Faces of Wetlands: Spring Peeper

                                                                                                                                        Photo credit: Herps of NC

This article is one in a series, drawing connections between wetlands and the human community. 

Spring peepers are a telltale sound spring. With a nearly deafening chorus, they seem to herald the abundance that is soon to come. Measuring at about the size of a paper clip, they’re a cacophony of sound that erupts from mid-March to early April. At home in Minnesota’s wooded wetlands and grassy lowlands, peepers span from Northeast Canada to the Southeast United States. While they prefer loose debris on the forest floor, they have large toe pads that allow for climbing should they need to escape upwards. If you’re lucky enough to spot one with a flashlight, watch for a telltale “X” on the back, which is how peepers get their namesake. The Latin name Pseudacris crucifer translates to “false locust cross-bearer.” Pseudacris referring to a genus of chorus frogs that sound like locusts, and Crucifer translating to “cross-bearer.”  

To reach spring and sing a chorus at all, peepers must survive winter. To accomplish this miraculous feat, peepers undergo a cellular transformation. To protect the cell’s structures and sugar stores, each cell expels most of its water to confine it into the tiny gaps between the cells. Concentrating sugars in the cells where there was once water, they generate a kind of antifreeze. This sugar-anti-freeze solution provides nourishment, along with glycogen that gets stored in the organs. These carbohydrates slowly ferment throughout the winter months, providing a tiny serving of energy to nourish the tiny hibernating frog. But becoming a “peepcicle” has its limits – a dormant peeper will freeze and die their temperature drops below 21°F. Their last line of defense is an insulating cover of leaves and snow pack.

As early spring approaches and anti-freeze supplies dwindle, peepers take their cue to wake up and thaw out. As with birds and other animals, the drive to mate can create a frenzy of competition. Rather than flashy feathers and dances though, male peepers are gladiators in the arena of sound. Not only have thousands of years of competition increased their volume to unbearable levels, its led them to learn how to amplify their sound. Like an acoustic engineer designing a concert hall, the peeper tests its surroundings and re-positions itself until the right amplification bounces off the surrounding leaves, stems, and tree trunks.

Fermentation is something both humans and spring peepers have harnessed to combat winter. With origins dating back to ancient China, many cultures including German and Scandinavian used fermentation to survive winter. After a fall harvest, cabbage and other veggies were stored in jars, but would take a few months to mature. Between Yule and New Year’s Day, the stores of sauerkraut would be ready just in time to celebrate the seasonal victory of light over dark. To this day in many Midwestern circles, sauerkraut continues to be a New Year’s tradition. According to Polish proverb, “Where there is beet soup and sauerkraut, there is plenty.” For a moment I imagine being there alongside my German ancestors on New Year’s Day. How hopeful it must have been to break open a jar of sauerkraut and experience abundance in the midst of winter doldrums.

In pastoral times of old, marshes were a place of mystery and wildness. Standing at the edge of the pasture and the marsh in early spring, a farmer would experience a flurry of frog chorus and bird song. Compared to our modern minds that are used to stimulation just about anywhere there’s a screen, this was a much more vivid and meaningful experience. In the ancient world, places rich in stimulation were places for the imagination to explore. With an alien yet oddly human appearance, people gradually turned their fascination of frogs into stories of Frog Princes that were human by day and frog by night. In ancient Ireland wells, marshes, and wooded wetlands were considered sacred places for stories, folklore, and divine revelation. From this context emerged the rich creativity of Celtic music and dance. The term “crucifer,” as it is used in Catholic, Lutheran, and other Christian services refers to the one who carries a cross down the aisle during a service. Like the American cardinal, Christian tradition has influenced the names of many plants and animals. If so, perhaps the spring peeper’s Latin name of “cross-bearer” took on a double meaning as a metaphor for spring resurrection?

Whatever lens the spring peeper sings to you though, there’s a resurrection in shedding winter and thawing our spirits. With a little help from fermentation, humans and frogs survive another winter and live to sing about it. But modern winter brings modern challenges. Road salt is just one new challenge that has altered our wetlands, posing a toxic threat to amphibians. As amphibians, spring peepers are highly sensitive to their surroundings, even absorbing water through their skin to drink. Because of this sensitivity, the MN DNR refers to them as good indicators of environmental health. A decline of spring peepers in some areas, a silent spring if you will, is partly attributed to higher salt content and increased sedimentation entering our wetlands. In some places such as Madison, WI, road salt has been detected in City wells. What is the future sound of spring? What stories, tradition, or lore inspire you to protect our wells and waters?

If peepers and humans have survived all these winters, it seems to follow that us moderns can be creative in our evolution of culture and norms. Several solutions to our modern water challenges are already at hand: Smart salting, adopting a stormdrain, watering the lawn according to rainfall (or even letting it go dormant), and landscaping with native plants, raingardens, and low-mow turf. But what is the “fermentation” that turns these cut-and-dry directions into a celebration of plenty? What is our creative spark at the edge of the pasture and the marsh? In his poem Manifesto: Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front, author Wendell Berry writes, “Be like the fox, who leaves more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” Perhaps fermentation isn’t as much a ho-hum to-do list , but an ongoing chorus. A chorus of shared story, place, and purpose. Indeed, our resurrection echoes that of the spring peeper.

Here at VLAWMO we’re developing wildlife monitoring programs, including a frog and toad study as well as a remote camera monitoring project. With one year of data under our belt, we’re building a foundation for gauging environmental health, and a supplement to support our chemistry-focused water data. Find our first year of wildlife reports on our news page, or contact us for questions or to express interest in future volunteer opportunities in this area.  Learn more about water-friendly lawn care on our residents page.

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Nick Voss

VLAWMO Education & Outreach Coordinator

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