogs sound like someone rubbing their thumb along the teeth of a comb. Spring peepers make a single repetitive peep. Wood frogs sound like quacking ducks. Each species recognizes its own kind. Females might select a larger or louder member, but males are anxious to breed and will grab any nearby frog. It is not always a female but if it is another male a struggle ensues to break free with a characteristic trill. 

The male squeezes the female and that helps egg laying. As the eggs emerge, they are fertilized by the male. Eggs are laid on twigs or vegetation in the water. When finding an egg mass, you can notice three things. One, the egg masses are much larger than the frog that laid them. Egg masses swell with water creating the larger size. Two, they are enclosed in a clear jelly where algae grows and helps camouflage the eggs. It helps prevent eggs from being seen and eaten. The gel also helps prevent things from biting into the egg mass. The third noticeable characteristic is that eggs are two-toned. They are dark on top which helps them blend with muck at the bottom of the pool. They are light colored on the bottom which helps make them invisible against the sky. 

Algae and bacteria growing in the egg gel breaks it down and by the time the tadpoles are developed enough to hatch, tadpoles can easily escape from the gel. Tadpoles feed on algae. Frog eggs laid in permanent ponds are often eaten by fish as an egg or tadpole. Temporary ponds that dry by mid-summer are essential for continued long term survival of amphibians because they lack fish. Because vernal ponds are small they are not protected by laws and most people are not aware the damage people cause to amphibians, birds, small mammals and even insect populations by draining or filling these pools. Destruction of small pools destroys important nature niche requirements for amphibians or other wildlife. By protecting vernal ponds, it is a form of creation care.

To identify the three frogs, the larger of the three is the wood frog and I refer to it as the lone ranger because it has a dark mask over the eyes. In spring it is not alone when they gather in large masses at ponds. For the rest of the summer and fall they move into moist woodlands. In addition, they have a ridge that runs along their back on both sides dividing the back from the side. 

The two smaller thumb nail sized frogs have their own unique features. The chorus frog has a small dark mask but does not have the ridges on the back. They usually have three dark lines on the back extending from head toward the rear. They have swollen suction cup toe tips that are not present in wood frogs. Spring peepers also have suction cup toe tips and are the lightest colored of the three frogs. They are tan with a darker X on the back. This is the one where X marks the spot. 

The frogs serenade us at dusk and throughout the night. They are most vocal on warmer nights and will sing loudly in rain. When you walk to a pond, they quickly quiet. Calmly sit and within a few minutes one brave individual will begin its peep, make a rachet-like comb tooth call, or duck-like quack. Then others join.

In warmer weather, more frogs will add their instruments to the chorus so next week their stories will be shared.

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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