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Experience a whole lot of lovin’- naturally

April 3, 2014

A pair of Wood Frogs - she's on the bottom, he’s on top - in the batrachian mating position known as amplexus (it's Latin for “embrace”). If none of his rivals succeeds in knocking him off her, he'll be ready to fertilize her eggs, when she's ready to release them into the water.

Last week, a little movie about a minor flood opened in theaters across the country, and, perhaps just by coincidence, perhaps not, we had our own modest rain event. At one point during the deluge, this surely had people thinking about arks.

When the sun finally came out earlier this week, we’d tallied over five inches of rain in the official ridge gauge. This was impressive, and the local creeks, streams, and rivers gave voice and approval to the monsoon. It was a good flood, but it was hardly a Great Flood, like the one in late March 2010, which, in many parts of our area, we’re still trying to recover from. (If you don’t believe me, try to take Boom Bridge Road—my road—over the Pawcatuck River, from North Stonington to Westerly.) And in comparison to that fabled event which wiped out all civilization and the entire natural world, well, except for the occasional wet basement, I don’t think last week’s flood had much impact on humanity.

The deluge certainly helped nature. The gift of rain brought the vernal-pool-loving amphibians out of hiding and sent them scurrying to their courtship and breeding wetlands in droves late last week. If you had the desire and/or lack of sanity to brave the storm, you’d have experienced what we in the trade call a Big Night: an evening in which the observer will be surrounded by—hmmm, how do we put this delicately?—a whole lot of lovin’, frog and salamander style.

Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that when I’m finally called home, amphibians will have figured prominently in my demise. “When the Naturalist came back from his monitoring activities, he was soaked to the bone, couldn’t get warm by the fire, and… I guess this is the way he’d have wanted it to end,” would read the account. “You just couldn’t keep him away from those vernal pools in awful weather. It was like an addiction… too bad there wasn’t medication, or a Twelve Steps Program, for naturalists.”

On several recent trips to the temporary wetlands I chronicle, I did, on occasion, get a bit damp—it’s hard to wear a hat and a headlamp at the same time—but, as of Monday morning, I am still very much alive and healthy. So are the now brimful vernal pools. And so are their temporary inhabitants, who are exceedingly busy creating the next generation of frogs, salamanders, and invertebrates who depend on these magical habitats that I treasure, however much they’re likely to shorten my life.

The start of all this manic activity was, as I noted earlier, overdue. In past years, the combination of above-freezing temperatures and rain after the ice and snow have melted has occurred so often in early-to-mid March that I have come to depend on that time frame. But in 2014, winter just didn’t want to quit, and, in fact, I had to postpone a vernal pools exploration I was leading because March 26th was forecast to be bitter cold: frostbite, not frog, weather.

Conditions improved quickly, and a couple of days later, I spotted the first Osprey of the year—this one carrying an extremely unusual prey item, what appears to be a young muskrat. (Osprey live almost entirely on fish.) Shortly thereafter, I found an Osprey in another reliable nesting location—no muskrat in its talons—along with a pair of Great Blue Herons who were checking out nesting sites and croaking their apparent affection for one another.

Clearly, it was time for the amphibians to get going. The night before the deluge, with the temperatures in the 40s, I put on my waders and headed downhill to the vernal pools complex I’ve been watching for the past 30 years. There wasn’t much sound output from the frogs, just a half-hearted “quack” or two from a small group of Wood Frogs—they sound more like annoyed Mallards than proper batrachians—and one lone bell ringing from a Spring Peeper. But at least they were present in the cast of characters, and a little searching revealed about a half-dozen Spotted Salamanders, all handsome males and some almost nine-inches long. Ambystoma maculatum is, to many observers, the star of the vernal pools show, and when the “spotties” start to appear, you know that things are going to heat up quickly.

One pair of Wood Frogs was in amplexus, a genteel term for a breeding posture in which the male is atop the female and he’s holding on for dear life. Once the amplexed pair navigates to the spot deemed suitable for egg-laying, she’ll release her eggs and he’ll quickly fertilize them. However, while this activity usually takes place in the darkness, it doesn’t occur in anything like privacy. Every egg-bearing female attracts the attention of all the males in the area, and any one of them would be happy to dislodge the current suitor and take over the fertilization duties. In fact, this implacable desire often results in several males piling on and, at worst, squeezing the eggs and life out of the poor female. Such behavior may be grimly fascinating, but it is definitely not something you ever want to have to explain to a youngster.

Spotted salamander courtship is even trickier, since it involves each male depositing a group of spermatophores and then attempting to dance a female towards them and convincing her to take them into her reproductive tract to fertilize her eggs. But things can get dicey because there are often many males milling about in a small section of underwater real estate, and not only are they putting down their own spermatophores, they’re frequently trying to trump those of the competition by placing their sperm atop that of a rival.

Perhaps it’s cowardice, but I typically reserve this bit of reproductive trivia for my adults-only guided tours. It’s probably best for you to do the same.

But don’t let squeamishness keep you away from the vernal pools. There are marvelous animals to watch: the ones I’ve mentioned, along with rarely seen Four-toed Salamanders, which make nests in the sphagnum mosses surrounding the temporary ponds. There are giant Predaceous Diving Beetles, whose larvae, known as water tigers, will soon hatch and prey on amphibian larvae. And, if you’re lucky, you might bear witness to Fairy Shrimp, exquisite invertebrates that spend their brief lives doing the backstroke in vernal pools.

Brave the rain. You’ll survive. You’ll dry off. You’ll be all the richer for the experience.

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