He’s a frog’s friend

Posted July 09, 2009, at 9:05 p.m.

WINTERPORT, Maine — Like many boys, Fred Nichols was enchanted by frogs when he was a child growing up in Stafford, Conn., in the 1940s and 1950s.

“I always liked them when I was a kid, but my mother never let me have them in the house,” he said.

“I would dig out little puddles and I’d catch a few and put ’em in there, although I didn’t know how harmful it was at the time,” said Nichols, who has lived in Maine for the past few decades.

In 2006, Nichols bought a 6.5-acre spread at the end of Lower Oak Point Road — complete with a one-third-acre frog pond and several vernal pools — overlooking Kempton Cove on the Penobscot River.

“Frog Manor”

He completed his home, which he has unofficially dubbed “Frog Manor,” the next year. He shares his shingle-clad home with several pet frogs, a lizard and a couple hundred tadpoles he has been raising outside on the deck.

In addition to several pieces of frog art and memorabilia, the house features bookshelves lined with reference and guidebooks about frogs and toads. He also has a “FROGG” vanity plate on one of his antique Jaguars.

“This is sort of a refuge for me, as well as for them,” he said of the frogs and the many other critters, including turkeys, hares, foxes and the occasional deer, that show up in his yard over the course of four seasons.

According to Maine Amphibians and Reptiles, a 1999 book published by the University of Maine Press, Maine is home to nine frog and toad species. Several of them — including green frogs, wood frogs and gray tree frogs — can be found in the pond, vernal pools and woods near Nichols’ home.

Inside are several aquariums in which he has created minihabitats for non-native species that cannot endure Maine’s cold winters, including a plump, white tree frog he has named Snow White.

On spring and summer evenings, when the frogs are most active, Nichols likes to sit outside and listen to their serenades, including the deep, banjolike “gulp” of the northern green frog heard during a visit to his pond in mid-June, as spring moves into summer.

“I wouldn’t even say I’m a hobbyist,” Nichols said. “I’m just an observer. I can’t imagine what it would be like here without that sound. That would be the true ‘Silent Spring,’” he said, referring to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book that many credit with launching the environmental movement.

“First come the wood frogs,” Nichols said. “They’ll come out even when there is snow and ice on the ground. And they are [found] north of the Arctic Circle. They have a huge range but they don’t go too far south of here. The wood frogs, they’re all done breeding now. On this property, they’re here early March,” he said.

“The peepers follow them and then come American toads, of which I haven’t seen any or heard any here,” he said. Gray tree frogs, which are found nearby, are next.

“And then come, for us, the aquatic ones, the green frogs and the bullfrogs,” he said. “They really never get more than a few feet from the water and they hibernate in the water so they have to have a permanent source not just for breeding, that doesn’t freeze” all the way to the bottom.

Froglets

In a recent interview, Nichols said he started bringing wood frog egg masses onto his deck to hatch under his watchful eye as a way to give them a running start. He hatches them in a long, rectangular plastic tub. The tub is equipped with an aeration pump and topped with a screen to keep predators out.

After the eggs hatch and become tadpoles, Nichols feeds them algae wafers and boiled spinach for the roughly 10 weeks it takes for their legs to pop out and their tails to be absorbed as they morph into froglets.

When they’ve reached froglet stage, Nichols releases them back into the wild within a few feet of where they were removed as eggs.

Nichols said that frog experts estimate that only 5 percent to 8 percent of frog eggs hatched in the wild survive to adulthood, largely because the eggs and tadpoles are a favorite food of such predators as turtles, fish and the river otters that occasionally visit his frog pond. Frog populations also are adversely affected by encroaching development, which destroys their natural habitat.

“So I do what I can with what I’ve got here,” he said. “While I haven’t been able to achieve a 100 percent hatch rate — some eggs are just not fertilized — I do get into the 90 percentages,” he noted.

The head start also provides the tadpoles and froglets two key things they need to advance to the frog stage, namely an ample food supply and warmth, the latter of which has been in short supply so far this spring and summer.

Once the froglets have been released, Nichols is able to provide them with another need — a clean environment.

Preservation

When Nichols bought his land three years ago, the sides of the short dirt road leading to the frog pond were littered with trash that had been illegally dumped there.

After cleaning it up, Nichols blocked off access by means of a chain gate and posted a sign featuring a large green frog and the message: “You are entering a frog preserve. Please remember that you are a guest in their home.”

During a visit last month to the preserve, the green frogs were out in full force, some hidden in the grass surrounding the pond, others taking leisurely swims. Still others were sunning themselves on large rocks, fallen tree limbs and stumps.

It also was mating season. Male frogs were calling out their version of “Hey, baby!” and their throats were bright yellow, another sign that romance was in the air.

“One nice thing about the ones up here is that there’s no deformities,” Nichols said. “I never see any with three legs or extra toes. That means that the water is not yet polluted. The biggest culprits are the agricultural chemical runoffs,” which aren’t a problem near Nichols’ frog preserve.

Frog’s Future

Though the frogs that live in his preserve have a clean place in which to survive, Nichols is among a growing number of people who worry what the future holds for them.

“Historically, they were the first animal to have four limbs, and the first to come out of the water some 350 million years ago, or about 80 times as long as humans have been on the planet,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “These creatures survived mass extinction, such as what the dinosaurs experienced, ice ages, you name it.

“Starting in the 1980s, however, vast numbers of them began to vanish globally, alarming scientists. Many possible causes were and are studied including pollution, chemicals used in agriculture, the discovery (by UM professor Dr. Joyce Longcore) of the deadly chytrid fungus and, of course, loss of habitat, which is something ordinary people like myself can do something about,” he said.

Fascination

Though he acknowledged that the steps he has taken are “an infinitesimal effort to help the frogs … it does have the feeling of being a worthwhile endeavor.”

That is in large part because frogs have a lot to offer humans.

“They’re fascinating — that’s why you don’t want to lose these species — because you never know when you’re going to learn something really important from one of them,” he said.

As an example, he pointed out wood frogs’ ability to withstand, and survive, a deep freeze.

“These little frogs have mastered cryogenics,” Nichols said. “It’s an amazing thing. Absolutely an amazing creature. They totally freeze their organs. Their heart stops. They just go into total [suspended] animation.

“And the way they do it is their liver produces some kind of a glucose enzyme that pushes water out from between their cells so there isn’t water freezing in there,” he said.

“They can freeze their organs and then thaw them at a later date. Now what restarts their heartbeat, I don’t have a clue,” he said.

“The people up at the university might know that but they’re an amazing thing. If scientists can one day understand how they manage to do that, the practice of organ transplanting will take a huge leap.”

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