Editor’s note: Leslie Science and Nature Center is soon launching its frog and toad survey after holding a kick-off orientation meeting on Feb. 24. Other Leslie frog-related events include Frog Fest on May 15, 2010. Partly in that context, local history columnist Laura Bien takes a froggy look back.
Michigan’s inaugural 1996 Frog and Toad Survey started strong. “I have talked with coordinators in other states,” wrote state frog and toad survey coordinator Lori Sargent in the survey report, “and most are finding it difficult to find enough people to volunteer. Perhaps that says a lot about Michiganians – we care about our natural resources.”
So much so that Ypsilantians have been surveying frogs and toads for over a century … off and on.
“Five years ago as we sat on our porch one summer evening a toad hopped out from around the corner to the concrete walk,” was the way one resident was quoted in the July 9, 1907 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “We watched it ‘walk’ down to the street sidewalk and within half an hour or so back it came.”
The Normal Park resident continued, “The next night as we were again sitting on the porch, one said, ‘I wonder whether our toad will be out tonight?’ It was but a few minutes when out it hopped and started down the walk. Within the hour it came back.”
Over time, affection grew. “Then it came to be a common occurrence, but as the days passed our interest in the toad deepened, and rarely did the toad disappoint us as we sat and watched for its evening ramble.”
“The second summer it returned, and during the third year a little toad made its appearance, and the two took their evening stroll down our walk together.”
Then tragedy struck.
“This is the fifth year the elder toad has visited us. You can’t imagine how pained we were when the puppy pounced upon the elder toad, flinging it upon its back. We fear that it was fatally injured. We have not seen it since.
“It was two nights later before the little toad made its appearance. It ventured timidly out. Now it takes its walks alone.
“If its heart is half as sore as ours how sorrowful it must feel!”
That toad of yore might have been Bufo americanus, the common Eastern American Toad, one of Michigan’s 13 species of frogs and toads collectively known as “anurans.”
The name of another Michigan anuran, Blanchard’s Cricket Frog, honors University of Michigan herpetologist and zoology professor Frank Nelson Blanchard, a onetime student of Museum of Natural History director Alexander Ruthven, who also served as UM president from 1929 to 1951.
Regarded in his time as the nation’s leading snake expert, Blanchard identified several new species – and named one for Ruthven, the king snake Lampropeltis ruthveni. After one collecting trip that netted 457 snakes from Lake Michigan’s Hog Island, near the tip of the lower peninsula, a colleague dubbed Blanchard “The St. Patrick of Hog Island.”
Blanchard died in 1937. He did not name his own frog; naturalist Francis Harper did that when identifying it a decade later. Presumably the naming was a tribute, though the criteria Harper listed as identifiers of the animal included a warty head, a fat snout, and a bulky, mottled underbelly.
Blanchard’s Frog is currently a “species of concern” in Michigan, and the state is especially interested in survey volunteers’ reports of its cricket-like call.
Less elusive is Michigan’s bullfrog, named for its resonant cow-like bellow, audible from a quarter mile away. The “lion of the swamp,” bullfrogs stealthily stalk and devour insects, fish, crayfish, birds, mice, and other bullfrogs. They are a source of edible frog legs. Michigan’s frog hunting season, which overlaps with the spring and summer Frog and Toad Survey season, begins on the Saturday before Memorial Day (this year that’s Sat., May 29) and lasts until Nov. 15.
Equally recognizable as the bullfrog’s bellow is the Green Frog’s boingy twang, like a plucked banjo string. Its name is Rana clamitans, Rana being a genus name for “frog” and “clamitans” from the Latin “clamo,” to cry aloud or bawl. Less clamorous is the Leopard Frog’s snorelike call, the Western Chorus Frog’s rusty-hinge creak, and the Fowler’s Toad’s piccolo wheeze.
