Ribbit.

I can’t remember if there was ever a single moment when I realised that my family was not quite the same as other peoples’. I suspect it was rather a series of moments, and one of these had to do with a visit to the botanical garden in Pretoria.

The garden is huge, set into the side of a low hill. There are small patches of forest, beds of flowers, pockets of wetland, and large, rolling lawns. On the day of our visit, the garden was filled with people. There were young couples, wrapped up in each other and blind to the rest of the world; there were the plant-lovers, meandering slowly around the network of paths, stopping to examine the rarities in the garden’s collection; there were the birdwatchers, weighed down by cameras and binoculars, peering up into the trees.

But mostly there were families. Some had come to enjoy a picnic, others just a day in the sun. Everyone seemed to have brought something along: cooler-boxes full of snacks and drinks, bats and balls, Frisbees, even a kite or two. Not us. We brought along an umbrella and a handful of clear plastic packets. Obviously.

We were there for the tadpoles that teemed in the ponds and streams that dotted the garden. A couple of us stood guard, keeping an eye open for snooping birders and plant-lovers. The next two stripped off their shoes and waded in to herd the tadpoles into reach of the umbrella. The umbrella guy used the upturned umbrella to scoop up schools of tadpoles and pour them out into the clear plastic packet held ready by the last member of the team. Bugger Frisbees. Our family had proper hobbies.

As children we felt like a family of James Bond clones, casually pulling off the undercover operation of the century. To anyone watching, we must have presented rather an odd picture. A lawn full of shiny, happy people in shorts and t-shirts stopped their sunny frolicking for a moment to mark the passage of a moist, straggling little group in loose but oddly bulging clothes, brandishing a sodden and battered umbrella. Every now and then a packet full of squirming, slimy pond-water would fall to the ground with a squelch, only to be shoved back up a gaping sleeve with all the studied nonchalance of the world’s worst shoplifter. Don’t feel bad for me, these sorts of things build character. And a very thick skin.

There was a very good reason for this seemingly questionable behaviour. We had built a fishpond, and my father had grown obsessed with frogs. We could have waited for nature to take its course, and the odd wandering frog to move in, but that would be no fun. Instead we stocked up the garden with anything we could find. There were red toads and river frogs, reed frogs and guttural toads. The sound was deafening.

This was not enough for my father. He went off and found a cd of frog calls. He would play it at night, and we would end up with sad, hormone raddled little toads pressing their noses against the glass door like starving street urchins from Dickens. We would go to bed. The toads wouldn’t. They would sit there all night, forlornly calling out to the CD player, only to wander off, sad and alone, with the coming of the morning light, leaving only a greasy little stain on the glass as a monument to their unrequited love.

And then my father went for broke. He offered a reward to anyone who brought in a Giant African Bullfrog. If you’ve never seen one, forget everything you think you know about frogs. They can weigh over two kilograms. That’s about the size of a Chihuahua. Most frogs have a puny little row of conical teeth. These things have a bony plate sharp enough to take the end off your finger. They eat mice. And snakes. And we got one!

Pet mouse? Why no, I don’t remember seeing one anywhere.

We came home from school one today to find an enormous green monster staring balefully up at us from the end of the bath. My parents said they had kept it there to show us. I think they were scared to touch it. Once we got it out into the garden (with a broom and a plastic bucket), we all avoided the garden for a while.

And that, my good friends, is the longest introduction to a blog post you have ever seen. Someone commented the other day that my blog could be quite nice, but that good blog posts were much shorter. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, smartypants! To those of you who are familiar with my blog, this is another post about the wildlife of the Lowveld. Let’s begin:

Frogs themselves aren’t really much of a feature down in the bush. You hardly ever see them. For most of the year, it’s just too dry. What is a feature, however, is the noise they make. When the rain does come, they go berserk. They have no time to lose before the pans (a pan is a temporary waterhole) and ditches dry up, so almost as soon as the rain starts to fall they all start shouting “Sex! Sex! Sex! I’m ready for some sex over here! Sex! Please! Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Sex!” in their various voices and languages.

