Yesterday, a thousand wood frog eggs split open and spat squirming black tadpoles into the water puddled in the deeply rutted tire tracks on the old logging road. The egg masses had been laid almost a month ago during the first flush of spring, while snow still festered in the thick shade under the hemlocks. Roughly the size and shape of a slow-pitch softball -- and weighing about the same as a softball, too -- the clusters of eggs were deposited by several pairs of frogs excited to a clacking frenzy of mating by the warming sun and the lengthening day.
An act of hope for these mating pairs, hope that the puddle would retain sufficient water for the three or so months that the eggs need to develop into froglets. But in their ardor the lovers ended up choosing the shallow end of the rut to breed. The following day when I discovered the eggs masses -- clear globes of gelatinous goo -- I relocated them to deeper water. In my hand, the masses -- probably over a thousand eggs in each one -- held together remarkably well, but I felt like some kind of mad scientist tampering with primordial elements, or maybe more like a costumed kid at a Halloween haunted house.
The tadpoles that are emerging now seem not to have been adversely affected by the move. They are minute -- barely a quarter of an inch long -- and look more like insect larvae than a creature with a backbone and nervous system. The free-swimming mites cluster around the remains of their gelatinous eggs cases, which leads me to wonder if the eggs supply their main source of food. There's not much else for them to eat in the puddle: the handful of water striders appear massive by comparison to the tiny tadpoles. One afternoon I saw a newt nosing around the frog eggs, but he must have just been passing through.
I'm hoping that I'll be able to watch these wood frog tadpoles develop in the weeks ahead. I know they will have to mature quickly: although frogs have lungs and breathe air, tadpoles are gilled like fish and can only survive in water. As summer advances, this tire rut will slowly dry out when the temperatures rise and the spring rains slacken. I figure by mid-July these tiny sperms of life will have to increase to roughly a hundred times their current size. They will have to grow limbs and lungs, learn to breathe, learn to hop. I can't imagine that the transparent shreds of egg that remain in the puddle will hold enough energy to support thousands of little wood froglets as they metamorphose. There is only one possibly solution to the looming food crisis in this micro-ecosystem of a puddle: canabalism.
The strong feeding on the flesh of their weaker brethren: it sounds absolutely terrible. But the life possibilities for these wood frog tadpoles in the coming weeks are defined by being tenuous and uncertain. That newt might return, maybe bringing a couple of his friends with him, and devour the entire tadpole population in a single night. An ATV might slam through, spraying water -- and tadpoles -- in every direction. Or the late spring rains might not come, and the summer's heat shrivel the puddle into a desiccated tadpole graveyard.
Nine years ago during a dry spring that was exactly what happened. Every day I hiked to this six gallon puddle where a dozen or so wood frogs had sown the seeds for the next generation on a clear, hopeful spring afternoon, and every day the water level was lower, the egg masses more exposed to the dry air. No rain in sight. The eggs opened and the black tadpoles slid into a world of thick mud. The tire track, now waterless, reeked of fishy death. My dog had just died -- paralyzed after being hit by a car in the darkest hour of the night -- and the deaths of a thousand more creatures -- even if they were just tadpoles -- tore at my heart so badly that I lugged buckets of water half a mile up from the creek to feed the puddle. When it became apparently that the high, hot sun evaporated water faster than I could haul it, I evacuated all of the remaining tadpoles down to our pond, much deeper and, I assumed, more secure.
But by the third bucketload of evacuees, I realized my error: a hundred or so green frog tadpoles, four inches long and as rapacious as sin, had mustered at the edge of the pond where I was emptying the buckets of weakened, defenseless wood frog tadpoles. It was a slaughter: the green frog tadpoles chowed through the newcomers like sumo wrestlers at a sushi bar.
Miraculously, a couple of those wood frog tadpoles did manage to survive. Every spring we see them, olive colored and masked, dead man's floating on the surface of the pond. They clack -- the sound like a mallard duck with a castanet in its mouth -- periodically, and maybe they pair up and breed, but never in our pond. The eggs must be deposited somewhere safer -- the watery depression next to the culvert, an oxbow of the creek, maybe even an old tire -- always temporary: a shifting landscape of safety in a world of predators, the new generation dependent entirely on the vicissitudes of climate, of environment, and on ephemeral luck.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources