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What Frogs Can Teach Us When We’re Willing to Listen: An Update from Frog Artist Margot Fass

Margot Fass looks delighted to have a frog on her arm!

Frog artist and enthusiast Margot Fass has previously discussed the role of frogs as bio-indicators whose species diversity is diminishing. She has cautioned that this may indicate the fate of humans if we don’t take action to preserve our environment. But as Margot explains, there is also encouraging news on the appearance of a new frog species in the US, positive environmental policies in Costa Rica, and simple steps that many of us can take to help the frogs that live in our own areas.

Margot, this summer (2018), you participated in an ecotour to Costa Rica. What were the highlights of that tour?

We visited an ant, a pineapple, a coffee, and a cacao farm, and everywhere, we learned about community organization (of ants AND people). The hotels provide habitats for frogs, bats, butterflies and other wildlife. A hummingbird dive bombed me, a butterfly clung to my rain jacket, and a parrot sat on my shoulder and pecked at my earrings. We saw some bats up close. As for frogs, one was hiding in my room in one hotel, and another jumped on my arm and sat there for 45 minutes or longer, until we had to leave. Best of all, I saw my very first froglet (a tadpole who has grown legs, or conversely, a frog that hasn’t yet lost its tail).

What new frog-related insights did you glean from your travels in Costa Rica?

There are many reasons that frogs are important in their own right, which I have written about previously, but here is some new and interesting information I learned this about frogs this summer on the Costa Rica SAVE THE FROGS! ecotour.

  • Amplexis* can be acrobatic. Five days into our trip, we were out around a little pond on the property, when a red-eyed tree frog couple was spotted on branch. Suddenly, they dropped, but the female grasped a leaf with one hand while they were falling, and there they hung to complete their mating mission, which can take as long as one to two days.
    *an “embrace”: the smaller male positions himself on the larger female’s back to fertilize the eggs she drops on to a lower leaf.
  • Butt shakes and pushups are the way the Smokey Jungle Frog mom communicates with its young, along with growls; or if she’s being threatened, a high-pitched scream. She might lay thousands of eggs, but only a small percentage hatch from the foamy nest, as the remainder are eaten by the first-born.
  • Calls by frogs are as diverse as the frogs themselves, and used as important identifiers and locators by frogs, other animals, and humans. The link above is to a video by the Endangered Wildlife Fund, but there are others, such as the Animal Diversity Web and the US Geological Survey. At the University of Florida, a team of biologists and techies is developing a site called What Frog. At the Rainmaker Conservation Project in Costa Rica, as we waited to start our waterfall hike, I was mesmerized and haunted by the sounds at dusk, especially one that sounded like dead spirits calling from their graves. So far I have found no one to identify it.

Taking ecotours with SAVE THE FROGS! helps fund Dr. Kerry Kriger’s worldwide environmental efforts. This was my second trip with them. Both times, it was great to be with a group of like-minded, educated, creative, and interesting people. We had very talented guides and drivers, who had their eyes, ears, and minds open to the nuances of each country’s contribution to sustainability in culture and agriculture.

Costa Rica is also the first country to ban open pit mining. Previously, the Costa Rican congress had unanimously voted to ban gold mining. To them, the cost to health and the environment (cyanide is used) was not worth its impact and income.

You’ve notably stated that frogs, as bio-indicators whose species diversity is diminishing, can illustrate what will happen to humans if we don’t change our ways. Have frogs provided any hope for us?

Frogs are showing us that they are more resilient than we think we are, and maybe we can be better. New frogs can appear under the most amazing circumstances. A search of new species of frogs in 2018 (and previous years) is encouraging. Some of the most fascinating and endearing characteristics of frogs that brought them into my own heart are the facts of their survival of earthquakes, volcanoes, drought, floods, heat, cold, and any imaginable natural and human disasters. In 2008, Jeremy Feinberg, a doctoral student at Rutgers University, discovered a new species of leopard frog in Staten Island, New York. Later, the species was found to have its current range centered in Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York. It was the strange calls of these frogs that inspired Feinberg to explore their habits and territory.

So, while I shudder when I read about the Trump administration’s lasting damage to the environment in such a short time, estimated to cause at least 80,000 new human deaths each decade, I remember that human life has existed for only a tiny fraction of the timeline of frog’s life. If humans on earth are destroyed, as frogs are warning us, and if they predictably survive us, I believe it is because they deserve life more. But, we can become more worthy than we are.

Outdoor photo with sign in foregound reading "Frog parking only; all others will be toad."

Among the ways you’ve suggested for humans to help preserve frogs and their species diversity is creating frog ponds. What does this involve, and how can people learn to do it?

It’s easy to do! Over the summer, I created a frog-friendly habitat at my daughter Lindsay’s house to provide winter protection for a frog she spotted on the property.

As with any life, the essential ingredients include water, food, and shelter. Providing these was as easy as purchasing four dishes (which must be at least a foot in diameter), some plants, and some rocks. I bought one frog house (a glazed upside down pot with an opening), and built the others out of rocks. I buried the dishes to the rim and placed stones, logs, and pebbles around them, and a few stones inside them. I planted fern and coleus around the largest one, and trillium, lungwort, primrose, grasses, and hosta around the others.

 

Small, human-made frog pond at the base of a tree. According to the directions for frog ponds, once everything is in place, new frogs should appear within a few weeks! If you have the property, wetlands can be the most useful and effective way to protect frogs. If you have wetlands, you can preserve them, and if you don’t, you can build them. There are various workshops and private consultants who can help you with this. If you don’t have your own land, you can become involved in your community and encourage building in parks, on private premises, and perhaps most effectively for future generations, on school grounds.

How do you continue to spread the word about the importance of frogs and biodiversity, and do you have any plans for new projects?

Last year, I wrote a series of 40 blogs, Ecuador Adventures and Frogs, about my 2017 trip with SAVE THE FROGS! illustrated with my best photos, which my readers seemed to enjoy. If I have time, I will write Costa Rica Adventures and Frogs, a blog series about the 2018 trip.

The book I wrote and illustrated, Froggy Family’s First Frolic, is being reprinted now. It is suitable for young pre-readers and readers, and the young at heart. It will be available at A Frog House on Lindsay’s property, along with frog “portraits” and other frogabilia, as well as at my studio at the Hungerford and online. Income from sales will go toward the design and printing of my second book, Froggy Family’s Fine Feelings, and toward donations of books when I visit schools, scout troops, and other gatherings of young people, to talk about the importance of frogs and how to help them.