Have pity on the much maligned frog and his stepbrother, the toad.
They can keep you awake at night as they belt out love songs. They don't cause, or cure, warts, but some of them can kill you. With all the folklore burdening them, it's remarkable they can swim as tadpoles or hop as adults.
Hop they can do, some as far as nine times their body length.
An exhibit that opened earlier this month at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia's museum district is fun and fact-filled for all ages. The interactive displays are easy to navigate and information outlining the impact of environmental changes on the critters is frightening.
Perhaps the most fun is just finding examples of the 15 species behind glass panels.
Camouflage is a big part of natural protection for most of the frogs and toads, especially when all four feet are on the ground. Attack the fire-bellied toad, for example, and it rolls over on its back, stretching its limbs upward and exposing a red belly bright enough to scare away any attacker.
Then there's the tomato frog, which looks very much like a tomato that fell from the vine and was left to rot for a day or two in the soil and get squishy. These frogs were so popular among collectors that they now have protection under international law. Native to Madagascar, they burrow into the dirt and lie in wait for insects to come by for mealtime.
Often resting in a front corner of his home space is an American bullfrog, resembling an olive-green glob of Silly Putty. Native to our region, the frogs now have spread to areas west of the Rocky Mountains, where they eat everything that's smaller than them – insects, fish, birds, snakes, baby turtles and smaller frogs. Anyone who has spent a night near fresh water is familiar with their croaking love song, which can be heard for a mile.
Without question, the prettiest of the amphibians is the dart poison frog, whose skin color ranges among shades of iridescence. These frogs, only about 2 inches long, also are from wet tropical areas around the Amazon River. The frogs absorb the toxins from the ants in their diet. Tribesmen rub their arrows or tips of blow darts along the skin of the frog to cover it with poison. Four of the species are on display.
“We don't get up close and personal. Gloves are a necessity,” said Mary Bailey, manager of public engagement at the Academy. The engagement part of her job is different with the "Chorus of Colors'' exhibit than it was with tarantulas or snakes, which Bailey was eager to put in almost everyone's hand as she aided visitors and answered questions. (Just FYI, a multitude of frogs is called a chorus.)
Bailey manages to retain what seems like thousands of facts about the animals in the museum's exhibits. “I get ready by binge-watching documentaries,” she said.
No, she says, frogs can't fly but some, like the Chinese Gliding Frog, can sail from branch to branch, extending the large webbed sections of skin between their toes.
Talk about toes and Bailey will show you the African clawed frog, a somewhat pasty-looking variety that could have been squashed by a boot. They hunt in the water, with forearms outstretched, and use their claws to snag prey and stuff it down their throats. Pads on the feet of other varieties are covered with tubular cells that compress and bend under pressure, allowing them to climb up branches, much like declawed cats.
The exhibit comes from Clyde Peeling's Reptiland in Allenwood, Pennsylvania., which is scheduled to truck in an exhibit on crocodiles next year.
Arriving with the exhibit was zookeeper Rachel Lanning, who “feeds, cleans and does medical checkups” on the frogs, toads and plants that came with them.
Diet varies by the species, Lanning said, and many eat crickets or fruit flies. Once a month, the African bullfrog get a single fur-less mouse. “They're not eaten alive. They're frozen. It needs the calcium and protein boost,” she said.
This frog is the only one in solitary confinement.
“They're not cuddly,” said Lanning. “One likes to climb onto the mister” when she's working to clean the enclosures, she said. “I wouldn't really say they have personalities.”
Toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads, said Lanning. Toads generally are more stubby, with short hind legs and they don't hop, but walk. They live in dry spaces while frogs like it wet.
A large tank holds tadpoles in various stages of development, a process that takes about 12 weeks from the beginning of life as an egg then to a legless tadpole, or pollywog, through the development of two sets of legs.
The world population of frogs is suffering because they are so susceptible to habitat change. About 170 species of an estimated 5,000 have become extinct in the last two years. Information panels in the exhibit explain how frogs, which breathe and drink through their skin, are susceptible to chemicals and changes in the climate.
“Frogs are an indicator species,” said Lanning. “If you have a pond without frogs, it's not a healthy pond.”
If you go
"Frogs: A Chorus of Colors'' will be on display at the Academy of Natural Science of Drexel University through May 14. The museum is at 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.
Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $13.95 and up. Discounted tickets are available online at ansp.org. The phone number is (215) 299-1000.