May, 2009

The Frogs and Toads of North America
Author: Lang Elliott, Carl Gerhardt, and Carlos Davidson

Review by: EDWARD KANZE

Houghton Mifflin Co., 2009 Softcover, 344 pages, $19.95 Comes with CD

Houghton Mifflin Co., 2009
Softcover, 344 pages, $19.95
Comes with CD

In spring, birds flood the Adirondacks with music, and those who tune in report that the chorus thrills the soul. Yet listen closely in May and June, and you’ll detect a far older symphony. This one is of such ancient vintage that it, or something like it, shook the Jurassic air when swamps and marshes were prowled by dinosaurs. It is the noisy, sometimes musical, sometimes raucous display of passion staged every spring by frogs.

Because the Adirondack climate tends to be cold, and because our terrain was recently scraped bare by glaciers, our diversity of frogs is low compared to such nearby wild places as the New Jersey pine barrens. All the same, for cool, rocky mountains, the Adirondacks are hopping. Ten frog species occur here, and one more, the eastern spadefoot toad, breeds along the Park’s southeastern perimeter.

For those wanting to know more about Adirondack frogs than they can learn by observing them in the wild, options have been limited. Standard field guides cover our neck of the woods only tangentially. In 2007 we took a great leap forward with the publication of The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State by James Gibbs, Al Breisch, Glenn Johnson, and others (see my review in the March/April 2000 issue of the Adirondack Explorer). Still, there’s been a need for a book combining the latest science with first-rate illustrations, and a need for comprehensive sound recordings, too.

Ithaca’s Lang Elliott, who lived in Rainbow Lake for years, has joined forces with co-authors Carl Gerhardt of the University of Missouri and Carlos Davidson of San Francisco State University to deliver the package we’ve been waiting for: The Frogs and Toads of North America. It’s chockablock with dazzling photos and informative upto- date text. Peek inside the back cover, and a compact disk awaits. It presents and identifies all the voices in the continent’s amphibian chorus.

On a cold day late last winter, I popped the disk in a CD player. Immediately it was warm, and I was wading through a frog-and-snake infested swamp. O joy! For an amphibian and reptile lover, such an imaginative revel is bliss.

Mink frog

Mink frog

One thing I like about the book is its broad scope— achieved, importantly, without sacrifice of depth or detail. We in the Adirondacks can be parochial at times, concerning ourselves so much with what goes on inside the Park’s so-called Blue Line that we forget there’s a world outside. Elliott, Gerhardt, and Davidson remind us. Our spring peeper, gray treefrog, and boreal chorus frog, for example, are placed in context in their grand family, the Hylidae. North American hylid frogs include such stunning non- Adirondack species as the dazzling green treefrog of the Southeast and the luminous Arizona treefrog of the Southwest desert.

The book also expands horizons by considering topics we would be wise to learn more about: global amphibian declines, for example, as well as the way frogs live, breed, and die. There’s material here, too, on recent scientific progress involving DNA and other evidence that gives us new taxonomic cubbyholes for frogs we thought we knew.

Since Adirondack frogs can be counted on a single set of human toes, it’s possible to take each in turn and sample what Elliott, Gerhardt, and Davidson have to offer.

The gray treefrog, widespread and abundant, is a camouflage artist with a chameleon-like ability to change its colors to match its surroundings. As a result, these frogs are heard far more often than seen. We take in their loud Bronx cheers at our house along the Saranac River in late May and June. Their singing corresponds with the annual feeding frenzy of black flies. I like to think all that noise represents energy gleaned by swallowing innumerable biting insects. What does a gray treefrog sound like exactly? The CD supplies the voice individually and in groups. It even presents release calls—sounds males and females make when other frogs try to mate with them and the advances are unwanted.

A cousin of the gray treefrog, but far smaller (about an inch long), is the well-known spring peeper. Biologists recently decided that this little loudmouth is a chorus frog. As a result, its old scientific handle, Hyla crucifer, has given way to Pseudacris crucifer. “Pseudacris” is Greek for “false locust.” “Crucifer” refers to a crucifix-like X that occupies the center of the frog’s back. Elliott’s fullpage photo of a peeper singing suggests a child transforming bubble gum into a great sticky balloon.

A second chorus frog occurs in the Adirondacks along the shores of Lake Champlain. The field guides on my bookshelf identify it as the midland chorus frog, Pseudacris triseriata, but Elliott and colleagues explain that DNA evidence convinces herpetologists otherwise. Today the proper name for our only striped frog is boreal chorus frog, Pseudacris maculata. It’s about the size of a spring peeper. Males (which in frogs are smaller than the females) tend to measure three-quarters of an inch or a bit more, while females may measure an inch and a half. The song suggests a finger run forcefully over the teeth of a comb.

A lone toad, the American, occurs in the Adirondacks. Scientists have long called it Bufo americanus, but the authors explain that a growing number of experts would like to see it and most of its American cousins placed in a new genus, Anaxyrus. Toads are far from pretty, yet their spring songs are gorgeous and can be enjoyed on the CD. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll learn here that toads are frogs. “Toads” belong to several families and tend to be brown, rough-skinned, and somewhat terrestrial, yet the name is entirely informal.

Our best known frogs—the bull, the green, the pickerel, the northern leopard, the wood, and the mink—have long been assigned to the genus Rana, a name my frogloving wife and I considered assigning to our daughter. Perhaps it’s a good thing we chose differently. Elliott and colleagues explain that scientists with DNA in hand may soon place these frogs in a new genus, Lithobates. Is this renaming really necessary? My favorite sentence in the book supplies an answer. “We may take comfort in thinking that classification is static and unchanging, but the reality is that taxonomy is a science, and names must therefore change in response to new ways of interpreting existing information as well as to new discoveries about the animals themselves.”

Northern leopard frog

Northern leopard frog

As for the voices of these medium- to large-size frogs, we get meticulous word descriptions as well as earfuls on the CD. A pickerel frog, for example, utters soft snorelike sounds lasting a couple of seconds while a leopard frog snores like my Adirondack grandfather.

Shortcomings of the book? I’d have liked to see a species checklist, although the CD descriptions could serve as one. A general index would also be useful. Finally, as a biographer of the naturalist John Burroughs, I think this delicious cake of a book could have been iced by including what I consider the finest poem ever written about a fat, sluggish amphibian with a pustulated complexion. Burroughs’s “The Song of the Toad” begins, “Have you heard the blinking toad/ Sing his solo by the river/ When April nights are soft and warm,/ And spring is all aquiver?” It ends, “Blessings on thy warty head:/ No bird could do it better.”