Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Glade Sun

February 25, 2014

Enjoying nature requires good stewardship

CROSSVILLE — It is a tough world out there in nature, and it gets harder all the time. Just for a minute, imagine you are a frog. In nature, you are either at the top of the food chain or you are food. Frogs get eaten by bigger frogs, fish, snakes, turtles, many kinds of birds, and just about every mammal. Now, imagine that the most important part of your environment, your home pond, is drained. If you are a frog, you are now more than just homeless ... you are done, and so are all your future generations, and the frog doesn’t even know.

Here on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, we are home to a unique frog that most people have never seen, and never will. That is because the wood frog isn’t normally seen in ponds like other frogs. The wood frog, as its name implies, lives in the woods. The only time adult wood frogs can be seen in a pond is for a few days each year, when hundreds of them leave the woods and meet at their home pond, for a few days of singing, and mating. Once wood frogs lay their eggs in the pond, it’s off to the woods until the same time next year.

Wood frogs are the first frogs to come out of hibernation each year. At the first warm rain of the year, while all other amphibians and reptiles are still in hibernation, wood frogs wake up, thaw out, and head for their own breeding pond. Thaw out is accurate. Wood frogs have the unique ability to freeze solid without harm. This ability allows wood frogs to live where others cannot. In fact, wood frogs are the most numerous frog in Alaska, and they even live north of the Arctic Circle.

Wood frogs breed in ephemeral wetlands or vernal ponds. Ephemeral means “lasts for a short time,” and vernal refers to spring. Vernal ponds are ponds only in the spring – they normally dry up in the heat of the summer. If you are a frog, and you lay your eggs in a pond that dries up in a couple of months, you don’t have to worry about fish and turtles eating your eggs, or your tadpoles. Several kinds of frogs and toads, as well as salamanders, breed in vernal ponds.

I had been watching the vernal pond near where I live where, early each year, hundreds of wood frogs congregate for several days. Last year, the wood frogs met at the pond for their annual rendezvous, on Jan. 15. Because of the colder weather we had this year, the ground was frozen longer, so the frogs needed the first good warm rain to thaw them out. That rain happened last week on Feb. 18. On Feb. 19, I went to the pond, and the frogs were chirping and hopping everywhere.

The only problem was that the pond wasn’t there. Recent home construction in the area inadvertently drained the pond. There was nothing left but a wet ditch that would be dry in a couple of days. The frogs didn’t know, and they had no choice. They had returned to breed in the only pond they ever knew. Hundreds of them were singing, hopping, mating, and laying their eggs in the wet ditch. In a day or two they would be heading back out into the woods, not knowing that the next generation, and all those frog’s future generations, would dry up with the shallow ditch. In three years, about the life span of a wood frog, there probably would have not been any more wood frogs for miles around without intervention.

However, because it was our human species that was the cause of this situation, a couple of friends and I decided to try to give these frogs a little help. A few days after the frogs filled the wet ditch with thousands of frog eggs, we gathered the eggs in buckets of water and relocated them to another vernal pond nearby, where they would at least have a chance to grow up into another generation of wood frogs.

Some people might say, “big deal, why does it matter about a couple of frogs that most people have never seen.” It might not matter ... or maybe it will. It is like the story of the guy walking down a beach covered with thousands of washed up starfish. As he walked along the beach, every so often he would pick up a starfish and toss it back into the water. Someone said to him, “why bother with a couple of starfish, there are thousand dying on the beach, saving a few doesn’t matter.” As the guy tossed another starfish into the sea, he replied, “it mattered to that one.”

We can’t save everything, but next time you see a turtle in the road, stop and move it to the side. Let that snake go back into the woods, don’t chop it in half. Pick up that beer can that some knucklehead tossed beside the road. It is tough enough out there in nature without us humans causing all the problems that we do. If everyone helps just a little bit, we can continue to enjoy the beautiful nature around us.

• • •

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com

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