North Carolina has more than its share of official state symbols, including a fruit (the Scuppernong grape), a bird (the cardinal), a carnivorous plant (Venus flytrap) and a rock (granite – hard, unyielding, you get the picture).
But until now, despite the fact that our state is home to some of the temperate world’s greatest amphibian diversity, we have not had a state amphibian. I can hear you gasp. What is a state without an official amphibian? What, indeed. We have a state dance (the shag), so how did we get this far with no frog or salamander to pin our collective aspirations to?
Well, let it be known that last spring, state representatives set out to remedy that fact. I’ll grant you that picking a state amphibian may not sound like a high priority when you compare it to other issues facing us, such as infant mortality, unemployment, lack of access to health care, the long shadow of the avian flu and a crumbling highway system. But in fact, it’s as simple as introducing a bill and having a bunch of white guys in suits sign it. No lengthy debates, no tricky appropriations, just pick an amphibian and be done with it, end of story.
Apparently, it’s not that easy. It turns out that the state is full of amphibian partisans, each with their own list of favorites. For every say, five bullfrog enthusiasts, there are two or three people out there who are ga-ga about the lesser siren, Fowler’s toad or seepage salamander. It can get ugly.
The amphibian that lawmakers first settled on, Lithobates (formerly Rana) catesbeianus, the American bullfrog, might have seemed a no-brainer, since bullfrogs are emblematic of the Southern summer, with their insistent jug-o’-rum calls carrying on all night from the marshes and ponds and the other dampish spots they favor. But bullfrogs are ubiquitous. They’re not specific to North Carolina, and in fact live pretty much all over the eastern and middle of the continent, north to Nova Scotia and west to the Rocky Mountain front. In other parts of the country where they’ve been introduced, bullfrogs actually have earned a thuggish reputation, eating more than their share of frogs, songbirds, bugs and even bats, and displacing endemic frogs in the process.
Democracy is all about choice, and when it comes to amphibians, the choices are many. And while I love a bullfrog as well as anyone (especially their tadpoles, and best of all when they sprout those dangly little legs), I’d encourage you to take a look at some of the alternatives the North Carolina Herpetological Society has put forward to that mean ol’ Lithobates catesbeianus. For starters, consider the pine barrens tree frog, Brimley’s chorus frog, the marbled salamander, and my own personal fave, the hellbender, which, at two feet plus, is as big as any salamander should get. (One of the dialectical names for it, “snot otter,” is pretty seductive, too.)
Stand for something. Visit the North Carolina Herpetological Society homepage and cast your vote for the amphibian you believe best represents our state.
— Kent Priestley, staff reporter