May 14, 2016

The Incredible Story of the Million-Year-Old Frog

The Arizona Toad
Life is tenacious. But one frog,  found deep in a Prescott area mine, showed a tenacity to stay alive that many biologists would have considered impossible.

Although described in the title as a "million-year-old frog," the depth at which it was discovered suggests that this remarkable amphibian was tens or even a hundred times older than that!

The wet summer monsoon months bring an unexpected, nocturnal sound to the otherwise arid desert: the croaking of frogs.

"Many of Arizona’s native frogs, particularly the five species of leopard frogs and the Tarahumara frog, might be considered “typical” stream-dwelling frogs; never being found too far from permanent water where they lay eggs, develop as tadpoles, and live as adult frogs. But, some of the most astonishing adaptations to desert life are exhibited by a number of frogs and toads that live much of their lives buried underground, only to emerge briefly to breed and grow during the summer rains. This group includes “typical” toads like the Sonoran green toad, Couch’s spadefoot, the tiny narrow-mouthed toad, and even a “true” treefrog, the lowland burrowing treefrog." (*1)

A description of 19th century remedies from nature that were particular to Arizona. Today these seem humorous if not ridiculous!

However, once upon a time, many millions of years ago, one "Rip VanWinkle" frog forgot to wake up.....

It was likely a February day in 1873. Miners were sinking a vertical shaft at the Black Diamond Coal Co. near Mt. Diablo (toward Williams.) At a depth of 172 feet below the ground, a weak chunk of sandstone fell off the shaft wall revealing a frog. Not a fossil of a frog, mind you, but one with its flesh perfectly intact! (*2)

"It was embedded in solid sandstone," the newspaper reported, "so that the impression of its form was perfect upon the rock around it." (*2)

ALSO OF INTEREST: There Were Cars in the Prescott National Forest Before There Were Whitetail Deer

The miners were shocked. Familiar with the survival habits of amphibians in the desert, they decided to pour water over the frog to see what would happen. To their utter disbelief, the frog started kicking!

Work hit a near stand-still, as the President of the mine was summoned to see the sight. Interested, yet desiring an end to the distraction, he took the frog and observed it himself.

"Rip VanWinkle, The Frog" lived for only twelve hours after his discovery, but the fact that he breathed any air at all, after so long, is astonishing.

The mine's President pledged that he would forthwith present the extraordinary find to the Academy of Sciences. (*2)

So, Rip is probably residing in a jar full of formaldehyde in a dark drawer in Washington somewhere. Wouldn't it be great if he was returned to the city of Williams? If ever there was a tourist attraction made for Route 66, it's Rip VanWinkle, The Million-Year-Old Frog!

Tourist Tips:

If you would like to hear the surprising sound of frogs croaking in the desert, just come to the author's patio any night in August!

But, seriously, the Lynx Lake Recreational Area would be the perfect spot. It offers camping, hiking, boating and even gold panning!

Beautiful Lynx Lake

CLICK HERE for more information from the Prescott National Forest

(*2) Weekly Arizona Miner. March 1, 1873; pg 4 col 3 "An Ancient Frog"
        (Note: although this is the last page of the March 1st edition, it appears on the Google archive as the first page of March 8th.)


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