If you drive an open vehicle up to the edge of a pan at night and turn off the engine and the lights, there is a moment of quiet while they all try to hide. Soon though, one brave little soul will tentatively test the silence. “Sex!” Within moments, the noise will be very close to your pain threshold. Because their sounds are so much a part of their charm, I spent a happy couple of hours editing sound clips to upload. Then I discovered I would have to spend twenty dollars on an upgrade to do so. Bummer. You will just have to use your imaginations. Me, I’m going to listen to them on my iPod at gym tomorrow. So it was time well spent.

Since I’ve used up all of my energy on the introduction, I’m only going to cover a few frogs and toads, just to give you an idea.

Brown-Back Tree Frog

Oy vey! Stop your kvetching before you drive me meshuggah.

Since the noise they make is the main thing about them, I’m going to start with one of the best sounds of all. “Schmuck”. I’ve never seen a Brown-Back Tree Frog, but they are all over the place. When we first started going down to the bush, we heard their call and decided they were saying “schmuck”. And so they became the schmuck-frogs. “Listen,” we would say, “there’s a schmuck frog down in the river-bed”. Then we took a Jewish friend down for a weekend, who explained that schmuck was a Yiddish word for penis.

Out of a sense of parental duty, my parents tried to find another name for them, but it was too late. I think that it adds something. There is no adequate way to describe the sound of the bush at night. You have never truly lived until you have sat outside in the wilds of Africa, staring deep into the heart of a Leadwood fire, glass of wine in hand. A spotted hyena may whoop out its call into the dark. A Scop’s owl will trill intermittently, splitting the night over and over again with an insistent “prrrp”. Nearby, something small will rustle the dead leaves and grass before going silent again, while further off, something large will crash through the trees. If you’re lucky, a lion may roar nearby, rattling your chest with its depth and power. And every 30 seconds or so, an elusive little brown frog in the top of a nearby tree will shout “PENIS!” at you in Yiddish.

Platannas

Well hello there!

These are ugly little buggers. Unusually for frogs, they never leave the water. In most bodies of permanent water, you will usually find a few, hanging motionless and staring up at you through bulging, lidless eyes. Even more unusually, despite never leaving the water, they have managed to invade various parts of the world where they don’t belong. They didn’t get there themselves. As always, we took them there. For a fascinating reason.

Before we took to peeing on magical little plastic sticks, the only way to tell whether a woman was pregnant or not was to inject her urine into a female Platanna. If the woman was pregnant, the Platanna would immediately spawn.

I beg your pardon? You just want to inject me with what now?

For a brief period in the middle of the last century, a thriving industry emerged in exporting boatloads of ugly, pregnancy detecting frogs to other parts of the world. And there they stay, hanging motionless in the water and staring up through bulging, lidless eyes.

Bushveld Rain Frogs.

Man alive Jenkins! How many times do I have to tell you to keep your damn kids off my lawn! Back in my day, youngsters were taught to respect their elders!

One should try to avoid mocking the varied and miraculous works of nature, but these frogs are just ridiculous. If the Platanna is unusual for never leaving the water, Rain frogs are unusual for the opposite reason. They never go near the stuff. They lay their eggs in jelly-like capsules in holes in the ground from which little froglets emerge fully formed. They can’t hop. They walk. Awkwardly. Best of all, they cannot swim. If they find themselves in the water, they inflate their bodies with air and float around like badly made novelty balloons until the wild blows them ashore. They inflate themselves when they’re alarmed too, apparently in the hope that they will look too ridiculous to eat.

Hah! Don’t look so ridiculous now, do I, tough guy?

On top of everything else, none of these fascinating differences makes them happy. Just look at them! Miserable little buggers.

Foam-nest Frogs.

If Christian Grey had known about these guys, 50 Shades would have been a far more interesting book.

Like the Yiddish penis frog, the foam nest frog is a tree frog. It has two claims to fame. The first is revealed by its name. When the time is right, instead of laying their eggs in water, they gather together in frantically amorous little groups on branches overhanging the water, exuding slime and beating it up into a foamy nest with their back legs. They lay their eggs in this, and when they hatch, the tadpoles drop into the water below. Their other claim to fame is that, by law, every outhouse in the Lowveld has to contain at least one foam-nest frog (as well as two unfeasibly large geckos). Any time you find yourself using an outdoor public convenience in the African wilds, look around a bit. You will be sure to find one. The pipe leading up to the cistern is a good place to start your search.

Don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here. Watching you poop.

Banded Rubber Frogs

I’m not saying it’s pretty in an absolute sense. I’m just saying its pretty next to the giant bullfrog.

