01 October 2013

Big and small, we should look after them all

Renée Leeuwner

The Western Cape has just experienced Western leopard toad migration season. Each year from late July, through August and into September, these endangered toads make their way from the urban gardens they call home to their breeding sites and back, running a gauntlet of walled gardens and busy roads.

This year was the second time I went out at night to help save as many of these toads as possible. They are, after all, endangered, just like African penguins, rhinos, gorillas and blue whales. (Yes, I have just put toads and rhinos on the same level. Why not? Isn’t it our responsibility to look after all animals, great and small?)

Frogs and toads play an extremely important role in our ecosystem. They eat bugs. They provide food for myriad animals. They are also an indicator species for us. Healthy water systems mean healthy toads and frogs. Unhealthy water systems mean no toads and frogs, and trouble for us.

So, I have told you about the endangered Western leopard toad. Let’s have a look at four other frog and toad species that need us to ensure their survival. For this, I will focus on Cape Town and its surrounds.

Cape rain frog (Breviceps gibbosus):

Cape rain frog, Breviceps gibbosus
Photo by Louis Du Preez

These rain frogs grow up to 80mm in length. If you live in Cape Town, you might be lucky enough to find one in your garden. They have been classified as vulnerable due to habitat loss caused by urbanisation.

Rose’s mountain toadlet (Capensis rosei):

Rose’s mountain toadlet, Capensis rosei
Photo by Marius Burger

These tiny toadlets (up 39mm) live in undisturbed mountain fynbos in the Western Cape. They tend to live higher up on the mountain, but you might be lucky enough to come across one lower down the slopes. They have been classified as vulnerable due to their very restricted habitat and the fact that they are being disturbed on a more regular basis. How are they disturbed? We are increasingly making use of the mountains for recreational purposes.

Table Mountain ghost frog (Heleophryne rosei):

Table Mountain ghost frog, Heleophryne rosei
Photo by Anton Pauw

You will be counted as exceptionally fortunate if you ever happen to spot one of these ghost frogs. They grow up to 63mm long and are found in only a few streams on Table Mountain. That’s it. You won’t find them anywhere else in the world. They have been classified as critically endangered.

Cape platanna (Xenopus gilli):

Cape platanna, Xenopus gilli
Photo by Louis Du Preez

The Cape platanna grows up to 60mm in length. They have been classified as endangered owing to habitat loss and hybridisation with the common platanna. They occur only in certain water bodies within the coastal fynbos of the Cape Peninsula, stretching east towards Cape Agulhas.

And just like that you have four frog and toad species that could do with a bit of conservation mention. There are many, many more. There are just as many that are “data deficient” that might be standing on the brink of extinction. We don’t know. We don’t know enough.

So, what can you do to help?

  1. Slow down and brake for frogs and toads
  2. Keep your garden local and plant only indigenous plants (it doesn’t matter where you live – keep it local)
  3. Don’t use pesticides and chemicals in your garden
  4. If you have a swimming pool, install a toad saver

If you’ve read any of my other blogs, you will know that I have a very straightforward approach to our (humans) place here on Earth. It all has to do with respect and responsibility.

We should have respect for ourselves and all that share our space with us, be they human, animal or plant. On the same level, we should be responsible for ourselves and all that share our space with us, be they human, animal or plant. Respect and responsibility – it isn’t easy, but we should at least try.

(If you want to learn more about frogs and toads in South Africa, A Complete Guide to the Frogs of Southern Africa by Louis du Preez and Vincent Carruthers is the book you need to have on your bookshelf.)

Frog facts

  • Frogs and toads are amphibians. Some frogs and toads live on land and in the water. Others live only on land. They are cold-blooded, like snakes and lizards (which are reptiles)
  • Frogs and toads have sensitive skin through which they can absorb water and oxygen. They have to keep their skin moist so that oxygen can pass through, otherwise they suffocate. They can stay underwater for a long time without having to surface to breathe air
  • Because of their sensitive skins, frogs and toads like clean water and air. If there are no frogs in the water, it might not be safe to drink or swim in

Frog adaptations

  • Frogs have long legs and can leap up to 20 times their body length. A South African frog named Santjie holds the world record for the longest jump: 33 feet and 5.5. inches, or about 10m. Some frogs have webbed feet to help them swim. Others have sticky suction pads on their toes so they can cling to plants. Some toads have “claws” to help them dig holes in the sand when they hibernate
  • Some frogs have long, sticky tongues to catch their prey. It takes less than a second for a frog to shoot its tongue out, catch its prey and bring it into its mouth!
  • Frogs and toads can move their eyes in all directions without having to move their heads

What is the difference between frogs and toads?

Toads have a dry, warty skin and short back legs for walking rather than jumping. The warty bumps on a toad’s skin help to camouflage it from predators.

Can I get warts from touching a frog or toad?

Some people believe that you get warts from touching frogs and toads. This is not true because warts are caused by a virus. Some people are allergic to certain kinds of toads and develop wart-like rashes after touching them.

The big and the small

The micro frog is the smallest frog in the Western Cape and only grows to around 16mm in length.

The Western leopard toad is the biggest toad in the Western Cape and grows to 140mm in length.

Why are frogs important for humans?

  • They warn us when there is pollution in our water and air
  • They eat insects, like mosquitoes, and so help protect us from some diseases, like malaria
  • In some cultures, they provide us with medicine
  • They are beautiful!

What do frogs mean to you?

You may be surprised to discover that frogs have been a part of our lives from ancient times right up to the present day. They feature in myths and legends, fables and fairy tales, and music, art and literature in countries all over the world.

Can you think of any frog stories? Do you have a frog superstition? What do frogs mean to you? Tell us in the comments below!

In South Africa frogs are associated with powerful superstitions and beliefs.

  • Frogs and the lightning bird: The Nguni people believe that you should not collect water from bodies of water where frogs dwell. Frogs are eaten by hammerkop birds, which are known as “lightning birds” or “birds of witches”. The frog’s association with this bird makes it a harbinger of bad tidings
  • Cast a spell: In Xhosa tradition it is thought that frogs are used as muthi. If a frog enters your house, it could be carrying a spell/curse, which someone has cast on it to do you harm. Frogs are also closely associated with snakes – the Xhosa people believe that if you see a frog, a snake will appear shortly afterwards
  • Children of rain: In some of our communities, frogs are viewed as God’s children of rain – it is believed that the appearance of a frog is a sign of rain. It is believed that killing frogs will result in severe drought
  • Fertility, birth and resurrection: In ancient Egypt, the frog-headed Hekt was the goddess of birth and fertility and later of resurrection. The Egyptians mummified frogs with their dead
  • God of water: In Maori mythology, the frog was the god of water and it was believed that killing a frog would cause downpours and floods. A frog in dreams or on one’s path was a warning of floods or very heavy rain
  • Toad in the moon: The Chinese don’t see a man in the moon – they see a toad in the moon. A lunar eclipse happens when the toad in the moon tries to swallow the moon itself
  • Frog Atlas: Legends from China and India say the world rests on the back of a giant three-legged frog. If the frog moves, it causes an earthquake
  • Good luck: Frogs are symbols of good luck in Japan. In Britain it is believed that a frog will bring good luck to the house it enters
  • Trickster: The people of Ireland believe that frogs were closely related to the leprechaun and capable of playing tricks when least expected
  • Warts and all: People around the world believe that warts develop from touching frogs and toads. This myth probably comes from the fact that many toads have wart-like growths on their skin for camouflage. Some people are allergic to certain kinds of toads and develop wart-like rashes after touching them

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