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Diary From A Florida Bathroom Dispatches From A Sinking State

Editor's Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state.

By Jade Salamone

Published January 25, 2021

It was a typical morning, and I found myself sitting on the toilet in our downstairs bathroom. As I settled in, I felt a slimy nudge on the underside of my upper thigh and heard a sudden kerplunk below.

Flashbacks to scenes from the 1984 horror film, “Ghoulies,” rushed into my head. I curbed my repulsion and mustered the courage to peek between my legs into the water. There, just under the ridge of the bowl, a wet beige frog the size of my hand peered up at me.

First reported in 1931, it is believed Cuban treefrogs were initially introduced into the Keys via cargo boats, later using their large, sticky toe pads to cling to vehicles and ornamental plants.

I’ve blocked out the rest of the encounter, but distinctly remember a lot of hand washing. I’d love to tell you this was the last time I confronted this potty intruder in my bathroom, but daily confrontations with Florida invasive herpetofauna have become my new normal.

I’m not originally from around here. I am an Army brat, having spent many of my formative years abroad or in cities near Army bases around the U.S. When my parents retired, we migrated to South Florida (as you do). Though not a native, after more than 20 years, I consider myself established. The tropical urban jungle that is SoFla is where I learned what an invasive species can really do.

If you live south of the I-4 corridor, you’ve likely heard of or met the infamous Rhinella marina (formerly Bufo marinus), commonly named cane toad or marine toad. Countless residents in South Florida have a pet or a friend of a friend’s pet who met their demise by tasting these poisonous invaders. Mine was my neighbor’s dog⁠ — a sweet, happy-go-lucky black lab whose greatest flaw was her curiosity for plump warty amphibians.

Marine toads have not ventured to North Central Florida in great numbers yet as far as biologists know. I’ve lived in Gainesville for more than 10 years now, and I have peace of mind that my dog is likely safe from the poisonous grips of the marine toad (for now). But, I’ve become intimately acquainted with another invasive amphibian — you might remember my potty intruder, Osteopilus septentrionalis, the Cuban treefrog.

I am currently the co-coordinator for Gainesville FrogWatch USA at Santa Fe College, a local chapter of a nationwide community science program that trains volunteers to identify frog calls and report data online. I’ve heard countless accounts of Cuban treefrogs from residents within Alachua and Bradford Counties. First reported in 1931, it is believed these frogs were initially introduced into the Keys via cargo boats, later using their large, sticky toe pads to cling to vehicles and ornamental plants.

"It is not their fault they are wreaking havoc in our state. And now I teach people how to kill them."

During FrogWatch USA training workshops, we spend a great deal of time learning all 22 different frog calls a volunteer may have to identify in their surveys in our designated counties. The banjo plunk of a green frog, the sonorous trill of the southern toad, and the faint bleating emitting from the eastern narrow-mouthed toad are typical tracks to the soundtrack of a wet, summer evening.

It’s when I play the Cuban treefrog’s call, the eerie creek of a rocking chair, that I see recognition cross participants’ faces, followed by dread when I begin to discuss the task now laid before them. These bright-eyed volunteers come to learn how to protect their local wetlands and amphibians and they leave with a how-to on humanely euthanizing invasive treefrogs. With knowledge, comes great responsibility.

In the beginning, I struggled with spreading this message. I am personally enamored by these species. Their adaptations to live in their native habitats are fascinating. Cuban treefrogs are generalists in every sense of the word. Their ability to eat almost anything, live almost anywhere and their high reproductive rate ⁠— a female can lay up to 15,000 eggs in a season⁠ — allow them to outcompete native treefrogs that share their niche.

It is not their fault they are wreaking havoc in our state. And now I teach people how to kill them.

Whenever I move to a new neighborhood and people realize that I can identify and humanely euthanize these frogs, I get texts with pictures and requests for my services. It was this, and an assignment for a class, that prompted me to start a Facebook group called Frogs and Toads of Florida in 2019. To date, it’s over 5,600 members strong and growing, with multiple admins providing expertise and policing inevitable conflict.

"When I grapple with this reality of killing another living thing, I remind myself why I’m doing it."

My friends often joke with me that they never thought a group about frogs could get so contentious. But when a wrong identification leads to the accidental execution of a native pinewoods treefrog, it gets real. And so many followers grapple with killing a living thing. I hear you! My job is to protect wildlife, not murder them, not slather them in Orajel, put them in a bag and freeze them.

For perspective on this, I turned to Steve Johnson, a professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida and one of the leading experts in Florida’s invasive frogs. His papers and resources have helped me understand the scope of destruction these frogs wreak on Floridians, human and animal alike, and teach humane euthanasia practices.

One of the biggest arguments I read from posts on Frogs and Toads of Florida is that euthanizing these frogs, particularly Cuban treefrogs, is a lost cause. They are established and that’s that. What good does killing one frog in a sea of millions do?

Johnson asserts that when you euthanize that one invasive frog, you are being an advocate for the native frog it would likely have eaten. Research has shown that native frogs do rebound in areas where invasives have been removed. But you might be thinking, there’s too many of them, we’re outnumbered. To this, Johnson offers this analogy: if you have a lawn, you have to mow it. If you have shrubs in your yard, you trim them. It’s continuous maintenance.

Now, I realize euthanizing a living animal is not equivalent to mowing your grass. You can’t see your lawn breathe or feel it wiggle in your hands. When I grapple with this reality of killing another living thing, I remind myself why I’m doing it. I remind myself of the native frogs that are silenced by their presence. I think of the incalculable impact they have on the Florida ecosystems I cherish.

It’s impossible to measure the compounding effects of replacing vital native species in the food web with poisonous and unpalatable substitutes. I think of stories I hear from community members, such as their longing to witness green treefrogs in their backyards again. I remember the pets lost to cane toads and stories of children sent to hospitals after touching a Cuban treefrog and rubbing their eyes.

Johnson recalled an unforgettable interaction as a teaching assistant for a general zoology class at the University of Central Florida. With little prior knowledge of their secretions, he handled a live treefrog bare handed to prepare it to be a preserved teaching specimen. Shortly after he rubbed his eyes, he experienced burning. He learned about their noxious skin secretion “the hard way.”

"I want to live in a place where the night is filled with synchronous metronome calls of ornate chorus frogs and deep snores of gopher frogs."

I realize I’ve painted a horrifying picture of frog-eating, dog-killing, poison-secreting toilet monsters without any hope for reprieve. I recognize I’m advocating for community members to consciously kill these frogs. I don’t ask others to do something I wouldn’t do myself. Is it still hard? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Definitely. I know my inaction only magnifies the problem.

I want to live in a place where the night is filled with synchronous metronome calls of ornate chorus frogs and deep snores of gopher frogs. I know that curbing invasive species is only a small piece in a larger puzzle of threats to amphibians. These frogs are up against habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, disease, climate change and the list goes on. And while I strive to be a voice for these causes, both in my job and personal life, solutions to these insurmountable issues are far from my grasp. But taking out one invasive frog at a time, advocating for that one native frog every time, I know I’m making a difference right now.

Jade Salamone works as the Conservation Education Curator at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo. She is also the co-coordinator for the Gainesville FrogWatch USA at Santa Fe College chapter. Jade has a B.S. from the University of Central Florida and an A.S. in Zoo Animal Technology from Santa Fe College. This article was created as part of her graduate work with Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Credits:

Photos courtesy Jade Salamone, Ltshears (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24886802), Sam Fraser-Smith (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25213989), Thomas Brown (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27451510) & pondhawk (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27375632), and Morgan Young