Thousands of tadpoles line the perimeter of a pond. (photo by T. Aljets)

When I was a toddler, I would eat, sleep, and breathe dinosaurs; I wanted to see them in person.  They were extremely friendly and they all seemed to live in harmony with each other.   Soon after, I was exposed to a crashing reality: Jurassic Park.  After that, dinosaurs were frightening monsters and I had vivid, gruesome nightmares for years after, which ensured that my mother would not allow me to watch any more scary movies.  I was, however, gradually exposed to smaller creatures resembling the dinosaurs of my dreams (and nightmares); these beings were predominantly frogs and toads, but I grew to love all of the various “herps”.   For several years, I was heavily influenced by men like Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin and spent at least an hour daily looking under rocks and through the garden for toads; the tree frogs were out of reach still (for multiple reasons). This was not the case for long, because we were soon inundated with frogs and my skills at capturing them were also sharpened.  My obsessive fascination with herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians (herps), was budding and my relationship with them only grew closer over time.

Upon arrival to our new home in Staunton, Illinois, I was especially excited about the pool in the backyard; it was a basic, above-ground pool, not any more, not any less. Since I had previously lived near a lake at our old house, the transition to in-town living was made easier with the familiar presence of water in my environment. When the first spring came along, I was excited to swim in the pool again after a chilly winter. To my dismay, the first day that we had adequately warm weather, the pool was far from being swimmable. The water was approximately 25,000 gallons of an icky, dark green color which resembled canned spinach since our winterizing cover was in shambles. Although I could not yet swim in my new pool, I quickly grew to appreciate critters that had been residing in it: tadpoles.  No wonder the singing tree frogs were so plentiful the previous summer!

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An adult grey tree frog behind our automotive shop in Dorsey, IL. (photo by T. Aljets)

After learning more about my new neighbors, I figured out that these particular tadpoles belonged to a species of chorus frogs known as “gray tree frogs” (Hyla versicolor is the Latin binomial).  They are relatively small, characterized by their grey camouflage with pale undersides and yellow accents around their adhesive feet, which are equipped with suction cups on their toes.  Gray tree frogs spend most of their lives confined to trees or other high places with the exception of mating season, during which they congregate around water that is usually devoid of fish.  They often choose fountains, the tops of pool tarps (like my frogs), drainage ditches and similar temporary aquatic environments to meet potential mates and lay their eggs.  They also are avid singers, chorusing back and forth throughout summer nights.  I have tried my best to imitate the chorus, but I have never been able to perfect it.

With my discovery of these peculiar, juvenile frogs, they immediately piqued my interest, considering my love for amphibians.  As summer approached, my parents and I tried to capture as many as possible of the hundreds if not thousands of tadpoles prior to their imminent chlorine genocide. The “refugees” spent the majority of the remainder of their metamorphic, transformative life in giant flower pots that held ten to twenty gallons each. We were determined to ease the transition for the youngsters, so we tried our best to cultivate a hospitable, natural home for them.  It seemed crucial to use as much of the green, soupy water as possible and to avoid the treated city water like the plague in order to provide a live, cultured environment that provided food for the hungry babies.  Additionally, we integrated rocks, small clay pots and sticks for shelter and placed the flower pots under a tree with partial shade, as to not cook them in shallower water under an unforgiving summer blaze. The sticks became especially useful later in the process, as the tadpoles began to transition from aqueous to terrestrial life.

Young frogs still waiting to lose their tails. (photo by T. Aljets)

A young frog still waiting to lose its tail. (photo by T. Aljets)

A young frog at a crossroads between shelter and freedom. (photo by T. Aljets)

A young frog sunbathing at a crossroads between shelter and freedom. (photo by T. Aljets)

More quickly than we had expected, tiny legs sprouted from the posterior halves of the bodies.  After the legs grew significantly larger, the tadpoles would soon complement their fresh legs with a pair of scrawny arms.  Around the same time, they would climb out of water onto the sticks and floating debris, and they would sun themselves through the trees.  Although they still had their tails intact, many of the more adventurous young frogs would prematurely leave the safety of the water, while some remained until their tails shrank entirely.  Throughout this life cycle, the sheer livelihood of the water was constant, even as many tadpoles would die or be eaten by predators.  As summer would drag on and the amount of tadpoles in my care would dwindle, the loud frogs chorusing in my neighborhood would abound.  The perimeter of my pool each night would have five to fifteen adult tree frogs scattered along the metal rails or swimming in the water; it was frog paradise for my family and me.

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A daring frog lies out on a stick dangling over the edge of the tadpole pot. Note: tail is still intact. (photo by T. Aljets)

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A juvenile tree frog from my backyard in my hand. (photo by T. Aljets)

Tadpole season has remained relatively unchanged for the last sixteen years, as we have continued to foster some semblance of a home for these young refugees.  Some changes have occurred, as we have shifted their habitat from the flower pots to a large, plastic kiddie pool.  Other times, I have found different, rescuable tadpoles, such as those in drying mud puddles along the perimeters of baseball fields, which I scooped up in whatever container I have had on me: bottles, cans, buckets, etc.  Sometimes, I have even rescued different kinds of tadpoles, like Southern leopard frogs, or, as the case was last year, adolescent green frogs, which resemble American bullfrogs that took over the pool after most of the tree frog tadpoles had left.  I think the best way to equate the raising of tadpoles to a more common hobby is to compare it to hosting a litter of kittens, except that they number in the hundreds and are much smaller.  Although the end of tadpole season has always been sensitive for me, since most of them do not survive the rough transition into adulthood, the entirety of the process has been extremely gratifying.

A beautiful Southern leopard frog from our garden in my hand. (photo by T. Aljets)

A beautiful Southern leopard frog from our garden in my hand. (photo by T. Aljets)

My gorgeous, organic backyard (photo by T. Aljets)

My gorgeous, organic backyard (photo by T. Aljets)

In summary, I have taken charge on a couple of issues that are local and important to me: the preservation of the frog population AND the overall biodiversity of my surroundings.  As a result of this, I have gained a strong sense of ownership in my role as a protector of the natural world.  I have observed that some of my neighbors have used pesticides or other artificial remediation to maintain their monoculture lawns. Additionally, many farmers within the Mississippi River basin use excessive amounts of nutrients on their conventional agricultural lands, dumping a plethora of harmful chemicals into the river including Phosphorous and Nitrogen, which hinder biodiversity. Comparatively, my family maintains a 100% organic, diverse lawn with an expanse of native flora and fauna.  We have planted trees and native plants, while allowing the dandelions to exist unrestricted.  We certainly observe more life in our yard than the neighbors do!  Additionally, the organic yard is easier and cheaper to maintain, since you do not have to purchase extra nutrients and apply them.  I strongly encourage you to consider this responsible approach, as it is a good way to preserve the land as well as the water that surrounds you.  My frogs would likely agree with me, as well, since their lives depend on it.

Tanner Aljets
1 Mississippi Illinois/Missouri Outreach Assistant

One of the frogs calmly sitting in my hand, enjoying my body temperature. (photo by T. Aljets)

One of the frogs calmly sitting, enjoying the warmth of my hand. (photo by T. Aljets)

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