Frogs Find Welcome Home in Harris County

By Martin de Vore
Harris County Precinct 4

From the Bible to fairy tales to mythologies, most ancient texts tell of unlucky offenders cursed with a plague of frogs. Plague? A blessing would be more like it. Considering that most ancient cities sprang up next to rivers –thus suffering genuine plagues of insects like mosquitoes and flies – it seems like most city-dwellers should have welcomed large numbers of frogs with open arms. But they didn’t. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times. Frogs are adored today.

Images of cute little tropical treefrogs and poison arrow frogs adorn shirts, umbrellas, knapsacks, and a plethora of other items offered for sale at nature-themed stores at just about every mall in Harris County. And with good reason. It can honestly be said that Harris County is one of the nation’s frog capitals. Treefrogs, toads, chorus frogs, true frogs, cricket frogs, spadefoot toads – Harris County has them all. And, unlike our historical relatives, we appreciate our frogs.

Those marketing delights, treefrogs, are best observed at night throughout the area.

Curious anuran enthusiasts can observe such species as the green treefrog (Hyla cinerea), squirrel treefrog (Hyla squirella), or one of two species of gray treefrog – Cope’s gray treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) or the gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor). Look for these colorful treefrogs at night on windows or during the day hiding in bromeliads, flower pots, or on the underside of huge leaves like those on banana trees. If you can’t find any in those locations, the Houston Zoo has quite a collection.

A relative of treefrogs, the eastern cricket frog (Acris crepitans) lives in aquatic habitats. Ditches, bayous, ponds, lakes, or the end of a fishhook – just about any of these are bound to feature some frogs. Unfortunately, cricket frogs are a favorite bait of local anglers since largemouth bass like these adorable little frogs as much as children do.

When it comes to toads, witches may drool with envy at what’s brewing in local yards and gardens. Toads in our area are most commonly represented by the Gulf Coast toad (Incilius valliceps), while spadefoot toads can claim Hurter’s spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus hurterii) as their representative. Joining these nocturnal predators is the Eastern narrow-mouthed toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis), which also adds its voice to the cacophony of the night. And by the way, toads do not cause warts – thank viruses for that!

Harris County’s true frogs (are there really any false frogs?) are well represented by the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), green frog (Lithobates clamitans), and southern leopard frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus). The southern leopard frog has recently been the subject of a taxonomic war between herpetologists – scientists who study reptiles and amphibians. Some people think that the southern leopard frog’s scientific name should be Rana utricularia. Others believe that it should be Lithobates sphenocephalus. That’s why if someone looks it up in a field guide or other identification manual, they could see both names. However, the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles chose Lithobates sphenocephala.

And last but not least, chorus frogs liven up the spring nights throughout Harris County. The spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) kicks things off in February. Soon, their calls will be joined by the Cajun chorus frog (Pseudacris fouquettei). Chorus frogs in full concert can drown out just about any other noise at night. So when hiking in the woods at night this spring, embrace Harris County’s “plague of frogs.” That may be the only wildlife you’ll hear that night.