written by: Kelley V Phillips, Outreach Coordinator
2020 is a Leap Year. While those born on February 29th are jumping for joy that their birthday party is finally on the right day, others view it as a curious quirk on the calendar. Earth’s revolution around the sun is precisely 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. Leap Years keep us aligned with the modern day calendar, the extra day covering the annual 6 hour difference.
As you look around leading up to February 29th, you may notice something interesting: our obsession with frogs. While these amphibians are not the animal kingdom’s exclusive jumpers–think grasshoppers, rabbits, kangaroos…the list goes on–our culture has collectively decided frogs are number one on the list of “Things that Leap.” It’s not surprising they are considered extraordinary specimens. From their skin to their survival strategies, frogs are worth the special consideration.
One attribute popularly associated with frogs is their slimy exterior. Moisture is critical to a frog’s survival. Though they have lungs, frogs rely on the extra oxygen absorbed and carbon dioxide released through the skin. Their skin also takes in water to the point where these amphibians do not need to drink. Frogs constantly secrete a layer of mucus to maintain these two vital functions. They shed their skin regularly which looks a little like the acrobatic twists we make to squeeze out of a tight sweater. Unlike our relationship to sweaters, frogs usually eat the excess skin.
While their diet is nothing special for an amphibian, the way they catch and eat prey is extraordinary. Frogs will generally dine on any living thing that will fit into their mouths. Depending on the size of the frog, this could be insects, worms, small fish or even, in the case of the massive Argentine horned frog, rodents and lizards. While not all frogs have the quintessential long sticky tongue, the David Hu Laboratory for Biolocomotion found that those which do can deploy and retract it in 15/100th of a second—five times faster than a human eye blink. Some frog species’ eyes have an auxiliary function of helping force food down their throat by sinking through openings in the skull.
Though there are countless other fascinating frog features that make them a compelling subject, it is their vital role in the ecosystem that makes them worth celebrating. As tadpoles, they regulate potentially harmful algae blooms. As adults, they eat insects that can transmit deadly diseases. Through their entire lifecycle, frogs are a common source of nutrition for a wide variety of animals, playing an integral part in the food web.
Life without frogs would have cascading detrimental effects throughout an entire ecosystem. Yet, their numbers continue to decline due to habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and climate change. Studies released from Florida International University estimate nearly 120 species have gone extinct since the 1980s.
This Leap Year, consider the humble frog, not just as a cute theme, but as a diverse species fundamentally bound to our shared environment. An animal worthy of an extra day of observation.