1. If you mix clay and rainwater together, you get frogs.
Okay, this is not actually a fact, but it is one of the recipes of spontaneous generation, the old fashion belief that life can be created by non-life, such as toads from a dead duck on a dung heap, scorpions from two bricks and some basil, or mice from wheat, water, and the skirt of an unclean woman. Aristotle was a big fan of the spontaneous generation theory, but it ultimately turned out to be a catch all to make up for not understanding the intricacies of reproduction in various species.
This month, I finished reading Lucy Cooke’s new book The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tale from the Wild Side of Wildlife. I spent the last two weeks bombarding my family with facts about vultures sanitizing their feet with their poo or beavers building dams on top of speakers that play the sound of running water. But today I want to tell you about frogs, and the reason that of all Cooke’s animals I chose to go with frogs is because frogs was my first window into the work of Cooke three years ago. January 2015, the BBC radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage broadcast an episode called “Fierce Creatures,” in which Lucy Cooke recounts the following harrowing experience, a story I have yet to put out of my mind.
“I really love frogs. Somebody’s got to. So I went to Columbia to look for the frog, to look for Phyllobates terribilis, which is the world’s most toxic animal, which is this little banana yellow frog. It’s about an inch and a half long. It is so toxic, it can kill ten men. It sweats it out of its skin. It’s the fastest acting neurotoxin that’s known. One frog could kill two bull elephants in three minutes flat and there’s no antidote whatsoever. … We got into the jungle and we found the frog. I had to wear protective gloves because if you just touched it with your fingers, the toxin could get in through your fingers, and obviously if you touched your face you’d be dead in three minutes. It’s one of the cheery poisons that shuts down all your nerves and everything so for the last minute, you appear to be dead, but you’re actually still alive silently screaming inside. … So we go there and we find the frog and it’s just amazing I’ve been on this massive journey. I’ve waited all my life to see this animal, and I’ve got my plastic gloves on, but still I’m literally shaking because it’s like holding a loaded gun. And the thing hops, obviously, so everywhere I point it, everyone’s moving away. And then I’m talking about it and I just… Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the amazingness of evolution and how wonderful and fantastic a thing it is, and I burst into tears. And I went to wipe the tears away from my eyes, and my entire crew went, “STOPPPP!” So yeah, I nearly did it: it was nearly death by frog.”
It turns out that the Phyllobates terribilis, the original poison dart frog, does not need to be so poisonous, but it’s been trapped in an evolutionary arms race with its predator, a snake called Liophis epinephelus, in a small area the size of Washington state for a millennia. The frog’s poison keeps getting stronger and the snake’s resistance keeps climbing as a result.
Okay, you’ve been very patient. Here are your three real frog facts from Lucy Cooke’s myth-busting The Truth About Animals:
1. Frogs were the first reliable pregnancy test.
In the 1950s, you could go to a lab and have them inject your urine into a Xenopus laevis frog. If you were pregnant, the frog would squirt out eggs eight to twelve hours later. Read more in The Atlantic.
2. In some juice bars, you can get a frog in your smoothie.
Lucy Cooke herself, while visiting Lima, stopped by a juice bar that served freshly blended frog (Telmatobius) as an aphrodisiac. Read more in Mercury News.
3. An amphibian apocalypse has wiped out 200 species of frogs.
The amphibian chytrid fungus, which is toxic to frogs, has spread to six continents and has wiped out 200 species of frogs, what Cooke’s book calls the most spectacular loss of vertebrate bio-diversity in recorded history due to disease. Read the latest findings about the fungus from the Natural History Museum London.