Monday, June 29, 2009

The legend of the pinging frogs

I want to tell you a story. It’s called “The Legend of the Pinging Frogs”. I wrote about them for The Independent two years ago, but the intervening summers were so bad, I hardly sat out in the garden at all. During the past week, however, the frogs have been at full ping so I thought I might revisit the tale.

I first heard the pinging shortly after we moved to this house, more than six years ago. I’d call it more of a high-pitched beep than a ping, and it sounded as if it was being emitted by something electronic. It was a warm evening in early summer and I was sitting outside. The noise seemed to be coming from somewhere near the junction box for the garden light, which was deep in a clump of bamboo.

I wasn’t used to having a garden light, and my first thought was that the bleeping indicated some sort of problem. I got up, looked at the light, and looked at the junction box. The noise stopped. I went back to my seat and glass of wine and sat down again. The noise resumed.

During the next few weeks (this was the very hot summer of 2003), the noise nearly drove me mad. It wasn’t so much the insistent bleeping (though that was fairly annoying), as not knowing its source. I wondered whether it might be a cricket or insect of some kind, or perhaps next door’s security light. There was no electronic equipment in the living room near the doors into the garden – such as a computer or a microwave – so I knew it wasn’t anything inside.

Eventually, the noise disappeared and I forgot all about it. Occasionally, I heard it again when, during the summer months, we had the windows open late in the evening.

So it was only during a chance conversation with my neighbour Jean that I had any clue as to what might be the cause. I’d been telling her about the frogs that live in a small pool in my garden and she asked me whether they were “pinging frogs”.

Apparently, so the local legend goes, the “pinging frogs” were introduced into a pond by the owners of a house in the next road about 20 years ago. Depending on whose version of the story you hear, the owners – or the frogs – were either Chinese or South American. Since then, the frogs have spread, apparently favouring paving slabs as a habitat. Neighbours are all agreed on one thing, however: the pinging is very annoying.

So, next question: what kind of creature was a “pinging frog”? The answer was the result of yet another chance conversation, this time with Anna Guthrie, of the Wildlife Trusts. Within hours, her colleague Brian Eversham, conservation director at the Wildlife Trusts for Beds, Cambs, Northants and Peterborough, came back with the verdict: the “pinging frog” was a midwife toad.

It all fitted. The midwife toad, Alytes obstetricans, was introduced to Britain about 100 years ago, to a nursery in Bedfordshire where it arrived in a consignment of plants from France. It can now be found in Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, south Yorkshire, Hampshire, Devon, Surrey and … south-west London. It has a distinctive call, which many people apart from me have likened to an electronic beep, and it mates in May or June, which is when the calls are at a peak. That explains why at this time of year, they're in full throttle.

The midwife toad is a strange little creature. It gets its name from the fact that the male looks after the eggs, carrying them wrapped around his back legs until they’re ready to hatch, whereupon he dumps them into the nearest pond. I haven’t met anyone in our neighbourhood who’s actually seen a midwife toad, as they are tiny: about 5cms (two inches) long and their appearance, which is pretty similar to any other common or garden toad, keeps them well camouflaged.

It’s the male that does most of the calling, though the females anwer him back, and his call not only alerts them to his presence but also stimulates them hormonally, boosting their egg laying. Sounds a bit like a herpetological Tom Jones.

So “The Legend of the Pinging Frogs” is actually “The Case of the Midwife Toad”. Which is also, incidentally, the name of a book by Arthur Koestler about the German scientist Paul Kammerer, whose investigations into nature versus nurture involved experiments on amphibians and ended in tragedy after he was accused of falsifying the results. But that’s another story...

Here is a completely irrelevant picture of the first waterlily in my pond this year

25 comments:

Frances said...

A delightful tale, Victoria, and the irrelevant water lily fits right in. I do wish we had some technotronic frogs here to join the katydids.
Frances

Grace Peterson said...

Completely irrelevant but beautiful. Interesting history of the pinging frog (or toad). Frogs are so cool. I hope the pinging won't drive you insane like the croaking of our tree frogs does to me.

Hermes said...

Great post, really enjoyed it. And I've read the Koestler book.

easygardener said...

Fascinating story - now you know the source of the sound it shouldn't be quite so irritating. Perhaps you might come across a toad while you have a camera to hand!

patientgardener said...

I thought at first that pinging was a another way of saying something much ruder!!

I keep bumping into frogs in my garden so much so that i am now frightened that I will tread on one.

petoskystone said...

it may be an irrelevant phots, but it is certainly a lovely one.

Elephant's Eye said...

We have reed frogs which start clicking around 4 in the afternoon, but theirs is gentle, musical sound I love.

Victoria said...

Frances: The irrelevant waterlily is a tribute to my replacement camera. I tried taking pictures of the lilies last year, but all I got was a white blob. This camera seems to be idiot-proof, thank goodness.

