Observing Rana

tadpole withlegs

Soon to be a bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeiana) at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Robert Smith.)

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 19.

The dark-night canoeing of my youth was humid and ranic. That is, crooned by members of an ancient and slippery clan that we, regulated by the Interagency Taxonomic Information System, have assigned to the family Ranidae. In my affection for them, I learned that bullfrogs were Rana catesbeiana, but that name has disappeared along with my boyhood ponds as human progress demanded culverts and flood control and suburbs and a new, better genus for bullfrogs.

Oddly, the new name was coined in 1802 by the author of the old name in the same year, biologist George Shaw. For some reason he proposed two different genera, but one of them, the genus Rana, has recently been stamped “invalid” by the ITIS. So now, we shall properly address the American bullfrog (taxonomic serial number 775084) as Lithobates catesbeiana. But they are still Rana to me, a nickname for a childhood friend.

With a sibling or buddy or two, wooden paddles sliding and pulling silently in inky water parting duckweed and spongy algae, big male bullfrogs would sing like bulls with frogs in their throats. The volume up close was astonishing; we could approach much closer than we would have been able on foot. Our flashlights would sometimes catch them ballooning their throats, making a bubble as big as themselves, already way too big for a frog.

A canoe was a magic carpet for us. We could float between worlds on a skin of space between water and sky, unbound by earth and almost invisible. Big snapping turtles would crawl into our torchlight, searching the silty bottom on tiptoe for carrion. Brassy carp with eyes always down, seemed to glide on finny wings for smaller morsels just right for rubbery lips. Bass would lie in ambush, barely concealed in pondweed. Above, bats and nighthawks fluttered and looped, coming close for the drifts of moths circling our lights. Fireflies glittered the shore. Chorus frogs and cricket frogs and crickets sang in metallic bells and whistles and little strings. Leopard frogs snored. Bullfrogs, having acquired evolutionary basso profondo, performed with unabashed bravado.

That was July. On hot summer nights when school days seemed distant in past and future, bullfrogs intent on procreation filled my imagination with songs and finally asleep, my dreams under canvas or under the stars if the mosquitos weren’t too bad. Fifty years later, they still sing for sex and territory and for all of us. The hot period immediately following the solstice, season of Rana, can be observed with a canoe or with rubber boots or old sneakers, or from a hammock within earshot. With little regard for daybreak or high afternoon sun, bullfrogs will perform for any audience throughout the day and season.


Observe and celebrate the season of Rana with The Naturalist School. Click here for July workshops.