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The Mind of Amphibians

§ 3

Towards the end of the age of the Old Red Sandstone or Devonian, a great step in evolution was taken—the emergence of Amphibians. The earliest representatives had fish-like characters even more marked than those which may be discerned in the tadpoles of our frogs and toads, and there is no doubt that amphibians sprang from a fish stock. But they made great strides, associated in part with their attempts to get out of the water on to dry land. From fossil forms we cannot say much in regard to soft parts; but if we consider the living representatives of the class, we may credit amphibians with such important acquisitions as fingers and toes, a three-chambered heart, true ventral lungs, a drum to the ear, a mobile tongue, and vocal cords. When animals began to be able to grasp an object and when they began to be able to utter sufficient sounds, two new doors were opened. Apart from insects, whose instrumental music had probably begun before the end of the Devonian age, amphibians were the first animals to have a voice. The primary meaning of this voice was doubtless, as it is to-day in our frogs, a sex-call; but it was the beginning of what was destined to play a very important part in the evolution of the mind. In the course of ages the significance of the voice broadened out; it became a parental call; it became an infant's cry. Broadening still, it became a very useful means of recognition among kindred, especially in the dark and in the intricacies of the forest. Ages passed, and the voice rose on another turn of the evolutionary spiral to be expressive of particular emotions beyond the immediate circle of sex—emotions of joy and of fear, of jealousy and of contentment. Finally, we judge, the animal—perhaps the bird was first—began to give utterance to particular "words," indicative not merely of emotions, but of particular things with an emotional halo, such as "food," "enemy," "home." Long afterwards, words became in man the medium of reasoned discourse. Sentences were made and judgments expressed. But was not the beginning in the croaking of Amphibia?

Senses of Amphibians

Frogs have good eyes, and the toad's eyes are "jewels." There is evidence of precise vision in the neat way in which a frog catches a fly, flicking out its tongue, which is fixed in front and loose behind. There is also experimental proof that a frog discriminates between red and blue, or between red and white, and an interesting point is that while our skin is sensitive to heat rays but not to light, the skin of the frog answers back to light rays as well. Professor Yerkes experimented with a frog which had to go through a simple labyrinth if it wished to reach a tank of water. At the first alternative between two paths, a red card was placed on the wrong side and a white one on the other. When the frog had learned to take the correct path, marked by the white card, Prof. Yerkes changed the cards. The confusion of the frog showed how thoroughly it had learned its lesson.

We know very little in regard to sense of smell or taste in amphibians; but the sense of hearing is well developed, more developed than might be inferred from the indifference that frogs show to almost all sounds except the croaking of their kindred and splashes in the water.

The toad looks almost sagacious when it is climbing up a bank, and some of the tree-frogs are very alert; but there is very little that we dare say about the amphibian mind. We have mentioned that frogs may learn the secret of a simple maze, and toads sometimes make for a particular spawning-pond from a considerable distance. But an examination of their brains, occupying a relatively small part of the broad, flat skull, warns us not to expect much intelligence. On the other hand, when we take frogs along a line that is very vital to them, namely, the discrimination of palatable and unpalatable insects, we find, by experiment, that they are quick to learn and that they remember their lessons for many days. Frogs sometimes deposit their eggs in very unsuitable pools of water; but perhaps that is not quite so stupid as it looks. The egg-laying is a matter that has been, as it were, handed over to instinctive registration.


Photo: W. S. Berridge.


"Clean and dainty and proud as a Spanish Don."

It is an arboreal and cliff-loving bird, feeding chiefly on mammals, very fierce and strong. The under parts are mostly white, with a greyish zone on the chest. The upper parts are blackish-grey. The harpy occurs from Mexico to Paraguay and Bolivia.


Photo: W. S. Berridge, F.Z.S.


It does much harm in destroying sheep. It is famous for its persistent "death-feigning," for an individual has been known to allow part of its skin to be removed, in the belief that it was dead, before betraying its vitality.



Notice how the stiff tail-feathers braced against the stem help the bird to cling on with its toes. The original hole, in which this woodpecker inserted nuts for the purposes of cracking the shell and extracting the kernel, is seen towards the top of the tree. But the taker of the photograph tied on a hollowed-out cotton-reel as a receptacle for a nut, and it was promptly discovered and used by the bird.

Experiments in Parental Care

It must be put to the credit of amphibians that they have made many experiments in methods of parental care, as if they were feeling their way to new devices. A common frog lays her clumps of eggs in the cradle of the water, sometimes far over a thousand together; the toad winds two long strings round and between water-weeds; and in both cases that is all. There is no parental care, and the prolific multiplication covers the enormous infantile mortality. This is the spawning solution of the problem of securing the continuance of the race. But there is another solution, that of parental care associated with an economical reduction of the number of eggs. Thus the male of the Nurse-Frog (Alytes), not uncommon on the Continent, fixes a string of twenty to fifty eggs to the upper part of his hind-legs, and retires to his hole, only coming out at night to get some food and to keep up the moisture about the eggs. In three weeks, when the tadpoles are ready to come out, he plunges into the pond and is freed from his living burden and his family cares. In the case of the thoroughly aquatic Surinam Toad (Pipa), the male helps to press the eggs, perhaps a hundred in number, on to the back of the female, where each sinks into a pocket of skin with a little lid. By and by fully formed young toads jump out of the pockets.

In the South American tree-frogs called Nototrema there is a pouch on the back of the female in which the eggs develop, and it is interesting to find that in some species what come out are ordinary tadpoles, while in other species the young emerge as miniatures of their parents. Strangest of all, perhaps, is the case of Darwin's Frog (Rhinoderma of Chili), where the young, about ten to fifteen in number, develop in the male's croaking-sacs, which become in consequence enormously distended. Eventually the strange spectacle is seen of miniature frogs jumping out of their father's mouth. Needless to say we are not citing these methods of parental care as examples of intelligence; but perhaps they correct the impression of amphibians as a rather humdrum race. Whatever be the mental aspect of the facts, there has certainly been some kind of experimenting, and the increase of parental care, so marked in many amphibians, with associated reduction of the number of offspring is a finger-post on the path of progress.