My Favorite Puddle
If you wanted to know what kind of person I am—what I like to do, what sorts of things I value—I would tell you this: I am the sort of person who has a favorite puddle. My puddle isn’t truly a puddle, I suppose, in that it is not self-contained, with no inflow or outflow. Despite this, I still think of it as a puddle. It is shallow, and lies along a Yellowstone roadside, and is fed by runoff from springs, hot and cold, in a nearby meadow.
I don’t want to say precisely where my puddle is, as my puddle is special: it is home, each spring, to hundreds of tadpoles. Most of them are young boreal toads. A few are spotted frogs. I can tell the difference by color: the boreal toad tadpoles (I think of them as toadpoles) are nearly black, while the spotted frogs-to-be are a lighter brown, flecked with gold.
Each June that I am in the park, I visit my puddle. Each June, I delight in the presence of the tadpoles. Their wriggliness brings me joy. I squat alongside my puddle, counting tadpoles and watching as they rest quietly in the fine, soft sediment. They dart away from the encroachment of my shadow when I shift my position, then settle again among the greens of emergent vegetation. The vulnerability of the tadpoles, sheltering in a puddle less than two inches deep, is poignant. Every spring, I marvel that some predator has not yet eaten my tadpoles. Yes, I think of them as mine. I feel very protective towards them. I want them to survive and thrive, ambassadors for their species in a harsh and hostile world.
Amphibians are in decline worldwide, for an amalgamation of reasons that are poorly understood. Factors implicated include global climate change, air and water pollution, the waning ozone layer and the concomitant increase in ultraviolet radiation, and the infectious chytrid fungus. Habitat loss and fragmentation play a role, too, of course; frogs and salamanders migrating to breeding sites are roadkilled in alarming numbers.
Here in Yellowstone, boreal toads seem to have declined precipitously since the middle of the 20th century. In Amphibians & Reptiles of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, a slender but informative volume (there are, after all, only six amphibian species and six reptile species to discuss, so each one gets a thorough treatment), Edward D. Koch and Charles R. Peterson write, “Turner (1955) alluded to the abundance of the toad in Yellowstone when he mentioned ‘the large number of crushed toads which may be noted on the roads around Fishing Bridge and Lake during July and August.’ But we have found only two toads in this area in the last six years.” The range of the boreal toad is expansive, with the species occurring throughout western North America. Unfortunately, write Koch and Peterson, “This toad species appears to have declined in both distribution and abundance in some portions of its range in the western United States. In Colorado, eastern Wyoming, and eastern Utah, this once abundant and common species can no longer be found in about 85% of the sites where it occurred historically (Corn et al. 1989).”
Spotted frogs are hardly better off. The species “apparently has declined in the southern and western portions of its range in the United States,” write Koch and Peterson. “It may already be extinct in western Oregon and Washington, and it is almost certainly extinct in northern California (Worthing 1993).”
My puddle, brimming each year with tadpoles, gives me hope.