This is one of the very few brightly coloured frogs down in the bush. Its colour is a warning- they’re very poisonous. It cracks the nod for this list not just because it’s a little nicer than the others to look at, but because it has one of the nicest calls. It sings out a high, lilting trill at such high volume that it feels like it has invaded your skull, and its call forms the background noise of any pool of water in the summer. Just don’t rub your eyes after you pick one up.

The rest of the chorus.

Dammit Arlene! Kwaak! It goes “Ribbit, ribbit, kwaak”. The “schmuck” only comes in at the end of the next verse.

So those are the standout ones (for me), but there are lots more. There are over 30 of them. As I said, the main thing about the frogs in the Lowveld is the sounds they make, so it comes as no surprise that some of them are named for them. Thanks to the crushing corporate greed of the good people at WordPress (not really- I am constantly surprised at the level of the stuff they are giving away for free. They must be the right sort of hippies) I can’t play the clips for you (if you really want to hear them, send me twenty dollars in a plain brown envelope. Or just come up to me at the gym-I’ll lend you my iPod)

The Bubbling Cassina makes a beautiful liquid “ploip” sound, like a leaking tap in an empty bathroom. The Guttural Toad is guttural, the Raucous Toad raucous. The Knocking Sand Frog does tend to knock a bit, but if I heard someone snoring like a Snoring Puddle Frog I would immediately contact a medical proffesional. Last, but by no means least, is the Shovel-footed Squeaker, which squeaks. As would you, if someone kept calling attention to your shovel shaped feet.

So that’s it. A very brief introduction to the frogs and toads of the Lowveld. Come over and see them some time. Or rather, come over and hear them some time. If you like them, you can take some home with you- just remember to bring an umbrella, some loose-fitting clothes, and a clear plastic bag. If you need help getting through airport security, give my family a call. We’ve been practicing.

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60 thoughts on “Ribbit.

  1. […] new and interesting. Which is lucky. For me, if not you. Because I can’t carry on writing about the ecosystem of the Lowveld without doing the […]

  2. […] One of these is the Lowveld. Yes folks, I’m afraid it’s the next instalment of the Lowveld ecosystem series. Take heart though, soon we will be moving on to cute and cuddly. Or at least warm […]

  3. Marcia says:

    Hi, 23!

    I’m way behind on my blog reading, so I just started on this one today. Fantastic, informative and seriously funny. (Is that an oxymoron?) I loved everything about it, and I say to heck with those who have such short attention spans. Let ’em read writers with the same problem. Me, I’m going to work my way through every post on your blog, bit by hilarious bit.

    As for froggies of various sorts, this was especially fun to read. Poor little rain frog. He reminds me of Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, except for I’m not sure Laughton could have puffed up any more in the water than he did while still aboard the Bounty.

    Around here, we have exotic Cuban tree frogs taking over. They are large, pasty-white, corpse looking things that will eat anything they can cram in their huge mouths, including mice AND baby birds, when they can get them. I once watched one launch himself about ten feet into the air trying to catch a hummingbird. ACK. He was summarily sent to that Great Frog Pond In The Sky shortly thereafter. Yes, I have gone on an elimination crusade with a home-made frog gig to rid my yard of these horrid creatures. In Cuba, fine. In my backyard, where they have completely decimated the population of beautiful, emerald green, native tree frogs, not so much so. I saw one the other day checking out one of my dachshunds…eeeeek!

    BTW, I am looking at all of my umbrellas with new eyes, now. Where there is one alternate use, there are bound to be others. Pondering, here……

    Lastly, I hope you appreciate the fact that, in total solidarity, I have posted a ridiculously long response here. To those who don’t like it, I say, “Fie!” (I don’t say it often, of course…since it sounds ridiculous…but I DO say it.)

    Keep up the great writing. I can’t wait for your book, myself.

    • 23thorns says:

      From what I’ve heard, you guys are ground zero for invasive species. I saw the other day that your swamps are filling up with african rock pythons and nile monitors.
      We’ve been pretty lucky- most creatures come second when they come up against the local wildlife. Plants are a different story.

  4. Leo says:

    Great blog, the frog with the mouse looks like the Bull frogs we have in our Dam. And I thought only the cat eat mice.

