Froggies Went a-Courtin’? (Now with a real court!)

This summer, a trip to Prague, Czech Republic (part holiday, part business) led to a most delightful discovery: frogs in the middle of the venerable city!

Specifically, we stumbled upon the amphibians in an intricately ornate terraced garden in Prague's Mala Strana neighborhood: Vrtbovska zahrada, the Vrtba Garden. This immaculately tended Italianate garden, a baroque gem from the 18th century at the foot of Petrin Hill, had been developed for the highest officer attached to Prague's Castle: the burgrave of Bohemia, Jan Josef, count of Vrtba. Though the burgrave's palace no longer survives as it was, the lovely formal court gardens endure (though they underwent renovations some 25 years ago). We were fortunate to have this rose-scented bower as the setting for a theatrical performance we were attending.

Five minutes into the performance, however, a creature hopped over my foot. I knew by the light touch it had to be a frog or toad. All evening long I was entranced by the play, but even more enchanted by having had an amphibian make its presence known to me, a stranger in town!

After the performance we wandered around the lush fountains and—of course—found more frogs. There were LOTS of frogs. And that spoke well of how the gardens were being kept—amphibians do NOT do well in the presence of heavy pesticides or insecticides. And these fellows were well fed. Who knows how long they had been breeding there?

But light was fading fast, and we could only snap a couple of pictures before our amphibian friends disappeared into the ponds and hedges. When we first saw them, we thought the bumpy, dark-patterned creatures were toads. (They may still be, by the way) But after some research—thank you, iNaturalist!—I believe we can identify these winsome anurans as specimens of the European Common Frog (Rana temporaria).

But here's the rub: the name. Common? A frog from the gardens of a chief courtier, common? Not possible, say we! Ah well. Common or not, the frogs in that garden at least did not seem endangered.

Here's hoping all readers have similarly engaging amphibian adventures in your travels!

Lizards in Our Lives

Two recent news articles about lizards focus on these scaly, myth-laden creatures getting up close and personal with humans. We'll consider both, and add a brief moral to the story.

The first is a brief, feel-good narrative about an event many reptile keepers are familiar with: a lizard that had strayed from its human and eventually was happily brought home. The errant chuckwalla, native to desert southwestern US and northern Mexican climes, was variously misidentified at first as a toad (??) and a black water dragon (?). It was discovered in a car park on the island of Guernsey and was finally reunited with its very worried human companion: the poor creature had been missing for six weeks....

The second article is more whimsical: a woman in Bangladesh who discovered a small nest of lizard eggs in an old make-up bag in a closet! The eggs, laid in the "classic" lizard-egg-laying spot of a dark, enclosed space, were probably from an otherwise-unspecified "common house lizard" and were not upsetting to the woman in the least. Like many of those who keep reptiles deliberately, she considers the presence of the scaly creatures a benefit: "They eat my enemy mosquitoes!"

But the article stands out because someone on the woman's social media suggested this might make her "Mother of Dragons," linking the woman's discovery of the clutch of eggs to the TV series Game of Thrones. For those who did not follow the show, the character Daenerys Targaryen was gifted three dragon-egg "children" that she carefully guarded and raised (but which, when grown, behaved like … fire-breathing dragons!)

What your editor takes from these articles is that reptiles—while still considered unusual animals to keep or discover out in the world—are very much present in our lives and our consciousness. The myths and stories that we shape around them—about their kinship with dinosaurs, dragons, and the like—serve to make them more endearingly popular, while still enhancing a mystique of awe and (sadly, sometimes) dread.

RARN welcomes healthy, pragmatic attitudes towards reptiles and amphibians. They aren't for everyone to keep. But in the right circumstances—and particularly for rescued animals that cannot be sent back to the wild—they can be wonderful companions that truly enhance our lives. And that's no myth!

The Straight (And Terrifying) Poop

We've all heard the old saw: What you don't know won't hurt you. Until, of course, it does.

Consider the humble vine snake. Its slender, intensely green appearance means it can be mistaken for…a vine, so as to make its prey more unsuspecting, and hence more accessible. Not of great peril to humankind, on the surface.

But beneath that humble appearance lies a mystery, and a truly frightening prospect for unsuspecting humankind.

It seems that the excreta (i.e. the "scat") of the vine snake found in the rain forests of Northern Western Ghats (Southwestern India) has been discovered to contain bacteria that are resistant to many drugs. Specifically, 35 different kinds of antibiotics. That's a LOT of danger within that noodle.

