Friday 10 April 2015

Book reviews: Lost Frogs and Cold Blood

Frogspawn, toadstrings, 
and amphibian excitements!

 In Search of Lost Frogs, Robin Moore
Cold Blood, Richard Kerridge 

Phrynobatrachus - a puddle frog

Breviceps poweri, a rain frog
Both of these books took me back to personal occasions in an almost disturbing way. Richard Kerridge's description of his childhood adventures with amphibians could have been autobiographical for me. I still remember the almost hysterical excitement of watching tadpoles in a pond, or in a jam jar and the thrilling sense of connection with amphibian life. The sheer elegance of a newt gliding suddenly out into an arena bounded by water plants and sunken wood and hanging there, balanced in the water, still leaves me speechless

But the story of the Golden Toads of Monte Verde ran with me through early adult life. When I was a zoology undergraduate, they were being talked about. These frogs that looked as if they'd been cast in metal: almost improbably vivid just sitting there on a stream bank. And then in 1989 one male was seen. The last that anyone has seen. They were gone.

Bufo taitanus - a dwarf toad!
That is the storyline that runs through  Lost Frogs. Almost heartbreakingly poignant (at least for me), is this repeated litany of the frogs (and other amphibians) found, documented - and lost. Whole populations - and not always with small starting numbers -  simply dwindling and disappearing over the course of a year or two. Trying to understand these processes makes for a fascinating book. There is a strong sense of how fragile (but wait for it) amphibians are and how different factors all apparently conspire to undermine their lifecycles, from habitat loss to variations in el Niño to the rampant gallop of Chytrid fungus across the planet.

Bufo maculatus - a square-marked toad

Inevitably - hopefully - the story is more intricate than that as, sometimes, just as suddenly, the frogs come back. Not all of them, but enough to slap the face of that human arrogance that assumes that "only we can save them". Given half a chance, those delicate frogs can save themselves. Give them no chance at all and they still might find a way to persist, quietly, inconspicuously, coping slowly with fungal infections, waiting out changing water tables, just hanging on in there until it all got better.
Kassina senegalensis - a running frog!

It's not all good news. Too many of those lost frogs have stayed lost. Lost Frogs  describes the 2010 -2011 Conservation International project of the same name and the heroic collection of expeditions that set off  in search of their missing amphibians. If it wasn't so poignant, it could sound like the follow up to Michael Palin's Ripping Yarn "Over the Andes by Frog"
Chiromantis xerampelina: Great Grey Treefrogs

But it is poignant and the stories are often sad despite the occasional triumphs and that's where Lost Frogs scores over Cold Blood for me. They are both enthusiastic books, written by people who have real passions for the subjects but in the end Cold Blood misses that wider context and a relevance or engagement beyond the author's own interest. It reads for me like a writing exercise grown into a book while Lost Frogs has a purpose and a sense of mission

Both books are worth reading especially if you're wondering "why all this amphibian stuff? Why are they important?" but for motivation and inspiration, Lost Frogs does it for me

Cold Blood, Richard Kerridge, Chatto & Windus, 2014,  978-0-70118-795-8
In Search of Lost Frogs, Robin Moore, Bloomsbury, 2014, 978-1408-1-8633-6

Photos: reading these books sent me off to dig out and scan slides of my personal lost frogs: not scientifically lost but frogs from my past. I offer various amphibians of Malawi! The names are the ones I knew them by 30 years ago. Nomenclature might have changed since!
Leptopelis angolensis

1 comment:

  1. Hello - When I first began researching for groups doing conservation breeding of frogs, either exitu or insitu, I was depressed by finding so few working to save specific species or any frog at all. Jay Manchand's 'Endangered Frogs Colouring Book' has just been published by us (My Fat Fox Ltd) and by the end of my researches I'd found zoos and universities as well as a few precious conservation groups doing their best at conserving frogs through breeding them and ensuring that their ecosystems survive inatact. Big jobs. Important projects. I think we've gotten to a stage where these things are far more important than counting individual frogs. Frogs are disappearing 130,000 times faster than their normal extinction rate. Yes, there have been a few wonderful surprise! survivors but still too few. Jay's book is available on Amazon and 1/3 of its profits go to 'Save The Frogs!'. In every instance, we are the danger to frogs. It's not too late. In Jay's book, I suggest 28 different organizations actively working to save 12 different frog species to which you can help through donations. A few bucks here and there may do a world of difference.