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Aug 26, 2019 11:50 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Toad Or Frog? Dolphin Or Porpoise?

Frog or toad? Warty, dry skin; no webbing between toes; found in woodpile far from water. It is a gray treefrog. MIKE BOTTINI MIKE BOTTINI
Aug 26, 2019 2:27 PM

One of my least favorite subjects in the realm of natural history is taxonomy, or the science of naming, defining and classifying organisms. One challenge in this field is trying to put complex organisms into specific categories, or “boxes.”For example, grouping the weasel-like carnivores into the Mustelidae family. When I was in graduate school many years ago, it made sense to group the short-legged, long-bodied least weasel, short-tailed and long-tailed weasels, black-footed ferret, pine martin, fisher, mink and river otter together in that family. Not so much for the badger, the bear-like wolverine, and the various species of skunk found in North America that were also listed as Mustelids.

I was not very familiar with the former two, but I was quite familiar with the striped skunk, and that always seemed like an odd fit amongst the other members of this generally highly energetic, quick-footed, long and slender-built family. Not too long ago the skunk was bumped out of the Mustelid family and into a new family group: the Mephitidae, a family “noted for the great development of their anal scent glands,” according to Wikipedia.

And that’s another quirk of taxonomy that I dislike: the labelers keep changing the labels. Back in graduate school, the North American river otter was labeled Lutra canadensis. Today it’s Lontra canadensis.

Interesting taxonomy issues were raised twice last week: one by beachgoers wondering if they were looking out at a group of dolphins or porpoises, and another by pool maintenance staff and pool swimmers, wondering if their respective swimming pools were being invaded by frogs or toads.

The dolphin versus porpoise question is tricky because sightings are often fleeting glimpses of the upper back as the animals come up for air. Dolphins are more curious and will approach quite close to people and boats. They are also longer — in the 6- to 12-foot-long range as opposed to porpoises that measure under 7 feet — and more streamlined with a pronounced and elongated “beak” compared to the portly and blunt-faced porpoises.

Last week, I happened to be in the lifeguard tower at Maidstone Club when these marine mammals made an appearance, swimming from west to east, and I always keep my binoculars close at hand. When they surfaced for air, I managed to get a good look at their curved, sickle-shaped dorsal fins. That would make them dolphins, as porpoises have triangular-shaped, shark-like dorsal fins.

This was the largest group of dolphins I’ve ever seen, possibly 100 animals. They were spread over a quarter-mile distance in tight groups of six to 20 individuals. Quite a show, rivaling the humpback whale that breached three times the previous day.

The frog versus toad issue was prompted by an email from Joe Louchheim with the subject: frogs. The message read: “They seem to be everywhere this year in huge abundance. Our pool company says they’ve never seen so many swimming around and dying in pools throughout the Hamptons. We’ve had a few dozen take up residence in our pool. What’s going on?”

My suspicion was that these were recently metamorphosed Fowler’s toads, wandering around their new terrestrial landscape and inadvertently hopping into swimming pools much like they would accidentally fall into buckets set with their rims at ground level. The latter, called a “pitfall trap,” is a technique used to catch small mammals, reptiles, amphibians (including frogs and toads) and insects in wildlife surveys.

The next morning I decided to take a close look at the Maidstone Club’s swimming pool. En route to the pool, the Club’s manager, Billy McKee, mentioned, “Oh yeah, we get loads of small frogs in the pool every summer.” Sure enough, there were a half dozen hunkered down in the pool’s skimmer baskets.

All of the approximately 1.5-inch-long specimens were Fowler’s toads. This is a nocturnal species that burrows down into sandy soil for relief from the hot sun and even hotter surface of the sand at midday, which registered over 130° F one day last week. As the sun sets, they come out of their burrows and hunt for insects, beetles and spiders throughout the night.

Apparently, our winter and spring rains kept their breeding pools full long enough for the tadpoles to successfully metamorphose into their terrestrial forms and head for terra firma. It’s been a bonanza year for the local population.

Getting back to the toad versus frog issue: What’s the difference between the two? There are no hard and fast rules here. Generally, toads have shorter hind legs and walk or hop as opposed to a frog’s ability to leap. Most people think of frogs as aquatic and toads as terrestrial inhabitants. Toad’s skin is described as dry, rough and warty, while that of a frog is smooth and moist. Of course, the young toads in the pool had very moist and smooth-looking skin.

However, there are many exceptions to each of these. For example, the wood frog and spring peeper live on land, and the gray treefrog has very toad-like skin. In fact, the taxonomists would argue that toads are a classification of frogs lumped under the order Anura. Here on Long Island, this order is composed of four families: Ranidae (the true frogs such as the bullfrog and green frog); Hylidae (the very cool arboreal frogs including the spring peeper and gray treefrog with round, adhesive discs on the tips of their toes for climbing); Bufonidae (the true toads represented here by the Fowler’s); and Pelobatidae (the very secretive and mysterious spadefoot toads).

The bottom line: Louchheim and McKee are correct. There are lots of frogs in the swimming pool!

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