It’s been a while quite a while since you heard from the Ship’s Naturalist, but that’s not because she hasn’t been writing; it’s because her back-up team haven’t been typing…
Herewith, an article which Roxanne penned many moons ago, during our visit to Melilla.
It was while we were in England that I met my first toads. They were found under a caravan awning on the campsite where we lived. I put the first one in a deep box with some sticks and stones for cover, and every day I gave him insects and slugs, but I never actually saw him eat. After a few days I had to let him go, so I put him under a log. When I found the next toad, a few weeks later, I went back and I found that the first toad was still sitting there! It had made a hollow in the ground under the log. I put the second one beside him, and then I put the third one there too. Every now and then I went to look, and they were always sitting there in a row. I think they sat there all winter.
When we went to Spain I forgot all about toads. The countryside was all parched and bare, with just the odd thorny shrub, and the occupants were lizards and snakes.
When we first arrived in Melilla it didn’t seem to be much different. Melilla is in North Africa, so you can expect it to be even drier than Spain. It came as a great surprise, one morning, when we walked past a freshly squashed toad, the size of my palm, which was lying on the road beside the boatyard.
“Oh,” said I to my mother, “If only we had come past just a few minutes sooner – then it would have been alive. I could have saved it.”
We arrived at the bathroom, at the far end of the boatyard, and we went inside. It was a big bare room, with tiles on the wall and a tiled floor. It had a row of cubicles and a row of mirrors opposite them. Mummy stood in front of the mirrors.
“I can see a friend for you, ” she said, as she cleaned her teeth.
I guessed at once that it must be another big fat toad. I peered into the cubicle behind her – and there was a frog! Not a toad, and not as big as my hand. Just a tiny brown frog – but I was delighted.
I had trouble catching this first frog. In the weeks to come I was to become an expert but at the moment I was inexperienced. Countless times I cried, “Gotcha!” only to have the frog slip through my fingers like water. In my ignorance I tried to catch him as I would catch a beetle, with my fingers. I concentrated on speed when I should have been creeping up and putting my hand down on him, catching him like a fly, holding my fingers close together.
But I caught him in the end – because there was nowhere in the bathroom for him to run and hide – and I put him in Mummy’s hat. (“Now, where’s my hat gone? Oh, Roxanne…!”)
I took him home and I put him in a vivarium, and I gave him a beetle.
A moment later the beetle was gone. I didn’t see where it went. It just disappeared! Frogs use the speed in their back legs to dive forwards and scoop up their prey. They also have a short sticky tongue, which helps to hold the creature in their jaws.
After that I found several frogs hanging out around the boatyard. It was not a good place for them to be, but they had all been washed down the river in a flash flood, and now they were stuck here.
I went through my books and I decided that my first frog was a painted frog (Discoglssus pictus). With the frog sitting in front of me, in his box, I wrote a description:
“He is very chubby, as most frogs are, with a smooth, dark olive-green skin. His eyes are full of contrast. The pupils are black and the iris is golden. He is three centimetres long.”
Some of the other frogs I couldn’t identify. They weren’t in my book.
A few days later I was out hunting frogs when I came across a piece of cardboard. I lifted it up, and there slouched the fattest prince I ever saw. He was a toad – exactly the same as the one which I found on the road – and he was about eight centimetres long. I never saw a fatter animal. He was flabby around the belly and back, and warty everywhere. His skin was pale pink and he was covered in olive-green spots. Mummy nicknamed him The Blamanche.
I put my new friend in my biggest vivarium and gave him a cardboard box for a shelter. However, he didn’t seem to mind me looking at him, and instead of hiding under the box he sat on top of it. I had nothing to feed him except devil’s coach horse beetles which happened to be around in abundance that afternoon. They are huge, fast, black beetles with big sharp jaws, and I was a bit worried about whether the toad would manage them. I didn’t want him to get hurt. Since I couldn’t find anything better, I dropped one of the beetles into the toad’s home and watched nervously, but there was no problem. He snatched the beetle with such bouncy enthusiasm that the cardboard shelter collapsed beneath him, and before he hit the floor of the vivarium it had disappeared into his mouth. He swallowed hard, with his eyes shut. And then he was ready for the next one. He ate the third one out of my hand!
From the very start Toad was a lot tamer than any of the frogs. The frogs never ever ate from my hand. At the sight of my hand, descending into their homes with dinner, they just panicked and rushed round and round their boxes.
Toad ate anything that I gave him. If his box happened to be alongside another one, and he could see a tiny frog sitting there, then he tried to get through the clear plastic wall to eat the frog, but otherwise he just sat. He sat all day, under his cardboard shelter. Then, in the evening, when he knew it was feeding time, he came and sat in the middle of his box and began looking around, waiting for the feast to arrive. He ate beetles, caterpillars, worms… He ate anything that moved. If my hand was empty he sucked at my thumb. It felt like wet masking tape.
Unlike the frogs, Toad didn’t have to lurch forwards. His toungue was very long, so he just fired it out, and it was sticky so he could pull his victim into his mouth. He relied on camouflage rather than on stalking his prey. Sometimes a beetle would walk all over him – even over his head – and he would just sit perfectly still and wait until it wandered near his great big mouth. I suppose that must be why my three English toads didn’t move around; they just waited for dinner to walk by.
