(Speaking of the Macabre)

November 10th, 2011 | Meera

This is a preserved specimen that caught my eye after I had finished working on my birds today. On my way out, I walked through the Field’s new permanent exhibition about the museum’s role in advancing conservation science: Restoring Earth.

What’s in the jar is a Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi).

Cricket frogs get their name from their clear, metallic, insect-like mating call. I’ve also heard it described as the sound of two pebbles being struck together. They’re a type of tree frog, a group whose arboreal lifestyle means its members are usually rather tiny and possess unusual modifications that allow them to cling to leaves and branches. (Like adhesive toe-pads whose stickiness is built around the dynamic duo of nanoscale pillar-structures and mucus!)

Blanchard’s cricket frogs used to be an incredibly common sight in the upper Midwest, but beginning about thirty years ago, people noticed their numbers going into a steep decline. It’s still not absolutely clear why this is so, but one of the best current guesses is that exposure to large amounts of agricultural pesticides may have caused a host of physiological and behavioral changes in the frogs that interfered with their ability to properly reproduce.

I’m posting this because I was struck, especially after what I talked about last time, by how powerfully I was drawn to this particular object in the exhibit. What was alluring was precisely its eerie appearance: drained, almost milk-white, and hanging like a ghost in its jar.

Blanchard’s cricket frogs are beautiful creatures, as a quick image search revealed—I have never seen one myself, at least not knowingly.

And yet I do not think I would necessarily have walked over to and read the text beside a colorful photograph showing one of these little guys in life. This is not at all to my credit—it just happens to be true.

Now, I wonder if the exhibit designers simply wanted to showcase a specimen as it was preserved in the museum, or if, in addition, at some level they knew this about me. (And also, perhaps, about you.)

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P.S. This is a good time to point you towards John Bates’s blog. John is one of the curators of the Bird Division at the Field, and he’s not only a lovely and incredibly smart ornithologist, he’s also really invested in educating people about what his team does. He posts frequently (at least by my standards!) and is reliably fascinating. His latest post, about why it’s useful to preserve pre-fledgling age specimens, might be of especial interest.

6 Responses to “(Speaking of the Macabre)”

  1. Thom John says:

    “…hanging like a ghost in a jar.” Always fascinating is how differently individuals may see things. When I first viewed this photo on Flickr the thing that crossed my mind initially is that the frog appears to be attempting to leap up out of the container. Up and out. Up and out. The image all the more free-ing because at the same time I obviously knew it was not alive and that it was in a container that was closed. I guess I saw it as conveying hope. If you are still wondering why this image captivates you, could it be that less consciously you also see it as communicating something opposite to what it is? A lesser observation is how much the camera does not tell us the truth about the size and position and perspective of its subjects. Love the detail about nanoscale pillar-structures and the uses of mucus beyond expectorating it.

  2. Meera says:

    Oh, Ethan, I definitely see that now that you point it out! It’s not why I was drawn to the object itself (yes, it’s amazing how large the frog looks here compared to its actual size), but it could be a factor in why I like the photo. Thanks for telling me what you saw straight away. :)

  3. Meera says:

    Ahem, my apologies for calling you Ethan, although I’m quite sure it’s the last thing in the world that would offend you! One of those things, your name probably being filed right next to his in my brain. :)

  4. Thom John says:

    Meera, of course this would never be a problem at all. Put it entirely out of mind.

  5. shoreacres says:

    Your description of the mating call made me certain I’d heard them. I found a good online recording, and indeed I have. I used to spend time on a piece of property outside Kerrville, Texas. It was completely undeveloped, except for a cabin – 23 acres down in a valley, with three springs and a lovely small creek. The frogs could drive you crazy in spring and summer, and there’s just no question this frog was in the mix.

    The photo, on the other hand, sent me straight back to high school biology class. The grand project was dissecting a frog. I have no idea what spirit overtook me, but I skinned the frog very carefully, flattened the skin, and dried it. Eventually, I took it home, and with equal care pulled back the chenille spread on my mother’s bed, laid froggie on her pillow and covered him back up.

    When she found it – well. You can only imagine!

    • Meera says:

      Awesome that you realized you knew these little guys, Linda—and what a FANTASTIC story! :) Thanks for sharing it.