News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

March 22, 2009

The Off Season: Spring peepers ‘specialize in the art of the temporary’

TERRE HAUTE — It’s been most of two weeks ago now that my wife and I managed to get home early enough from work to walk our customary walk. The weather had warmed for a few days in this climatic seesaw we know as March, so for that evening anyway we donned our sweatshirts and walking shoes and headed down the road.

As we neared a spot where a yellow-clayed field drains into a damp copse of willows and white oaks, we heard a welcomed chorus of spring peepers, their familiar voices letting us know that although we had a few frosts and freezes left before the equinox officially arrived, for all intents and purposes, they were ushering in a newer, greener season.

We don’t have to find those shallow pools down the road to hear the frogs. A full-fledged wetlands and narrow pond below our hilltop house explodes with the little brown croakers each year as winter turns to spring. I do mean little, too; the typical adult peeper is anywhere from three-fourths of an inch to 11/2 inches long.

“I like to hear them,” my wife said as we tromped past the boggy choir that evening. “They’re a sign that spring is coming; they’re a sign that there’s hope,” she said. Hearing those peepers, I told her, must be part of the reward we get for enduring such long, hard winters…

Spring peepers, known scientifically as Hyla crucifer (Hyla means “tree frog;” crucifer means “cross-bearing” for peepers carry that mark on their backs) start their lives as tiny translucent, algae-eating tadpoles. Only the males sing — they’re really just trying to pick up young female peepers — and they differ from most frogs in that they have sticky little pads on each of their toes. Glands in the peepers’ feet secrete an adhesive onto the pads, making them the “Post-it Notes” of the natural world as they hang on the undersides of cattails and skunk cabbages and the long-dead stems of last year’s weeds.

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