One of my books said that toads can change their skin colour, and he did. Not quickly, and not dramatically, but one day he would be pink with bright green spots, and another day he would be brown with dark green spots. He was my favourite, of course, and he became very tame – so that he would sit on my hand and eat – and very fat, so that I wondered if he would burst.
One day Mummy said, “Look at the toad! What is he doing? Is he ill?”
Toad was arching his back, and the skin on his back really was splitting! He began to pull it off and put it into his mouth. It was not like a snake’s skin. It was just clear, like very thin polythene. The whole process took about an hour. Afterwards he looked just exactly the same, but I suppose the new skin was bigger. He did this at least three times in the fortnight that he lived with me.
The biggest frog also changed his skin once. The frogs remained very wild, but they also ate quite a lot of food for their size. Sometimes, after scoffing a worm that was as big as they were, they seemed to have doubled in size. In fact, I suppose they must have done.
Most of the frogs were so tiny that they had hardly stopped being tadpoles. They must have been laid only a few months earlier. Soon I had so many frogs that I was running out of boxes. I also had a terrapin, who lived in the laundry tub, and a tortoise which lived in a big carboard box. Mummy bought a big new box for Toad – but I still had trouble finding room for all of my guests.
I put some of the little frogs together in the same box. You have to be a bit careful, because if you put a little frog in the same box as a bigger one it will disappear… I found that two frogs together was company, and three was also good, but four was too many. Froglets all look rather identical, and if you put put lots of them together it is hard to keep track of what they eat.
Feeding time was very amusing when there were two or three froggies in the same box. Sometimes they would all see a worm at the same moment, and all pounce together. Strangely, the tiny froglets never fought. They would stand there, watching the winner stuffing his prize into his mouth bit by bit, with his thumbs, but they never made a lunge at the trailing end.
Two rather larger frogs behaved in a completely different way. They fought at every opportunity. First they bullied their other cell-mate – although he was the same size as them – by continually sitting on his (her?) head. Then, when I rescued the third frog and re-housed him, they fought each other. Once, they both swallowed the opposite ends of the same worm. They looked so funny! They looked at each other, with their big bulgy eyes, and they thought for a bit, and then they start to tug and to kick. They flipped each other around the vivarium, spinning each other upside down and diving to and fro across the tank as if they were a couple of fish, until one of them finally managed to yank the worm out of the other fellow’s mouth. I was just the other side of the glass, falling about laughing, but today they were too busy too care about being watched.
Two small froglets did the same thing – they each caught hold of the ends of a worm – but they didn’t fight. They stood face to face for several seconds, looking at each other and wondering what to do, and then one of them spat out his end. “I’m frightfully sorry. I hadn’t realised…”
I ended up with a huge amount of frogs. In fact, I had more than I could manage. I had a total of 16 frogs and 3 toads, ranging from froglets the size of my fingernail to toads as big as my fist. I had to search all day to find food for my ever-hungry family – and the grass verge at the edge of a boatyard was not a good hunting ground. I read that my frogs were going to grow to be as big as footballs… so I stopped looking for more tiny ones and concentrated on searching behind the car wheels and under the dinghies, but I must say I was very worried about how I would ever feed a football-sized frog if I found one.
Eventually my family said that enough was enough. The vivariums and plastic boxes now covered the whole table and at night, when it was cold outside, Terry and the tortoise occupied the whole of one seat in their tubs. Anyway, I always knew that my pets would have to go back to the wild. But where was the wild in Melilla?
Obviously, the these amphibians and the two reptiles did not belong in the boatyard. If I put them back where I found them they would not survive there. They had probably been born in Morocco, and when it rained the river had flushed them down to the seashore. We had no car, so how would we get them back into the countryside in Morocco?
Fortunately, by now we had discovered that the friend of a friend was living in Melilla. His name was Manolo, and he was the friend of a man called Jesús who we know from the Iberia Nature Forum. Manolo turned out to be just as nice as Jesús. He came to the boat and he identified all of the animals in my little rescue centre. He said that the big fat toad was a green toad (Bufo viridis) which was what I had decided it must be. It has only been seen once before in North Africa. I also had another, much shyer toad, which Manolo said was a Berber toad. The frogs that I couldn’t identify were called Saharan frogs.
We packed all of the boxes into the back of Manolo’s pick-up truck and he drove us to the far side of Melilla where the river comes through the frontier fence. He and some friends have a nursery here to grow indigenous plants. The river was calm here, and it was bordered by reeds and mud banks. First we put Terry into the river and he swam off upstream, very quickly. Then, one by one, we let the amphibians go. The tiny froglets dived straight down and hid in the mud, but the Berber toad struck out for the far bank, swimming a perfect breast stroke. They all seemed glad to get away, except for my good friend the Blamanche Toad. He sat on my hand and refused to budge. Mummy says he was crying. Eventually I put him down in the mud at the edge of the river and after a few seconds he swam off to join the Berber.
We put the tortoise on a hillside near the fence, with lots of shrubs for him to hide in.
I often wonder what will become of the frogs and toads that I saved. I hope they managed to swim back up into Morocco and find somewhere safe to live and breed. One thing is for certain, I bet none of them ever find as much to eat in their new freedom as they did when they were my guests!