Zoologist Yang Yi-ru (
"Their brains may be small, but their world is boundless," she says. Yang, who currently teaches at the Tzu Chi College of Medicine in Hualien, speaks with the authority of a professor and ingenuousness of a child. As she excitedly launches into an example of the Taipei tree frog's mating habits, her passion for her subject is apparent.
The Taipei tree frog has the peculiar habit of mating in groups of up to five at a time: that's one female, four males. The males begin the ritual by digging a hole and calling out to the female, their way of vying for her attention. They may even fight among themselves to prove their worth. But only one can win the affection of the female. Younger male frogs, Yang explains, are likely to be rejected by the female since they are smaller and therefore deemed less desirable for mating.
However, these underdog frogs have a special strategy.
After the female has mated with the chosen male, two or three of the rebuffed males, who have been waiting quietly at the sidelines, will sneak in and join the pair in a parasitic fashion. This, says Yang, is the clever way the younger frogs "get an opportunity with the female." From a scientific perspective, it also ensures genetic diversity among the offspring, a phenomenon known as "multiple paternity" which can result in the female laying 300 to 400 eggs at a time.
Once Yang begins talking about frogs, there is very little which can quell her enthusiasm. But it's an enthusiasm tempered with a healthy dose of self-parody. Yang admits that since she often combines her personal interest with her work (such as weekend expeditions into the wild late at night, since this is when frogs call out and can be tracked down) it comes as little surprise that frogs have crept into her subconscious, as evidenced by the number of dreams she has had about them.
In a particularly vivid dream, she and her husband were both frogs. "My husband rolled around and bumped me in his sleep, waking me up. In my dream we were frogs of different breeds. I was groggy and recall thinking indignantly, `You and I are not the same kind. Why are you touching me?'" giggles Yang.
Luckily, Yang's husband, Lee Peng-hsiang is also a frog enthusiast and doesn't bear a grudge.
"When I was kicked awake that night, I came to realize that although I may be (her) husband, I'm not her frog prince," he says.
As a young woman, Yang found herself enrolling in the Zoology course as National Taiwan University in Taipei (where she would continue through her post-doctoral studies) out of an interest in protecting Taiwan's natural landscape, having grown up in the countryside surrounded by wildlife. This was the early 1980s, when consciousness about the environment had only just begun to emerge.
In her third year of studies, Yang went on a winter expedition to check out frog life in the Mucha area of Taipei. This trip was to mark a juncture in her studies, turning her attention from birds to frogs. There in Mucha, Yang's classmate found a tiny, stunningly green tree frog sitting underneath a patch of dried grass.
"I remember feeling shocked that it would come out in such cold weather," recalls Yang. "It made me realize there was a lot I still didn't know about them." From college onwards, Yang's interest in frogs only snowballed. But family and friends were initially skeptical about the legitimacy of earning a postgraduate degree by studying frogs -- surely this was not a meaningful academic subject, they thought.
Their bemused attitude was soon to change into one of affirmation for her work. Her parents began encouraging the neighborhood children to catch tree frogs for their daughter's research by paying NT$10 per creature. Meanwhile, Yang's uncle, a farmer, noticed the tree frogs in his fields had disappeared within a matter of years due to factors such as the use of pesticides and clearing of trees in the area.
He now urges her to spread the word on the importance of environmental protection.
Yang's unrivalled dedication to the creatures stems from her love of them ("They're cute, mysterious, and beautiful.") as well as a desire to publicize their significance in environmental protection. One of Yang's main personal and professional aims is to spread the word on the importance of frogs in warning of dangers to ecosystems.
Because frogs breathe through their skin, they are excellent "bioindicators" of the livability of an area -- they can easily absorb toxins through the permeable dermis layer, making them vulnerable to environmental stress. For example, the sighting of a Taipei tree frog is a positive sign that the immediate area is fairly free from human interference. Breeds such as the Java tree frog and Nantou tree frog only appear in the cleanest areas. Other kinds that are known for high resistance to pollution, such as rice frogs, signify that an area has been developed or even contaminated. The disappearance of certain breeds indicates an ailing ecosystem and even that the area may not be ideal for human habitation.
In her mission to increase the general public's awareness of frogs and to prevent their further disappearance, Yang speaks regularly to elementary school teachers, encouraging them to incorporate frog research into their curriculums. She has also published a number of books on the subject detailing the 31 different types of frogs indigenous to Taiwan.
Then, a few years ago, Yang completed one of her life's works, an audio-recording of frog calls titled The Sound of Yangming Mountain-Frog Sounds. This recording was actually five years in the making due to the technical difficulties behind recording frog calls.
"Frogs are scared of humans so if I got near them they would stop calling out. Then I wouldn't be able to move for the next 20 to 30 minutes. After they realized I was not there to harm them, they would start happily singing again," says Yang.
Among other difficulties was the challenge of isolating one frog
call, since they often gather in groups. Then there were other
kinds of interference involved
in the recording process that
were beyond her control.
"Sometimes teenagers in the
area would have their boom boxes on full blast, or maybe it would begin raining. None of those recordings were usable," she says.
As Yang noticed on many of her recording outings, frogs are very receptive to car and motorcycle noises, singing out excitedly when they hear a vehicle passing by. Yang's observation led to an experiment in Mucha where different brands of scooters were driven by to find out which the frogs would be most responsive to. The verdict? Frogs prefer European-imported Vespas.
"It's probably because Vespa motors emit high-pitched noises," explains Yang. "(The frogs') response time to the sound of the Vespa was the quickest and their reaction the most intense." Meanwhile, Yang's husband Lee, whom she met as an undergraduate, is her trusty photographer on her nighttime outings into the wild. Her husband's affinity for photographing the creatures, however, has been the unlikely cause of some jealousy: "Ever since I began taking pictures of frogs, my wife has complained that I take less and less photos of her," says Lee, who now works as a medical doctor.
To her students and colleagues, Yang is known as "Mother Frog," and for good reason. Many years ago while on a field trip to Yangmingshan, she came upon a hot water spa. Her presence startled a brown frog in the area, which ended up jumping into the 37 degree Celsius water below. The frog passed out from the heat of the water, but Yang immediately pulled it out and gave it a little CPR by massaging its chest while simultaneously fanning it off. In no time, the frog jumped back to life.
"Maybe I was a frog in another life," says Yang with a half-serious, half-joking expression on her face.
Visit Yang's website at
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