Kings of the jungle: amphibians are at the very centre of our finely balanced ecosystem. Image: Christian Ziegler/ Minden Pictures
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An unexpectedly vital part of the ecology

The disappearance of frogs and toads contributes to the appalling modern phenomenon that conservationists are now encountering everywhere: “trophic cascade”.

What is it with poets, frogs and toads? “Stop looking like a purse,” says the poet Norman MacCaig, carrying a toad outside. “How could a purse/squeeze under the rickety door and sit,/full of satisfaction, in a man’s house?” The pair of toads Jamie McKendrick encounters find their own exit: “they make for the hallway with sagging hops/like small encrusted beanbags on the move”, he says in “Right of Way”.

Frogs and toads live on all continents except Antarctica, in 24 different families and more than 4,000 species. In children’s literature they are gently comical, but the amphi in amphibian reminds us that they belong to two worlds.

They disappear in a second, leaping from one medium into another, and global folklore invests them with darker powers than Kenneth Grahame. A life cycle of spawn, tails and legs means they incarnate metamorphosis: you kiss them into princes, get turned into one by witches. In the Rig Veda, Great Frog supports the universe. They are familiars, boiled up by the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, and the “great kings” of slime terrify the boy in Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist”.

Frogs and toads are an unobtrusive but vital part of the ecology, and their loss contributes to the appalling modern phenomenon that conservationists are now encountering everywhere: “trophic cascade”.

As children, we used to put bricks up on end in a long wavy line, then tip the first and watch the whole circuit ripple to the ground. Imagine a similar sequence in a South American forest, with frogs at its centre. The frogs live in delicate balance with nine other species: lizards, mango trees, mango-eating ants, monkeys, wild pigs, owls, wasps, mosquitoes and a microbial parasite. They breed in riverbank puddles created by the rootling wild pigs. Mosquitoes breed in those puddles, too. The parasite they carry infects monkeys that eat the mango fruit, spreading its seed in fertilising scat, but few monkeys die, because the frogs’ tadpoles eat most mosquito larvae.

The lizards eat the ants; they also eat wasps that nest in holes in trees. Owls compete for these nesting holes and keep the wasps in check.

Now men kill off the pigs. No more puddles – so the frogs die out, but the mosquitoes breed in rainwater instead. Uneaten, they multiply, along with their parasites, which kill off the monkeys. With no monkey-scat, the mango trees die, along with the mango-eating ants. This halves the lizards’ food and they fade away. No lizards means more wasps, which crowd the weakening owls out of nesting sites. The owls go. Only three viable species are left: wasps, mosquitoes and their parasite, which will now turn on the cause of all this - man.

Trophic cascade could happen here. Frogs are disappearing globally into extinction. Two diseases are ravaging amphibians worldwide. Chytrid fungus has extinguished hundreds of species, and thousands of British frogs are dying from ranavirus.

Conservationists are working against time to save them. Scientists from the Zoological Society of London have swabbed amphibians in ponds across the UK and are collaborating with other organisations on the Garden Wildlife Health website, which asks for the public’s help in monitoring British wildlife. ZSL has also rescued, through a unique conservation programme you can see in action at Regent’s Park, the Majorcan midwife toad – until 1979 believed extinct – whose males carry new-laid spawn on their back until the tadpoles hatch.

Glyn Maxwell has written a poem to these toads, not now entering human houses but being saved – just – by human beings from exiting the world. “We are back who were never gone,” they sing. “We were here and you never knew./We thought you’d died out too.”

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt