Celebrate South Africa's amphibians by learning more about the Western Cape's frogs and toads, what an indicator species is and some myths and superstitions around these hopping good friends.
Frog Week: 18 to 24 March
It is World Frog Day on 20 March and the Two Oceans Aquarium is celebrating these amphibious creatures with a week of fun activities from 18 to 24 March 2019.
Daily activities from 18 to 24 March will include:
- Live presentations of Western leopard toads at the I&J Ocean Exhibit daily at 13h30 and 15h00.
- A fun, temporary interactive exhibit to help you discover all the marvellous habits of frogs and what you can do to protect them.
- Froggy arts and crafts at the I&J Children's Play Centre
- On Wednesday 20 March, the I&J Children’s Play Centre will be hosting a special Wetlands, not Wastelands puppet show with loads of frog-themed kids' activities for the little ones.
- Check out the rest our school holiday plans here.
The importance of frogs to conservation
Two Oceans Aquarium CEO Michael Farquhar says that frogs are a very important indicator species for environmental health. "I imagine that a number of you may have thought that frogs and the Two Oceans Aquarium are an unlikely combination given that there are no marine amphibians," he says." We have, however, always stressed the importance of good catchment management in the conservation of coastal marine ecosystems and we have adopted the "H2O" concept, that is – Hilltop to Ocean – implying that whatever we do on land impacts the oceans."
"Frogs are ideal animals on which to hang such a conservation programme because they have porous skins through which water and oxygen are absorbed, but also through which environmental pollutants are also absorbed, making them very susceptible to polluted environments and causing scientists to consider them indicators of environmental health. If the frogs disappear we should worry!”
What are frogs?
Frogs and toads belong to the order Anura which is ancient Greek for “without tail”. Frogs generally have moist, smooth skins while toads have warty, dry skins. Toads also have short back legs for walking rather than jumping. The warty bumps on a toad’s skin helps to camouflage it so that it can hide from predators.
Do you know that frogs have lived on Earth for over 200 million years? They live on every continent except Antarctica. Southern Africa is home to about 135 species, of which 131 species can be seen in South Africa. Half of these species are endemic, i.e. found nowhere else in the world.
The frogs of the Western Cape
The Western Cape, in particular, is a hot spot of frog diversity – it is home to, among others, the endangered Western leopard toad Sclerophrys pantherina, the critically endangered Table Mountain ghost frog Heleophryne rosei, the endangered Cape platanna Xenopus gilli, the critically endangered Cape Flats frog Microbatrachella capensis, and the vulnerable Rose’s mountain toadlet Capensibufo rosei.
Western leopard toad Sclerophrys pantherina
The Western Cape is the only place in the world where you will find Western leopard toads. They live in natural vegetation, on farms and in compost heaps and log piles in gardens, but move to water, especially wetlands, to mate and lay their eggs.
Male Western leopard toads start calling in early spring – their call sounds just like loud snoring! When you hear them calling you will know that they are about to start moving towards water where they will mate and lay their eggs. The Western leopard toad grows up to 140mm long.
Come and visit the Western leopard toad on your next visit to the Aquarium! Plan your trip here.
Many Western leopard toads are killed during the breeding season as they have to get through or over garden walls, pavements and roads to get to their breeding sites near water. If you see a toad on the road, please pick it up and put it on the other side of the road (in the same direction in which it was going).
Lego was one of the lucky ones – this little toad was hit by a car on a road in Zeekoevlei and left for dead. You can meet Lego on your next visit to the Aquarium.
Keep your eyes open for Western leopard toads on the roads particularly between July and September when they are breeding and in November when the young toadlets are making their way from the water to land. Please brake for the toads!
Table Mountain ghost frog Heleophryne rosei
Very few people will be fortunate to see one of these frogs hence the name ghost frog. Besides being very rare, they are also secretive, coming out at night to feed on insects. The name Heleophryne means “the one which is afraid of the sun”.
These critically endangered frogs live only on Table Mountain in streams and moist, forested gorges in an area no bigger than eight square kilometres. The streams are fast flowing and cold and often flow through shady forests where the vegetation is thick and low-hanging.
The frogs that live in these streams are specially adapted to living in the fast-flowing water. The tadpoles have large sucker-like mouths with 16 rows of teeth. They use their teeth to pull themselves over rocks in fast-flowing streams. The adult frogs have sticky pads on their fingers so that they can climb over slippery rocks.
The reservoirs on Table Mountain, from which we get our water, have reduced the flow of the mountain streams. Instead of flowing all year round they now only flow during the rainy season. This means that Table Mountain ghost frogs have fewer breeding places. The Table Mountain ghost frog grows to 45-60mm long.
Cape platanna Xenopus gilli
Cape platannas live only in water in natural wetlands on the sandy flats on the Cape Peninsula. They bury themselves in the damp mud when seasonal wetlands dry up in the summer months and reappear after the first rains.
Cape platannas are threatened by invasive alien vegetation which has altered the acidity levels in wetlands and also because many seasonal wetlands have been filled in or drained for urban development. They have hybridised with the more abundant Common platanna Xenopus laevis. The Cape platanna grows to 40-60mm long.
Meet the common platanna on your next visit to the Aquarium! Here's what you can do when you visit us.
Cape Flats frog Microbatrachella capensis
Measuring between 12 and 16mm the Cape Flats or micro frog is the smallest frog in southern Africa and is critically endangered. These frogs live only in certain areas between Betty's Bay and Cape Agulhas, and in the middle of the Kenilworth Racecourse in Cape Town! They are threatened by urban and agricultural development as well as invasive fauna and flora.
When the seasonal wetland starts to dry up, micro frogs bury themselves under the mud and hibernate during the dry season.
Rose’s mountain toadlet Capensibufo rosei
Rose’s mountain toadlets live only in fynbos marshes in certain mountainous areas of the southwestern Cape and are endemic to the Table Mountain National Park.
Named after a famous herpetologist, Walter Rose, these toads have no call and cannot hear – they are voiceless toads. It is thought that they use visual or chemical cues instead to communicate with one another.
Their back legs are adapted for running and crawling rather than jumping. These toads spend a fair amount of time inside burrows where they forage for food, mainly insects. They also take shelter in these burrows during fires and so are able to survive some of the hottest of fynbos fires. Rose's mountain toadlets grow to 30-35mm long.
Why are frogs and toads so special?
Frogs and toads are vitally important as they are indicator species. An indicator species is “a species whose status provides information on the overall condition of the ecosystem and of other species in that ecosystem. They reflect the quality and changes in environmental conditions as well as aspects of community composition” according to the United Nations Environment Programme (1996).
Frogs are indicators of the health of our ecosystems. Because they breathe through their skins, they are highly susceptible to toxins and poisons in water and air. The fact that we are losing frog species at such an alarming rate world-wide, should be a “wake-up call” to us all regarding the state of the environment that we live in and depend on. Most of all, the threat of extinction facing these creatures should compel us to take a closer look at what we are doing to our environment and how our actions impact on nature. In the end, if the frogs are dying, it means we are dying. Save a frog, save yourself.
Frogs and toads also provide humans with medicine and eat insects, e.g. mosquitoes so they protect us from malaria. They also have a range of strategies and adaptations which could be used in biomimicry projects – ideas inspired by nature.
- Australian scientists are testing a strong and flexible glue for use in knee surgery – secreted from the skin of frogs.
- In 1992, US biochemists developed a painkiller 200 times stronger than morphine from the skin of a frog found in Ecuador.
A perfect opportunity to look out for frogs and toads in your garden, school grounds, or in the local park or nature reserve is the upcoming City Nature Challenge (26 to 29 April 2019) which invites all Capetonians to upload their plant and animal sightings via the iNaturalist app. You can also upload sightings of Western leopard toads especially to the iNaturalist monitoring site.
Frog myths and superstitions
Throughout the ages, frogs have captured our imaginations and have inspired myths and legends, fables and fairy tales, and music, art and literature in countries all over the world. Different cultures in South Africa have their own beliefs about frogs and a search on the Internet reveals some fascinating myths about frogs from countries across the globe.
Some famous frogs include Kermit (The Muppets), Mr Toad (The Wind in the Willows), Trevor (Harry Potter series), Hypnotoad (Futurama), Jeremiah the Bullfrog, Jeremy Fisher (Beatrix Potter), and of course the Frog Prince (The Brothers Grimm).
Frogs also feature in music – "Joy to the World (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog)", "We All Stand Together", and "It’s Not Easy Being Green".
Can you think of any frog stories? Do you have a frog superstition? What do frogs mean to you?
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 water bodies where there are frogs. Frogs are eaten by hammerkop birds which are known as “lightning birds” or “birds of witches”. For this reason these people would be terrified to collect water from rivers in which there are frogs living.
Cast a spell
In Xhosa tradition it is thought that frogs are used as uMuthi. If a frog enters your house, it could be carrying a spell/curse which someone else 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 – they believe that the appearance of a frog is a sign of rain. It is believed that killing of frogs will result in severe drought.
Here are some frog myths and superstitions from around the world…
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!
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.
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.
The people of Ireland believed that frogs were closely related to the leprechaun and capable of playing tricks on you when you 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.
Friends of the frogs
We asked some frog experts about their amphibious feelings.
Dalton Gibbs, Regional Manager: South
Biodiversity Management Branch – Environmental Management Department
Spatial Planning & Environment
City of Cape Town
What do frogs and toads mean to you? Frogs make the background music of our City; their quiet calls in the background let us know that we are not alone!
