Frogs: Friends, fortune, or foes?

Dr Jeanne Tarrant, EWT Threatened Amphibian Programme Manager, jeannet@ewt.org.za

April 2022

Frogs and folklore go hand-in-hand. Countless children’s stories and fairy tales feature frogs and toads, and these amphibians have appeared in proverbs, rituals, and myths and have been interwoven into cultures across the world for centuries. Often, these stories represent frogs as important symbols of good fortune, fertility, and abundance. For example, each year, numerous frogs appear with the flooding of the Nile. These floods were vital to agriculture because they provided water for growing crops. Frogs represented abundance and became a symbol for the number hufnu, which meant 100,000. Many native cultures place small frog coins in their purses because they believe the coins will help them keep their money. The nature of the complete transformation of frogs from tadpoles also conjures a wide range of possible representations, including the option of transforming again into something even more wonderful, as in the traditional fairies about frogs turning into princes. The idea that a frog could be a prince – or anything else – makes them excellent fictional characters. Their metamorphosis from tadpole to frog can be seen as a form of “magic” and is relatable to young readers’ transformations, from toddler to child or child to teenager. Frogs symbolise hope in these stories.

In other cultures, toads represent less favourable symbols. In medieval Europe, for example, toads were considered evil creatures whose body parts had strange powers. Some of these views were articulated by authors from Classical Rome and Greece, whose writings had an immense influence on public opinion. Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” alludes to a widely held superstition about a jewel that was supposed to be found inside the head of the toad. Once placed in a ring or necklace, this jewel, known as “toad-stone”, would warm up or change colour in the presence of venom, protecting the wearer from possible danger and foul play. Additionally, toads took on the role of evil spirits who assisted witches in their evil designs. In South Africa, frogs form part of similar cultural beliefs associated with witchcraft.

These myths and legends, and all stories really, are part of our journeys to better understand the world around us and are often derived as ways of protecting or warning us. Wanting to learn more about our local stories associated with frogs, we created the #FrogLore social media campaign for this year’s Leap Day for Frogs.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s annual Leap Day for Frogs campaign has been running for eight years, highlighting how important, interesting, and under threat frogs are.

Globally, amphibians remain the most threatened backboned animals on Earth, with 41% of species threatened with extinction. This 41% is a huge proportion of an ancient group of animals that have been successful for 300 million years, inhabiting all corners of the planet – except those too cold, too hot, or inaccessible to frogs, such as the Galapagos Islands. But now, because of habitat destruction, freshwater pollution, and a deadly fungus (which incidentally is having a way bigger impact on many more species than Covid-19), amphibians are facing a very real and rapid demise. It is a warning that our changing planet cannot support life in the way it should.

These sobering statistics are not cause for celebration, so why have fun in the name of frogs? While Leap Day for Frogs does highlight the threats to these creatures, it also celebrates them and creates an appreciation for them, which is the first step towards recognising their importance. Leap Day for Frogs invites members of the public to get involved however and wherever they like – be this by creating frog art or poetry at schools, cleaning up a local wetland, learning more about frogs, or playing a game of leapfrog!

Leap Day for Frogs photo

Leap Day for Frogs event in Ipithi Nature Reserve on 26 February 2022

This year, in addition to the FrogLore campaign, we were fortunate to host in-person events again. We partnered with Kloof Conservancy to run a fun day of activities and a night frog walk at Ipithi Nature Reserve in Gillitts on 26 February, with over 300 people attending! We also joined forces with Hillcrest Conservancy, where 120 people joined a frog talk and walk at Springside Nature Reserve. Both amazing turnouts demonstrate that families are ready to get out to explore their local green spaces – in many instances, for the first time. Through our multiple partnerships and independent lessons, we also engaged over 700 school learners in 2022 already.

Frog shooting lightning from its mouthThrough the FrogLore social media campaign, we reached over 34,000 people, and we received some stories – mostly related to lightning and frogs. One event participant mentioned a belief in eSwatini that if you dig up a frog, you will be struck by lightning! There is a fairly common association between frogs and weather events, which makes sense as frogs emerge during rain, and this natural occurrence may be at the root of many similar beliefs. Frogs also have very long tongues, which may explain why some think frogs shoot lightning from their mouths!Leap Day Call to ActionWhat stories or beliefs about frogs have you heard?

Please share them with us via our social media platforms with #Froglore or email ewt@ewt.org.za.

The more we know about people’s beliefs and attitudes towards frogs, the more we can promote positive interactions and save more frogs.