  5. e weaver says:

    This is an amazing post! Thank you for the personal, informational, and the fabulous photos. Thank you too for visiting my blog. I love frogs too and now feel as if I’ve known so little about them even though I’ve watched them grow from soapy looking bubbles to green leapers.

    • 23thorns says:

      Pretty much everything alive turns out to be fascinating if you look closely enough. Except hyenas. Hyenas are beyond fascinating. I’ll get to them in about a year or so. Until then I will leave you with this snippet: the females have fake penises.

  6. […] a frog today in the trailer load of compost – a welcome gift and made me think of your post 23thorns. 60 seconds later I’m screaming and heading for the hills at the unwanted 10cm long centipede […]

  7. Eee says:

    Frog poaching….hmm it clearly runs in the family. There was a pond at Keerweer with several types of frog in residence and as a five year old I remember Leonie telling me that she had sent your father and a friend up Table Mountain with instructions not to come down without at least a dozen tadpoles. (Don’t know if the umbrella method was used then) I imagine if that pond is still there so are the descendants of those frogs.

  8. lazygoddess says:

    When I saw that this was about frogs I almost clicked off. Thank god I didn’t! Thank YOU for making learning fun! 🙂

  9. Carolyn Lane says:

    Great use for an umbrella… and here’s another. Our favourite deckchair place under the elder-tree is also under the birds’ favourite parking place. Oh sh**. Solution: an open upside-down umbrella hooked over a branch. Great catch-all.
    Glad your “like” led me to find your blog. I’m converted – but no saffron robe please.

  10. Rhonda says:

    Thanks for stopping by my site so I could find yours. And I agree with your fans….don’t shorten. And I agree with you…I can’t either. I’ve decided short is for sissies. Tell it how you want to, how it is, how it should be. Personally, I question MOST of the posts that get chosen for Fresh Pressed…these are much more interesting! Frogs…who knew? and I just had some legs for dinner the other day…think I may just stick to chicken.
    R

    • 23thorns says:

      From what I understand, WordPress has tens of millions of users. Surely there is enough room for clever, good looking, and charismatic enjoyers of long posts, as well as those with short attention spans?

  11. What a wonderful post – particularly liked the photo captions! I know I’m going to dream about that mouse-eating frog – it’s the fact that the mouse is peeping out at us while we know that it’s feet are beginning to be digested!!
    One of the things I loved about my trip to Western Australia were the frogs. At night it sounded like motorbikes, rolling by in the distance.

  12. Wonderful post. You write just what you want to write.
    Poor wee platanna frogs. No wonder they look so forlorn.
    Ditto for the rain frog that cannot swim, just like the bird that cannot fly.
    I miss the chorus of frogs at night.

  13. onestreetshy says:

    I have a pond in my front yard that I dug specifically to house water plants. A few small tree frogs have made my pond their home and in the summer, those little buggers are so loud, I swear they scale my house to sit right at my bedroom window (on the second floor) and talk to each other every night. They’re small, but have big mouths. Much like me I suppose. yike.

  14. Brilliant post – made me laugh so much that I woke the dog up. 🙂 Here in the UK we lack your range of colourful and rodent-devouring frogs. I have to make do with the common frog. I do love them though.

  15. Eye Dios Mio says:

    This is literally my worst nightmare. Literally.

    Very interesting, despite the fear factor for me.

  16. meesha says:

    That’s a brilliant use for an umbrella!

    Your words paint pictures that make it easy to visualise the scenes you describe. You made me laugh with that intro. I really enjoyed it

  17. Art Brûlant says:

    I really enjoy reading your posts. Keep them coming.

  18. looseleafbri says:

    A good post is not a short post, or a long one, a good post is one that grabs your attention, holds it, leaves you wanting more, and makes you laugh loud enough to scare your dog. You, my friend, write a good post.

    We used to steal…er….ahem….I mean get tadpoles from the canals. It was loads of fun. The umbrella idea is brilliant. Gonna have to try that.

    • 23thorns says:

      Take along a sturdy one. And some kids to act as lookouts. I’m not too sure you should use any herders though. The authorities may frown upon the idea of throwing kids into a canal.

