Outside the box

Ran across this image online, unfortunately I forget where, but it was unattributed there anyway.

unidentified frog/toad with probable suitors on back
Though it’s not so much the image itself that I’m highlighting, but the context and captioning, which were references to a mother carrying her brood on her back.

Uhhhh, no. Almost certainly not, anyway. And it’s a subtle illustration of a prevalent attitude among humans, because we tend to view wildlife in our own terms, largely to our detriment.

We’ll start with, very few amphibians are even around for the birth of their young, having deposited their eggs in a favorable pond or pool and moved on long since – need we remind ourselves about the tadpole stage? While my knowledge is by no means comprehensive in this regard, I know of only one amphibian species that is present at the birth of its young, and it’s quite a weird one. The vast majority of amphibians and even reptiles are on their own from birth.

Moreover, we tend to view size disparity as a sign of disparate ages – if one’s smaller than the other, it much be younger. Which is a little funny, in that even our species has a distinct, though not remarkable, size difference between the sexes, but plenty of others, from amphibians to birds to insects, demonstrate this disparity, sometimes on orders of magnitude. Size really isn’t important – you heard it here first.

What we’re likely seeing here is mating behavior – the big one is the female, and the others (it’s not even clear how many there are) are all males, hopeful suitors. One is even clearly in the amplexus position, grasping the female under the armpits. Here they will remain until the female is ready and finds that favorable pond or pool to enter and expel her eggs, whereupon the male(s) will expel their sperm to seek the eggs out in the water itself, called external fertilization – many different species do this. As I type this I realize that my chosen title has a further, indelicate meaning (honestly not considered when I chose it,) that I take a certain delight in leaving as is.

My crudeness aside, I just like pointing out that assumptions regarding any other species stand a good chance of being completely wrong, and we need to remind ourselves of this constantly – our human-centric thought processes don’t work with other species. The image almost certainly does not represent motherhood (quite yet.) As pleasant as we may find bird song, an awful lot of it is warning other males to stay the hell away. The great apes lack the power of speech not because they lack the anatomy, but likely because they lack the need. I quote, once again, Douglas Adams, in reference to mountain gorillas:

They look like humans, they move like humans, they hold things in their fingers like humans, the expressions which play across their faces and in their intensely human-looking eyes are expressions that we instinctively feel we recognize as human expressions. We look them in the face and we think, “We know what they’re like,” but we don’t. Or rather, we actually block off any possible glimmering of understanding of what they may be like by making easy and tempting assumptions.

I was going to say that wildlife observation needs to begin with a blank slate, no assumptions, but this isn’t exactly true either; we sometimes need to be aware of what the species is, and does, its environment, predators, and prey. It’s tricky. But if we think we recognize some particular form of behavior, odds are we’re completely mistaken.

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