Snake poop isn't the happiest topic in any circumstance, but in this case, it gets very bad, very fast. In the rainy season, the scat can come into contact with humans via water or, at other times, (Warning: major ick incoming) by being aerosolized. Furthermore, what is excreted was… once inside the snake. The vine snake's bite itself is only mildly venomous. But its relative lack of venom belies a greater peril. For even if a snakebite isn't in itself venomous (as opposed to poisonous, which is when you eat something that is harmful, not when it tries to eat YOU), a bite can do significant damage IF the snake's saliva contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (This is also true of other non-venomous reptiles such as the Komodo dragon, whose mouth contains all kinds of nasty microorganisms that are lethally infectious). Complications to humans mentioned in the article include infections progressing to necrosis, gangrene, and necrotizing fasciitis.

This bad news means that there needs to be significant (and immediate) strides in research to bring this area of infection into study, along with development of new treatments for any human beings who come into contact with snakes of many kinds.

But for now, it's clear: best not to tango with (or get tangled up in) the vine snake!

Your Feel-Good Amphibian Rescue Story for 2021

We saved the frogs!

Specifically, we rehomed three frogs, about 18 years old. They'd been an elderly woman's beloved pets…until she sadly passed away and had no one to look after them. In October, RARN members got them safely to a new home at a California zoo.

But the saga of RARN's happy-ending amphibian rescue actually begins decades ago….

We humans are strange beings. Sometimes we think other creatures on the planet are simply there for our use. So we use them. And sometimes that (ab)use comes back to bite us in the….

African Clawed FrogAfrican Clawed FrogConsider, if you will, the African Clawed Frog. A species that, in the 1930s, was discovered as an efficient way (though not to the frogs!) to determine human pregnancy. After other, better methods were found, the frogs morphed into animals found in many a pet store. But along the way, many of these creatures--both discards from research and escaped or abandoned pets--found their way into the broader ecosystem of the US.

And they wreaked havoc.

These frogs, as cute as they are, are voracious eaters and can survive in a number of otherwise inhospitable habitats. They can devastate (and have already devastated) multiple native populations of animals. And they can live a long time—25 to 30 years! Thus they are now considered an invasive species, illegal to trade or keep without strict permits. Very illegal, even to rehome….

This past summer, RARN got a call from a wonderful woman named Patti, caretaker of a woman who had kept three strange, yellow-colored (albino, to be precise) frogs. The woman had passed and no one wanted to take the frogs. Could RARN help? We could. But the caretaker wasn't sure what kind of frogs they were.

She soon found out…

Once RARN knew that it was taboo African Clawed frogs we were supposed to rehouse, we came up with a plan. We worked closely with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to make sure the transfer to the zoo offering to take them (the small but charming Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero) was achieved correctly. It was all done under a time crunch as well, as the woman's family was about to clear out her home. And the froggies had to go somewhere.

The bottom line? We did it. And it was worth it. The winsome, red-eyed frogs got to live, in a safe and healthy environment where they could do no damage to other wildlife.

Thanks to Patti, the officer at F & Wildlife, and our tireless staff, we at RARN have a wondrous true story to boost us into 2022!

RARN Wishes A Happy, Healthy New Year to All!

Baby dragons in Central Europe? An old myth takes on new meaning

A massive cave in the heart of Europe holds a secret: it is the home to a most mysterious creature. Could it be… a dragon?

Not really, though that is one of many names used by the people of Slovenia to describe this unique, legendary animal. A recent article clarifies that the creature is an olm, or blind salamander, Proteus anguinus. Olms are full of contradictions and quirks: they are categorized as amphibians yet remain in their juvenile aquatic phase all their lives (their eating, sleeping, and breeding all occur underwater). They dwell only in caves and thus have adapted entirely to living in darkness, with undeveloped eyes and amped-up senses of hearing and smell. They can go long periods—years, even--without eating. And they can live to the venerable age of 100!

For centuries, legends have grown around these animals, known as "baby dragons" because they would wash out of their territory, the cave of Postojna, during floods, and caves have been long thought to be the realm of dragons. But why the attention to these strange creatures—also known as "human fish" because of their smooth, pinkish skin--NOW? High on the list of reasons are the possibilities that olm DNA offers researchers. Biologists are fascinated by the complexity of the olm's genome—which is sixteen times longer than the human genome, and full of curiously empty spaces. Perhaps an even more intriguing attraction is the ability of the olm, like that of salamanders, to regenerate limbs. Unlocking that secret for use in humankind would be, well, as marvelous as encountering a dragon….

The fascinating behavior of olms includes voracious eating habits and peculiar mating dances in the course of their long, long lives. And apparently these strange creatures have become a major tourist attraction, for the cave and for Slovenia in general.

A trip to visit baby dragons—sorry, olms--might just be one for the bucket list!