I Explain Frog Sex for a Living

Yesterday we put on a field trip for a group of fourth graders, and my role involved taking groups of them out on the pond in canoes to look for signs of spring. (Well, they were in canoes, I took a kayak so I could maneuver around more easily.) A thunderstorm Wednesday night brought out toads by the hundreds, and the vegetation around the edges of the pond was full of them, calling and climbing on top of each other and generally working on making more toads. If you’re not familiar with their call, American Toads make a long, loud, mechanical-sounding trill on a single pitch – you can hear them in this recording (not by me) along with spring peepers going “meep, meep, meep.”



For those of you who like learning new natural history words, here’s your word of the day: amplexus. It’s the term for a male frog clinging to the back of a female frog, ready and waiting to fertilize her eggs the minute she lays them. The surface of the water was thick with floating pairs of amplexing toads, and because of the size difference (males are much smaller) the kids kept thinking they were mother toads with babies on their backs. I couldn’t let such a huge misunderstanding of basic frog biology go uncorrected, so I spent the day scooping pairs of toads into my kayak with my paddle (the males stayed fastened to the females even as they hopped around in the bottom of the boat) and paddling around to show them to all the fourth graders and explain what they were doing: “This is the dad, and this is the mom. He’s going to ride around on her back like this all day waiting for her to be ready to lay her eggs.” Most kids were content to leave it at that, but there was one boy who frowned and said, “They’re mating, right? His sperm… is going to go… in…” which is how I ended up explaining internal vs. external fertilization to a ten-year-old while his teacher watched, clearly very amused by the whole conversation.

In the evening, the coordinator of my graduate program was giving a presentation on plant pollination and spring wildflowers, and I tagged along for the outdoor portion. When we came to the edge of the pond, the frogs were still at it – most of the noise was still toads, but peepers, leopard frogs, and tree frogs were also adding to the chorus. When someone asked a question about the frogs, Fran turned to me with a grin and said, “Rebecca?” So I got to explain frog sex all over again, this time to a group of respectable, nicely-dressed middle aged people.

What a day.


dragonflies are hard to sneak up on.

A coworker recently told me that there were a ton of dragonflies at the pond and that I might be able to get some good pictures even with my tiny point-and-shoot camera.  I went and checked it out over the weekend, and while there were indeed a ton of dragonflies (and as an added bonus I flushed a woodcock on the bank), I was not able to get any good photos with my camera.  I had been naïvely thinking, all I have to do is wait for one to perch somewhere where I can get at it, creep up on it, and snap the picture, just like I did with that snipe fly.  Well, let me tell you something: it’s impossible to sneak up on a dragonfly.

This is the best I managed to do.  I believe it’s a Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella.  There were also Eastern Pondhawks (excellent name for a dragonfly)… and… a lot of other species I couldn’t identify.  I’m only just starting to dip my toe into the wide world of butterflies, odonates and the like.

Happily, there were plenty of things to distract me from the frustratingly skittish dragonflies, like this little guy I found lurking next to my foot.  Probably a toad, but I find it hard to tell when they’re this tiny.  He’s lucky I didn’t crush him accidentally – he was only a couple centimeters long!

There was also this striking red-and-blue insect hanging around on the daisies, which made for nice pictures.

I thought it was some sort of fly, and decided to post the photo on the BugGuide site to see if anyone could tell me anything more specific.  Well, within about five minutes two different people had replied telling me that 1) it was a bee, not a fly, and 2) I needed to crop my image more before posting it.  Um… oops.  I sheepishly fixed the image, feeling kind of humiliated.  Finally someone else came along and told me it’s a sweat bee in the genus Sphecodes.  Isn’t it pretty?

Anyway, summer camp training starts this afternoon, so I probably won’t have time to post anything else until the weekend.  Have a great rest-of-the-week!