Scientific names of the other Michigan anurans often give identifying tips. Pseudacris crucifer, the spring peeper, has a species name referring to the cross-shaped marking on its back. The Pickerel Frog’s name, Rana palustris, refers to “frog [of] a reed or cane,” as in its swampy habitat. Rana sylvatica, the Wood Frog, means “frog growing among trees.”
Higher in the trees live Michigan’s two species of tree frog, Hyla versicolor and Hyla chrysoscelis, which have the gecko-like suction toes of their more familiar tropical counterparts.
The last, and one of the rarest, of Michigan’s anurans is the Mink frog, Rana septentrionalis, whose “kuk kuk” call resembles knocking. In a plant or animal scientific name, “septentrion” signifies “northern.” How? The term, which dates back to Roman times, means “seven oxen,” referring to oxen on a threshing floor, walking in a circle to thresh out the grain. And the “seven oxen” refer to the seven main stars of the Big Dipper, ever-circling the North Star.
On one occasion, Ypsilanti toads didn’t wait for residents to survey them, but set out to survey residents. “An interesting exodus of toads from the swamps of the Huron River to summer homes about the town is taking place,” wrote the June 3, 1910 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “The area occupied in the winter by the skating rink, on the west bank of the river north of the Congress street [Michigan Avenue] bridge, has made a capital breeding place for the useful little creatures …
“These diminutive creatures, for whom a postage stamp would be a voluminous umbrella, have been seen in thousands coming alongside the Masonic Temple [Riverside Arts Center], crossing Huron Street and hopping cheerfully up the alleys and streets on their trip to the west.”
As early as 1910, the toad’s ecological role was recognized: “This visitation is looked upon with immense satisfaction by naturalists and by those who understand what a valuable service the toad renders lawns, gardens, and farms. These thousands, even millions of toads which are scattering themselves throughout the town are prepared to render a greater blessing to the growing things of the community than an equal number of birds which man now understands quite universally should be cherished.”
That “now understands” may be an oblique reference to the then-recent disappearance of the passenger pigeon from Ypsilanti skies. One of the last passenger pigeons in Michigan, according to W. B. Mershon’s 1907 book The Passenger Pigeon, was shot in Ypsilanti in 1893.
In contrast, Ypsilanti’s toads were still so numerous in 1910, the Daily Press article revealed, that the city was a toad supplier to less fortunate communities. “An onion grower in Chelsea a few seasons ago paid two cents apiece for toads, and the boys in Ypsilanti so indefatigably caught and shipped the toads out of town to Chelsea that when Mr. Hedge, the naturalist, came to the Normal College that summer to give lectures, he was embarrassed for want of them, so appreciably had the supply been lessened here …”
The annoyed Mr. Hedge did not mince his words. “[H]e said that a course in nature study without toads was no nature study course at all.”
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
Last week’s Mystery Artifact was correctly guessed by Al Feldt, who wrote: “hetchel … It is used in preparing flax for spinning. After the flax is retted (soaked in a local pond) it is bundled into small sheaves and slammed down on the nails of the hetchel repeatedly. This breaks the stalks and separates the linen fibers from the rest of the plant. After some further cleaning and currying it is then spun into linen thread for later weaving and sewing.”
It is said that the word “heckle,” as in “heckling the comedian,” originates from this bed-of-nails tool. Linen-making gave us other words as well. Flax retted in water turns a golden-cream color; that and the softness of the worked fibers gave rise to the term “flaxen-haired” (maiden). And the short flax bits left in the hetchel was called tow, as in “tow-headed boy.”
This week’s Mystery Artifact is about 7 inches long and made of metal. Take your best guess and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives,” available in Ann Arbor at Nicola’s Books and in Ypsilanti at Cross Street Books, the Rocket, and Mix boutique. Bien will be giving talks and book signings at Mix, 128 Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, on March 27 from 2-4 p.m.; at Nicola’s in Ann Arbor’s Westgate Shopping Center on April 20 at 7 p.m.; and at the Ypsilanti Archives, 220 N. Huron St., on April 24 from 2-5 p.m.