To aestivate a dear friend.

Keeping pet frogs is unusual, I am the first to admit. Even within the weirdo laden niche world of “herp enthusiasts” frog people are like the peculiar bachelor uncle that everyone struggles to relate to.  In a way I understand; frog husbandry is certainly not for everyone.  It requires a passion for a creature who seemingly has very little personality, may go unmoving for 12+ hours, eats its own skin on a regular basis and unabashedly poops in it’s water dish. On the other hand when it comes to the phenomenon known as kinderschema or more colloquially as the “cute factor”, the humble frog is the apotheosis. As renowned ethnographer and foremost cuteness-studier-guy Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfedlt reported, humans are hardwired to be attracted to creatures with: “(a) large head relative to body size, rounded head; (b) large, protruding forehead; (c) large eyes relative to face, eyes below midline of head; (d) rounded, protruding cheeks; (e) rounded body shape; and (f) soft, elastic body surfaces.”  So you see where I am going here? Yeah that’s right check this guy out! Human babies ain’t got nothin’ on him.

Whites treefrog

A White’s tree frog doing what it does best: look freaking adorable.

Horned frog 2

This handsome, cheery Argentine horned frog lays in wait for its next victim.

This being said, having your home full of rare and exotic frogs isn’t always the magical Shangri-la so many assume it to be. Sometimes you may find yourself in the position of making some pretty hard decisions. The latest conundrum to have surfaced has to do with my Budgett’s frog, Blob Dylan (Blobby to his friends) and the fateful day date we  noticed the black tubercles that had begun to emerge on his back feet (more on this shortly). For the 99.9% of you who don’t know, Budgett’s frogs are aquatic frogs native to South America, also called Paraguay Horned Frogs. Horned frogs are a subcategory of frogs that are ambush predators,

Blobby

Blobby the Budgett’s frog at his home in Leyden, Massachusetts.

meaning they are basically blobs with giant mouths that sit around on their stumpy limbs waiting for food to fall into their mouths. In addition to a lethargic life style, Blobby’s particular genus has also evolved a very amazing trick to help them survive in their native environment; a little ability called aestivation. Aestivation is like bizarro world hibernation.  Instead of responding to cold temperatures that trigger other animals to go into dens and sleep until the world is less depressing and desolate, animals that aestivate go into dormancy to protect themselves from hot, arid conditions. As temperatures rise and water levels begin to lower, Budgett’s frogs use  tubercles (hard spade like appendages on their back feet) to dig themselves into the mud. Deeper and deeper they go and as they descend

Tubercle

The tubercle of a Couch’s spadefoot toad.

they begin to build up layer upon layer of skin, until finally they are entirely encased in a cocoon of their own mucas. Then they go dormant; their metabolism and heart rate slowing to a state of almost suspended animation. Here they will remain for up to 4 months until the rainy season comes and they are awoken. They then proceed to eat their way out of their skin sack and return to the surface to eat invertebrates and mate.

Although there is some debate in the frog community, it is generally believed that if you do not recreate this yearly cycle you shorten your frog’s life span significantly. However, there is much risk in trying to recreate this natural process at home-one wrong move and you risk being greeted by a desiccated frog husk come spring. Not to mention the fact that you have to accept the prospect of having a beloved friend existing in a

4-water-holding-frog-in-coc

Australian water holding frog during aestivation. These frogs were used for drinking water (think dig up and wring out) by Aborigines during times when water was scarce.

state of suspended animation in a bucket of dirt in the guest room. It’s a lot to handle. This frog Sophie’s Choice weighs heavily on me as Blobby continues to mature into an adult frog and his biological clock (in this case spiky foot appendages) continues ticking. Blobby’s situation serves as a reminder to us of the complexity of keeping animals that have not co-evolved with humans and become domesticated over thousands of years. These considerations will become increasingly common as habitat loss means that more and more species’ survival will depend upon being kept and bred in captivity (Budgett’s Frogs themselves are considered a threatened species due to habitat destruction, but don’t worry Blobby was responsibly attained through a captive breeding program). I haven’t decided what to do yet, taking on the literal role of Mother Nature is a tricky business and not to be entered into lightly. Regardless of what we decide I am honored to get to watch a Budgett’s frog live his life; eating worms with reckless abandon and enjoying the flow of water across his jiggling frog jacket.  Aestivation or not I will enjoy whatever time we have together.

Budgetts Frog

 

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2 responses to “To aestivate a dear friend.

  1. To try and lessen your emotional load, dear Rachel, lemme just share that hamsters share a similar trait: hibernation vs greatly shortened life span. No one seems to agonize over hamster hibernation and I know of no one who has ever tried to induce hibernation those rodents–or any other, come to think of it.
    The bottom line is either creature has “x” number of conscious days. If it were a trait shared by humans, which would you choose for yourself?

  2. This is true, although I do have one friend that did hibernate their hamster, but I would consider this to be a very, very unusual situation (I happen to know quite a few animal-weirdos). What I didn’t include in the article, but is also a big part of my decision with Blobby and my other frogs, is that the aestivation process is the species trigger for mating, so in order to successfully breed (which is part of my long term plan for my frog collection) you have to recreate this cycle. Blobby’s case is just very extreme, most other frogs that I have you simply decrease the temperature and relative humidity followed by simulating a rainy season with a rain chamber (I may follow up with an article on the science of inducing frogs to mate). Also upon further reflection I can’t say that spending sometime lying in a womb like sack sounds too bad…

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