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.