Field of Science

A dearth of frogs and how to catch a mole you'ld rather just kill

I have a fairly generic house from the 1950s. A rambler, like all the other ramblers in the neighborhood. However, over its 60 years of existence previous owners have done some nice renovations, including completing a bedroom in the basement. This included putting in a wall to separate the bedroom from the rest of the finished part of the basement, adding a large cedar lined closet, and most importantly putting in an egress window. Yes, the egress window is the most important part, otherwise the bedroom is not legally a bedroom just a glorified storage room. Because this bedroom is in the basement, it happens to also be below the ground. So the window well outside the egress window is about 4 feet deep (in case of fire, you can open the window, climb into the window well and then hoist yourself out of the window well).

We can skip over the safety of having to climb out of the window well in case of emergency, just know that it is physically possible. The point is that we have a rather large and deep window well. Every year, starting around  mid-summer, moles and frogs decide to make the window well their home (read they fall in). Normally I wouldn't care too much, but there are always a few dry leaves in the window well and the moles really love to run over and through these dry leaves starting at about 2AM. Again, I wouldn't normally care, except said window well is directly below the bedroom window right next to my side of the bed. You might be surprised how much freaking noise a 20 gram mole can make using just a few dry leaves in the middle of the night. (Just for the record, frogs are good neighbors and either sleep normal hours or are scared of dry leaves.) So on a fair number of nights every summer, Ill be outside in my slippers and sweatpants (you hope) with a flashlight, a large box, and a small garden rake. One can easily jump into the well, place the box on its side along the wall of the window well (the important thing is to make sure the flaps are open and not bent backwards), then using the rake and flashlight scare the mole around the edge of the wall and into the box. Once in simultaneously close the flaps and tip the box upright (This is actually your second attempt, because the first time the mole went into the box, it escaped while you were dicking around with the flaps, which you left folded backwards). Ensure the mole is in the box by give it a gentle shake (gentleness is inversely correlated to the number of hours I had already been asleep). Of course, it will take several attempts to actually get the damn mole into the box because the flap won't be tight against the wall and the mole will go behind the box, or there will be a small gap between the flap or box and the gravel at the bottom of the window well and the mole will go under it (The number of failed attempts at catching said mole also affects the degree of box shaking gentleness).

Evil mole of satan
Once caught, lift the box up onto the lawn along with the flashlight and hoist you cranky and tired ass up out of the window well. You can then pick your favorite curse to mutter as you realize you left the rake at the bottom of the window well. Back in, and back out with the rake. Vigorously check to make sure the mole didn't go anywhere. Take said box to the woods up the street and dump said mole, feel free to explain to said mole that the Mrs. is the only reason said mole is actually still viable. Back to the house to put away mole catching equipment and drag your sorry ass back to bed.

American Toad
Now I have learned to check the window well occasionally during daylight hours and can often avoid the nighttime ritual of rodent hatred. Under these conditions, if a mole is there it is caught more easily. (Being awake almost certainly has nothing to do with that.) Further, any frogs in the well can be saved. We get american toads, wood frogs, and leopard frogs in the window well. The frogs are easy to catch and I know a 7 year old that I can lower into the window well to catch them.

So 2010 has been an interesting year. Weather-wise there has been nothing remarkable and I have had to capture several moles this year. However, there have been virtually no toads/frogs in the window well, in fact I can only recall a single one.

So what gives? Damned if I know, but one thing I thought about was the rampant world-wide decimation of frogs populations particularly in tropical climes. Entire ecosystems are being upended rapidly because once frogs are gone, animals that feed on frogs are not far behind, also animals that frogs feed on flourish (aka insects), which causes additional disruptions.

The question immediately on your mind Im sure is, "why are frogs populations crashing?" Great question, it turns out the culprit is a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. B. dendrobatidis is a member of the chytridiomycota, aka the chytrids. These are extremely cool fungi (apart from the killing all the amphibians part). They are quite distantly related to the fungi we commonly think about which are Ascomycetes (eg Bakers yeast) and Basidiomycetes (eg Shitake mushrooms). Moreover they are motile!! That's right these SoBs will come to you. Actually it is the spores (zoospores) that are motile via a flagella, not the vegetative cells, but still I expect people in general would state that fungi are non-motile (because most are), but biology is ripe with awesomeness because there is always an exception.

Ok, but Minnesota is generally not considered a tropical clime, so what's a single season lack of frogs in my window well got to do with B. dendrobatidis? Probably nothing, but thinking is fun. A quick google search for B. dendrobatidis and Minnesota came up with this paper (Prevalence of the pathogenic chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, in an endangered population of northern leopard frogs, Rana pipiens). It turns out B. dendrobatidis is associated with a reasonable number of frogs in Minnesota! Now at this point there is no indication that B. dendrobatidis is negatively affecting frogs here, but this may be something to keep an eye on.