Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Moving in Straight Lines

Handsome thighs of a California red-legged frog
I took a workshop last week on the California red-legged frog.  The classroom portion covered biology and behavior, and the day and nighttime field portions covered habitat, life stages and pouncing on frogs under the careful guidance of the certified instructors.  By 10:00 pm of the nighttime training, we were all basically returned to our childhoods. The boys were counting up how many frogs they'd captured, and the girls were wondering why they were following boys around in the woods at night.  Once I took my gloves off, my frog capture rate went up to about 80%, but I preferred the spotlighting duty of being the first to detect the alien-eye-rays bouncing from the willow thicket back to our strategically aimed flashlights.

Drs. Galen Rathburn and Norman Scott, Jr. researching and teaching about California red-legged frogs.
Red-legged frogs travel in straight lines when they move between their breeding ponds and streams and their late summer/dry season habitat.  I've read this before, but the instructors drilled it into us by reviewing the research and showing maps with straight red lines marking the routes of radio-collared frogs in several studies.  "These are actual routes, not representative pathways.  Notice that they are all straight."  When an obstruction is placed in the way of a red-legged frog's usual route, it will keep jumping into the drift fence, retaining wall or whatever obstacle people unwittingly put in its way.  The frog will not go around.  It will just keep trying until it gets over or dies.  In order to get to females hanging out in a sewage lagoon during the breeding season, male red-legged frogs have even been known to climb up an intervening chain-link fence covered with filter cloth.

Sierran treefrog on lower left with eyes on the side of the head, California red-legged frog on upper right with eyes inset from side of head.
It's hard to really get this.  As a restoration ecologist, I keep finding myself walking around ponds and streams and trying to protect the meandering wet routes I envision the frogs take upstream or through  bogs to reach their summer retreat.  It doesn't matter.  When they are ready to leave the pond, either because it is drying up or because once they have metamorphosed to an ambulatory form the froglets realize there are too many bigger frogs already in the pond, they just head out in all directions like rays from the sun.  Many of them will croak.  A few will find a suitable wet or underground summer retreat.  Then they will take the exact same straight route back in the winter breeding season to their birthplace.  Sometimes they intercept another suitable wet place on the way and breed there.  And they keep doing that year after year.

California red-legged frog tadpole with rows of tiny white spots extending back from eyes.
It just seems so durn simple.  Last winter, an associate showed me an underwater photo of frogs.  Their legs were poised beneath them like powerful ballerinas, webbed toes spread, chins tucked and intent eyes looking out.  I realized that in water they navigate a three dimensional world with grace, whereas they seem to have reduced their land navigation to the simple principle of following their blunt noses one leap after another.  I have some sense of this aquatic version of flying from the days I used to scuba dive in underwater caverns of the limestone springs of Florida.  It's a very different and liberating experience compared to lumbering around on land.

California red-legged frog tadpole with water boatman
I have developed the habit on this blog of reflecting on my own place in the natural world each year on my birthday.  Have I travelled in a straight line from birth to school, marriage, childrearing, and through my career?  Inside my watery head, it seems like it has been a meandering, complicated, rich and sometimes terrifying path.  Recently, on a hike I was leading, one of the participants proclaimed she wanted to come back in her next life as me.  I said, "Really, with the messy divorce, cancer and all?"  I guess that wasn't very nice bringing up the tough years, but it's complicated to stay alive while following your passion.

Sierran treefrog tadpoles often had white swirls on their inflated bellies, perhaps coiled intestines.
I'm trying to develop an analogy between traveling in straight lines and thinking in straight lines.  Thinking in straight lines could be logic, and clear, stepwise communication.  On the other hand, thinking randomly and creatively could be more 3 dimensional.  I haven't got much further with this analogy.

If I appear to lead a straight June Cleaver life on the outside, taking care of family and career, inside it feels like I'm living a richer experience of emotional waves and intellectual currents, clouds of philosophical plankton, and watery boundaries that are unseen in all directions.  Every time I head out the Dipper gate, I follow a straight path down curvy Page Mill Road to the office and responsibilities.  Every time I slip back onto the Dipper Ranch, I enter a world of observation, thought and the looped lives of countless animals and plants tangled together.  I prefer the confusion on this side of the gate, but I'm glad the path back is straight and simple.  Here's to another year of going outside, playing, then telling a story.

A California red-legged frog in a jar
See also:

California red-legged frog, Rana draytonii
Sierran treefrog, Pseudacris sierra

The Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program sponsored the above-mentioned workshop and posts extensive reference materials on the California red-legged frog  on its website.


  1. A wonderful well-written post. Very interesting about the frog part. I was unaware of their habits as I am about most things in Nature I come to learn again and again. That first photo, he does indeed have handsome legs.

  2. Here's to another trip round the sun. Nicely written, Cindy.

  3. Happy Birthday!
    Very interesting that RLF ars so staight lined from breeding to dry season habitat and back, yet are so 3-D in their aqueous environment. Must be great to rekindle childhood while learning about the ecology of a thrreatened species.

    Brings me back to memories of mountain yellow-legged frogs in the Sierra. There are virtually none where native or introduced trout live and healthy populations in isolated high lakes without fish. Vivid memories of sitting quietly in the cold water at a pond's edge and having the frogs come out and investigate and squirm over me.

    Really like your reflections on your place in the natural world on your birthday and drawing analogies to the RLF - with part of your life being straight lined (work, domesticity, etc.)and part more creative, random and 3D. [Especially in your more than observations - but actually living in, experiencing and being a part of nature.]

    Yes, life is messy, complicated, and involves suffering. However, I believe that it is important to accept what was, be in the present moment, remember that every "failure" is but a stepping stone, and we can choose to take commited actions to lead us along a crooked path to what is importnat in our lives.

    The "thinking in straight lines, using logic and clear stepwise progressions" is classic left brained activity. The "thinking randomly, creatively and more 3D" is right brained like so many artists (and scientists) who think in 3D.

    Our ancient heritage closer to nature as hunter-gatheriers, pastoralists and planters also works in a more 3D Sky World, Living World and Earth/Underworld. They saw their lives as intricately weaved or as you say "tangled together" with the animals and plants and even the rocks,earth, waters and sky around them. It is unfortunate that humankind has increasingly been cut off from nature or considers themselves "above" nature or having to "conquer" nature. As you know, communing with nature is not just an observational experience (important to the scientific observer and natural resources manager), but a spiritual one.

    Really like your analogy of a "richer (soup of) life with emotional waves, intellectual currents like clouds of philosophical plankton swimming in watery boundaries"...if you think about it...our brains really do function like that.


    P.S. One of my favorite Colroado microbreweries is Left Hand Brewing Company, whose beer glasses also say "guarranteed right brain satisfaction"

  4. My gosh Cindy, you are Bad Ass!

    Your stories are soooo insightful. Biology and Zen. Is there more? Very cool! David

  5. Happy belated birthday, and here's to many more years and many more stories to come.


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