My Unusually-Colored Summer Garden Guest

What the... An orange spring peeper?

As most gardeners do, I find it a spiritual experience to play amongst my garden beds and flowers. Imagine my surprise the other day when I saw what appeared to be an orange poison dart frog in my butterfly garden. Come again? Okay, not really a tropical rainforest tree frog, but the resemblance was a bit striking, right down to its little sticky toe pads. With an email to a few herpetologist friends I was able to confirm that what I had was indeed an orange spring peeper. The coloration is a bit unusual, but apparently not unheard of. It seems that the peeper has a chameleon-like ability similar to that of the grey tree frog that does allow it to darken or lighten, depending on its mood or its surroundings. Orange varieties do seem to be more common further south (VA and NC).

The Northern Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) is a small chorus frog found throughout the eastern USA and Canada. The peepers that we usually find here in Chelmsford MA  are often some shade of tan/brown or grey in color, sometimes with a dark cross on their back (from which the latin name “crucifer” is obtained).  They are usually very small, between 1″ or 1.5″ and compare in size from a nickel to slightly larger than a quarter (females are usually the larger of the two).

Northern Spring Peeper USGS Photo by Brad Glorioso

When I have a severe case of the winter blues and the first crocuses are just beginning to break ground, it is this critter that I truly yearn to hear. On the first warm rainy evening (if you can in your right mind call mid-40 F warm) as the last remnant of snow and ice is disappearing from the wetland edge, the male peepers come a-calling. I can usually be found up to my knees in cold (VERY cold – brrrrr)  water, head lamp on and camera in tow. As they are nocturnal and of minute size they are more often heard than seen. See and hear a video of a Calling Peeper by J. LeClere at HerpNet.net

Some interesting peeper factoids:

  • Only the male of the species calls and it does so by pushing air out of and drawing it back into a sac on its throat.
  • Spring Peepers produce glucose (sugar) in their liver that functions as an anti-freeze to keep their key organs from freezing.
  • Other body parts, such as their appendages, may form ice crystals and freeze and they will while away the winter in this partly frozen state under soil, leaves or logs.
  • They spend the majority of their time on land as carnivorous insect eaters, but do require water (normally shallow wetlands or ephemeral pools) to reproduce.

Unfortunately, most amphibians including frogs are experiencing catastrophic declines world-wide that have biologists significantly concerned. The reasons are not fully understood but major contributors are believed to include disease; habitat destruction, modification or fragmentation; pollution; pesticide use; introduced predators; and climate change. This should be a concern to us all as amphibians are very directly sensitive to external environmental parameters and often considered indicator species (“the canary in the coal mine” so to speak) that directly reflect the quality of our overall environment. Maybe this will be a subject of a future blog…

For more information on these wonderful critters visit these links:

Vernal Pool Association

Rhode Island Vernal Pools

MA DF&W Natural Heritage

UMASS Amherst Natural Resources

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