Frog eat frog
Red, yellow or bull? Mark Twain’s notorious jumping-frog story sparks an amphibian showdown in the foothills.
While it was gold that first brought settlers to Angels Camp in 1849, 160 years later, the Calaveras County town owes much of its reputation to frogs. Every May, several hundred beefy specimens are borrowed from local waterways and entered into the Jumping Frog Jubilee, a four-day competition during which thousands of visitors and locals crowd the town’s fairgrounds to experience the thrill of watching frogs fly.
The animals are tenderly released afterward, hopefully to hop again the following year. Angels Camp features a star-studded “Frog Hop of Fame” along Main Street, sells frog wear and memorabilia year-round, and was immortalized by Mark Twain’s short story, The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Truly, frogs are a way of life in Angels Camp.
Bullfrogs, that is, and some town residents aren’t especially enthused by the federal government’s current efforts to restore habitat and boost the population of a small frog now facing extinction. That’s because rescuing this dwindling amphibian—the California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii)—could mean ridding the state of the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), actually an East Coast native introduced to California sometime in the late 1800s and which has since munched its smaller red-legged cousin almost into oblivion.
“Bullfrogs are voracious predators,” said Gary Fellers, a research biologist with the United States Geological Survey who has studied California frogs since 1991. “We’ve found red-legged frogs in the stomachs of bullfrogs, and we know for sure that bullfrogs also eat red-legged frog tadpoles.”
That spells trouble for the bullfrog, according to Al Donner, assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sacramento office.
“We’re encouraging landowners to improve habitat for the red-legged frog,” he said. “If that means removing bullfrogs, then we hope that they’ll do so.”
Bullfrogs, says Donner, require year-round water to survive, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that ranchers drain their stock ponds during the summer, when the scorching Gold Country sun will give almost any amphibian good reason to sweat—and probably die.
Not the red-legged frog, though. Having evolved in California’s arid climate, this dainty animal, usually 2 to 3 inches nose to tail, bears a distinct evolutionary advantage over its bigger cousin; when their ponds dry up, red-legged frogs burrow deep into the mud to escape the deadly sun and emerge again when the first rains fall. Bullfrogs just wither and die.
But Angels Camp residents love their bullfrogs, and it’s safe to expect that not everyone will participate in the red-legged frog recovery effort. Buck King, for one, sees the bullfrog as a great historical and economic asset of Angels Camp.
“The bullfrog has been very good to our town, and I’d hate to see outsiders come along and mess with a good thing,” he said. King, 67, has lived in Angels Camp for 40 years and has never seen a red-legged frog in the region. “But you can find a bullfrog just about anywhere around here,” he assures.
As chairman of the Frog Jump Committee, which manages the annual contest, King reserves a special fondness for the charismatic bullfrog, the main competitor in the event. He believes that today—100-plus years after its introduction to California’s waterways—the bullfrog should be granted native status and be officially welcomed to the state once and for all—not eliminated.
“I’m from Missouri, but I’ll be darned if someone comes along and tells me my kids aren’t California natives,” King pointed out. “I know [the Fish and Wildlife Service] is trying to do a good job with preserving wildlife, but they’re trying to get ranchers to help establish red-legged frogs in an area where they never were to begin with. No one has ever seen one around here recently or in history, and I’ve talked to a lot of old-timers about this.”
But Eric Thomas, a biologist at University of the Pacific in Stockton, confirms that several red-legged frogs were indeed discovered in late 2003 in a private pond near Valley Springs in northwest Calaveras County. Thomas started a breeding program for the species, but the Department of Fish and Game suggested that simply protecting and restoring local habitat would be the most effective route.
More than five years after its discovery in northwest Valley Springs, the red-legged frog remains virtually unknown in the county. According to USGS biologist Fellers, non-native fish species, ambient pesticides and habitat loss have also taken their toll on the red-legged frog, which was [has been] listed under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened” since May 1996.
In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate 1.8 million acres of land between Mendocino County and Los Angeles County as “critical habitat” for the red-legged frog. More than two-thirds of the proposed acreage is privately owned, and officials expect stiff resistance to the proposal, which, if approved by the secretary of the Interior, would require landowners to curtail development projects and other disruptions of the land, especially near ponds or streams.
Like King, Ron Dwelley doesn’t believe the species ever thrived in the foothills to begin with. Until several years ago, Dwelley served as one of the primary frog catchers for the Jumping Frog Jubilee, now in its 81st year. Accompanied by as many as two or three partners under the cover of night, Dwelley would stalk the banks of his favorite ponds, playing the beam of a powerful flashlight along the shoreline. When a pair of buggy eyes lit up, the team would crouch low and creep slowly within netting distance—though Dwelley landed many a big bullfrog with his bare hands. Over the course of several days Dwelley and his team often bagged as many as 500 frogs in the ponds of Calaveras County.
“But in all that time, I never saw a red-legged frog,” he reports. “They were all bullfrogs.”
Dwelley, now 60, no longer catches the amphibians, leaving the job to such die-hard veterans as Bill Guzules, who has been catching frogs for the jubilee for almost 50 years. Just last week, the 71-year-old Santa Clara resident caught 60 bullfrogs for this year’s events, which began with a promotional jump on Tuesday, May 5, on the front lawn of the Capitol building. Early this week he was at it again, seeking the perfect specimen to enter under his own name in the jubilee, which lasts all weekend in Angels Camp. The winning frog usually leaps 20 feet or so, and the human victor is looking at a prize of $5,000 if his or her frog breaks the standing record of over 21 feet. Distances are measured over three successive jumps.
Like others attuned to the happenings of the frog world, Guzules says that the red-legged frog is exceedingly rare.
“I haven’t seen one in 30 years,” he says.
But whether that means that bullfrogs have eaten all the red-legged frogs or whether red-legged frogs were scarce to begin with is a question that even historians and biologists cannot quite answer. King, like some other Angels Camp frog fanatics, fancies that the frog in Mark Twain’s story—the one that was touted by its owner as a champion jumper just moments before a fraudster poured lead buckshot down its throat to squelch its athletic talents—was a bullfrog.
However, most literature states that the bullfrog was introduced to California in the 1890s, almost 50 years after Twain’s story took place. That would make the original jumping frog of Calaveras County a red-legged frog, though Dwelley discounts any relevance of the story.
“It’s just a work of fiction, and there’s no evidence one way or another what kind of frog it was.”
Fellers believes the Twain frog was actually a foothill yellow-legged frog. Guzules believes it was probably a red-legged frog.
The American bullfrog has a rich tradition of going places it shouldn’t. South Korea, for example, is now dealing with an infestation of the little monsters. The bullfrog arrived there in the 1960s, when the federal government released the animals into the wild as a food source for the starving populace. Rana catesbeiana has also attacked southern France, where the incorrigible pest is devouring all endemic pond creatures it can wrap its mouth around in the Gironde region. The bullfrog appeared there in the 1970s, presumably introduced as a source of grilled frog legs.
In Angels Camp, though, few locals would dare eat a frog—at least not a bullfrog. Dwelley once sampled one. He remembers that it tasted “like chicken.”
“But since I moved to Angels Camp I’ve subscribed to the idea that you don’t bite the leg that feeds us. We raise hell any time the local grocery store sells frog legs.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to designate nearly 2 million acres of land is now undergoing a 30-day public comment period, and an outcome may be six months to a year away.
One thing, though, is certain: An American bullfrog will win the jumping contest this weekend in Angels Camp, probably with a three-hop total distance of about 20 feet. Less certain is how many smaller frogs the champion jumper has dined upon.
And downright impossible to know is, were their legs yellow?