Grace: Yes, I like frogs, and toads. But I picked up a toad by accident the other day while clearing some fallen leaves. Eww!

Hermes: I am so impressed you have read the Koestler book. And I am so ashamed that I know about it, but haven't actually read it. It sounds such a good story.

easygardener: Yes, now I know it's the song of lurve, I don't mind it nearly so much.

patientgardener: As in "those p***ing frogs"? It may catch on. I can think of lots of other uses - that p***ing cat, those p***ing kids, not another p***ing sleepover. I love it!

Victoria said...

Petoskystone: Thank you! I was very pleased with the picture, I must say.

Elephant's Eye: The clicking of reed frogs sounds as if it would be wonderful. You should post the sound they make on your blog, then we can all come and listen.

EB said...

Lovely post. To be tedious for a moment, I love the rhythm of the sentences. Maybe since I'm studying English grammar I could analyse them, but that sounds a bit too much like admiring a picture and taking it off to analyse the paint's chemical compounds.

There are frogs near my parents' place in France that sound like cow bells, and cow bells that sound like frogs. I never know which, either to listen to or to think about.

Sunita said...

I love that photo of the waterlily. irrelevant maybe but so beautiful... makes it relevant enough.
The toad that sounds like a beep? How odd! Maybe he's texting the female to come and collect the eggs... he's taken care of them long enough !

Sue Swift said...

Do keep looking for them - I'd love to see a photo.

Yolanda Elizabet Heuzen said...

Fortunately both my frogs and toads are ping free. Ever heard a bull frog? Not pretty!

LittleGreenFingers said...

My husband has been known to wander around the house with small children clinging to both his legs - I now know to call him a midwife toad... or a pinging frog!

Karen - An Artists Garden said...

Lovely waterlily Victoria.
I have to say that by the sounds of them the pinging frogs would drive me completely bonkers!
K

islandgal246 said...

I know about the annoying noise from toads. Down here they sound like strimmers and keep such a racket that I went into the garden around midnight one night to see who the hell was cutting their lawn. Found out that the toads were having a mating session. We also have tiny whistling frogs and their sound is like musical notes some people say. And please do not get a cricket in your house, you will never sleep until you kill the bugger!

The Machinist's Wife said...

Hi Victoria
I love the pics of your garden, as well as the stories you write, and will be back to read more. Frogs, in our neck of the woods, often means that there is a mean and nasty snake, lurking to eat them. Ayyyy....

mothernaturesgarden said...

What a funny story. I am always checking out garden noises or getting spooked by them. You never know what new discovery will be made. I spent a bit of time trying to get a shot of a hummingbird moth today.
Donna

Esther Montgomery said...

I approve of irrelevance.

I stayed on a mountain for a few days where the cows wore bells and soon began to feel as frantic to escape the sound as I might be to get out of a lift if I got stuck in one.

Cameras seem especially challenged by white flowers.

There's a version of Tiddley Winks where you 'ping' a plastic frog into a cup. Perhaps you could introduce it to your Midwives? They might enjoy it.

Esther

Word verification is 'Calang' - which seems to go very well with 'Ping'.

Jean said...

Hello Victoria...
Nice to meet you. I am Jean from America. I have a good friend who is a councillor in Peterborough. Lovely pictures..lovely comments. Would love to see the Chelsea Flower Show. While in Australia I did see Floriade but its mostly a spring bulb show but it was wonderful.I will be returning!

Jean said...

I did forget about the frogs. In an earlier pond we had latticework around the outside edge. Tree frogs would get between the slates and would absolutely drive you bonkers every night singing and courting their lady friends.

urbanextension said...

I just looked up "pinging frog" on google and your blog came up. I'm staying in a cottage in Brittany at the moment and there's a pinging frog in our chimney. I even managed to get a photo of it and recording of it's beeps, and low and behold it is a midwife toad... with eggs! Thanks for the info. Not knowing what was making the sound was driving me completely nuts! What a fascinating little toad... Think I might write about it on my nature blog when I get back to Dorset, UK. Thanks. Jane

Anonymous said...

I live in Wandsworth just off Trinity Road I have been 'enjoying' pinging frogs for 18 years and SO pleased to finally know for sure what the noise is!! Thank you! I can now listen to the noise with my glass of wine at peace with my mind!

Jane Perrone, Horticultural blog said...

Oh ... my... god! You have solved a massive mystery for me! I am absolutely sure these "pinging toads" are creating the sound I've been wondering about for months! I live in Bedfordshire so it all makes sense.

Thankyou for solving this for me. I am delighted by the answer! I am off to find out everything I can about midwife toads now!

Owen said...

Hey Victoria,

Hope your well.

Am extremely jealous of your pinging frogs!- i have a huge interest in reptiles and amphibians and especially our introduced species.

Sadly my cats terrorize the common frogs in my garden- and these smaller toads wouldnt stand a chance! How does Pushkin react to them?