  19. Pat Bean says:

    Your blog was way too long, but it kept me reading to the very end. In fact, I liked it so much that I gave it the Wondering Wanderer’s Bean’s Pat as best blog of the day. Check it out at: http://patbean.wordpress.com

  20. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says:

    As this is a very long essay, be glad that I’m an avid fan of reptiles and amphibians. I loved every sentence. The introduction was hilarious. It sounds much like some of the expeditions that my son and I embarked upon. Making the backyard a sanctuary for snakes and frogs made the mundane task of mowing somewhat challenging.

  21. Very entertaining and informative post–I kept feeling like I needed to google stranger frogs to make sure you weren’t just making it all up. Some of this felt too funny to be true!

  22. yepirategunn says:

    Yeah, well, that’s the best 10 minutes I’ve spent on frogs yet! Mind you, not something I’ve indulged in that often…thanks!

  23. mary jo says:

    not every one has only the attention span of a muppet watching sesame street some of us still read novels and can pay attention for longer than 30 seconds. please don’t shorten your blog post!

  24. lylekrahn says:

    It never occurred to me that it was possible for a frog to eat a mouse – yet there it was.

  25. Hi Twenty-three Thorns, What an interesting post on the various adventures with tadpoles and frogs. I cannot say that I have ever seen any frogs like those you have in Africa. Our American frogs are rather plain (most of them). Have a great day!

    • 23thorns says:

      I think if you look at them (and listen to them) closely enough, they’re all pretty cool! Get yourself an umbrella and some clear plastic bags, and head off into the wilds.

  26. amb says:

    Thanks so much for liking a recent post of mine! I’m glad we’ve connected – the captions on this post crack me up. Great job!

  27. Mike Powell says:

    Your posting (and the photos) are very memorable, almost unfrogetable. Sorry, couldn’t resist the lame pun. (Your tongue-in-cheek commentary encouraged me.) I really enjoy your writing.

  28. Elle says:

    From someone who has limited interested in frogs, I liked that, intro and all! The frogs here in Japan are really small and (almost illuminous) green, although I’ve heard bull frogs it is rare to see them. That photo with the mouse – crazy!

    • 23thorns says:

      From what I’ve heard, you’ve got salamaners out there big enough to eat our bullfrogs. Time for a trip out into the country?

      • Elle says:

        Oh no, not me; I’m a serious ‘fraidy cat, I can barely pat a dog (although I do love snakes, weird eh). We kind of do live in the boons, but in a populated area of the main island so we only have lizards and snakes and nothing more serious than that. The bears are up north and the insects I can’t name are down south. Oh except we do have killer hornets and mukade. Both of which can kill you, although it’s rare. I have the heebeejeebees just thinking of them! Thanks for the reply!

  29. Pat says:

    Great post and who cares if it’s long. I blogged yesterday about shortening posts in reply to a Freshly Pressed on being concise and most people don’t seem to care. If they’re interested then they read.
    If they’re not interested, presumably they will stop.
    BTW the Giant Bullfrog with the mouse? Yuk!

  30. About the platanna…I want to know who first thought to inject it with human pee. A leap of logic surely worthy of recognition and honour.

    • 23thorns says:

      I’m sure it was one of those accidental discoveries. Just a bunch of bored scientists injectig various bodily fluids into various animals until something cool happened.
      The same team discovered that if you injected spinal fluid from a person with hepatitis c into the brain of a horseshoe crab, it would die. Unfortunately, this proved worthless as a diagnostic test, since the same thing happened with the spinal fluid of a healthy person.

  31. LMAO! You have taken me back about 15 years in time to when my family went on a night nature walk through a small area of scrub attached to our local uni. One of the things we were out to spot were the frogs. As would have it, we had the “crazy frog lady” on our walk who decided it was her job to educate the whole tour on what frogs make which sounds. And she imitated each and every frog she could think of. Not sure we have schmuk frogs here in Australia but I’m sure she had a few of her own.
    Another great post and pfft to those who don’t like long posts. Keep it up.

    • 23thorns says:

      They’ve started doing the same sort of thing out here. Not sure if I’m too keen though. The idea of a 2kg, blood-crazed, carnivorous frog launching itself at me out of the dark does make me feel strangely hesitant.

  32. dste says:

    That giant bullfrog picture! Eeeeeugh! (That’s halfway between “ew” and “ugh”, which is an approximation of the sound I made when I saw that mouse sticking out of its mouth.)

  33. That was an awesome post. Clever AND interesting! Thanks

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