What is one of your favourite facts about frogs? For an animal which people associate with water, they can live in awfully dry places!
What is the most important message the public needs to get about frogs? Frogs are crucial clues to the health of our planet; when they die the planet dies around us and is a much lonelier place.
Ayrton King, Aquarist, Two Oceans Aquarium
What do frogs and toads mean to you? Frogs really and truly are everything as they play such an important role in our ecosystems. There is also something about their bulging eyes, warty skin and webbed feet that makes them so loveable.
What is one of your favourite facts about frogs? I feel in the frog world you can be anything! There are species of frog that can fly, species that are translucent, and even frogs that live only in water. My ultimate favourite is the golden poison-arrow dart frog, which carries enough poison to kill 10 people but is only 5cm when fully grown.
What is the most important message the public needs to get about frogs? The most important thing people need to take away about frogs is that they are a bio-indicator, and tell us how their environment is doing. So if they decline at the rate at which they are, we should really start paying attention and listening!
Alison Faraday, ToadNUTs Co-Founder
What do frogs and toads mean to you? To me they are representatives of the remaining wildness in our suburbs. They represent the determination of nature – to reproduce, to survive against incredible odds.
What is one of your favourite facts about frogs? I work with Western leopard toads, and I love the fact that once they have found a "home" they return to it after breeding season year after year. Our human residents refer to the toads in their garden as “my toad” and I love that they are seen as "belonging" to the home-owner. Of course the truth is that we humans are in fact in their homes!
What is the most important message the public needs to get about frogs? In times gone by, miners carried canaries into coal mines to indicate if the air was OK to breathe. Frogs are indicators of a healthy environment – water and habitat that is also suitable for humans. Frogs eat insects, so never spray or kill insects as you are destroying their food supply.
John Measey, Chair: Southern African Amphibian Specialist Group
What do frogs and toads mean to you? I can't help but think that most people misunderstand these terms. Toads are a family within frogs; frogs being the larger group that encompasses toads, and 11 other families in this region. The misunderstanding comes from the poor frog diversity where English originates - they only have one frog and two toad species (from two families), so the distinction between the two groups was all they needed. Here in South Africa we have 131 species from 12 families - an astounding diversity.
What is one of your favourite facts about frogs? My favourite fact is that there is an amazing diversity of 39 reproductive modes in frogs! And that's probably not all, we are constantly discovering new ways in which these animals have evolved to reproduce. Never a dull moment!
What is the most important message the public needs to get about frogs? It's not easy to understand frogs, but spend some time with these animals and try to appreciate them for what they are. Frogs live in the most amazing places, and it's always a treat to visit them in their natural habitats.
Dagny Warmerdam, WLT Volunteer Co-ordinator, Zeekoevlei
What do frogs and toads mean to you? The Western leopard toad changed my life! Moving from the city, and my subsequent encounters with Western leopard toads have allowed me to embark upon a new journey of discovery of the amphibian life that exists within the fascinating biosphere of Zeekoevlei and the Cape.
What is one of your favourite facts about frogs? They literally mean the world to me. As an indicator species, they show us when water is of a good enough quality to sustain life. Without water, the world as we know it will die.
What is the most important message the public needs to get about frogs? By creating public awareness and being willing to assist frogs and toads through their breeding migrations, I feel that we are indeed saving the world, one frog at a time.
Marius Burger, herpetologist and author
What do frogs and toads mean to you? I usually cringe a bit when I hear people speak of frogs and toads, as if though toads are something different to frogs. To refer to frogs and toads is akin to saying birds and penguins. Or snakes and pythons. Completely silly and superfluous. Anyway, with that off my chest, my short answer is that my fascination with frogs have caused me to travel to some far-flung jungles in search of new species, and that those trips have been some of the primary highlights of my life.
Waxing lyrical: Poetry and haiku about frogs
The world has held great Heroes,
As history books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!
The Wind in the Willows
Leaping to every
The moon goes over the water.
How tranquil the sky is!
She goes scything slowly
The old shimmer from the river;
Meanwhile a young frog
Takes her for a little mirror.
Federico garcia lorca/TR. W.B. Merwin
In an old pond a frog ages while leaves fall
Yosa buson /TR Thomas Rimer
He climbs out
- the naked frog
The old pond
- the frog, when it croaks
makes a ripple
At the ancient pond
A frog plunges
Into the sound of water
He glares back at me
With an ugly, surly face,
This old frog
All around my house
Pond frogs, from the beginning,
Sang about old age
Under the cloudy cliff, near the temple door,
Between dusky spring plants on the pond,
A frog jumps in the water, plop!
Startled the poet drops his brush.