The Awesomeness of Singing About Frogs, Toads, and Newts


How do you celebrate the 7,000th amphibian species? You stomp your feet, and clap your hands!


According to the song, Dyscophus Antongilii is "tomato-like and red." (Flickr / Frank Vassen & Robinson Meyer)

To work! To celebration! And then: to work, again.

Such is life for the planet's amphibian biologists. Across the globe, populations of the beasts that hop and creep have been falling, victims of the same pollution and ecological change that threaten all life. But as they've declined, humanity's understanding of them has risen and flourished. In 2000, when David Wake, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, founded AmphibiaWeb, only 3,000 species of amphibians were known.

Today, the site celebrated finding its 7,000th species of amphibian. And it did so in the best way possible: with a song.

The song's by the Wiggly Tendrils, a band that uses music to tell stories, and it's delightful. At only a minute and a half long, it's worth a little listen for its acoustic twang and charming back-up singers. "Dyscophus Antongilii," it turns out, can sit rather nicely in meter.

And what a pleasant way to celebrate and commemorate an anuran, urodelan, and gymnophionan milestone. Finding 7,000 kinds of amphibians didn't come easily: Every two and a half days, a scientist committed to the literature a new species. New discoveries sometimes came in spurts. Sri Lanka, a few years back, yielded 50 new types.


Pipa pipa, in the words of the Wiggly Tendrils, "hatches larva in its back." (Hugo Claessen)

So why not sing about it? The historic record is as open to musical contributions as it is to those printed or filmed. Story tellers throughout history have encouraged their communities through a dynamic mix of speech, prose and song. In the distant past, Scotland had its makar, and West Africa its griot; in the past century, Tom Zé pioneered sung journalism in Brazil. Nonfiction has always flourished in a diversity of forms.

On the web, such diversity is possible under a single, well-distributed roof. Hence David Holmes, whose company, ExplainerMusic, has explained the nuances of both fracking for ProPublica and the dot-com bubble for PandoDaily. Holmes understands his craft as an arm of explanatory journalism, and his goal as building a huge library of helpful, issue-based songs. The Wiggly Tendrils, on the other hand, are more interested here in marking a moment and celebrating a scientific achievement.

Both are valid, and both testify to the diversity of stories and forms that can co-exist on the web -- to how humanizing story-telling can draw on the past even as it strives forward. In fact, one might proclaim (if one is in a particularly bold mood) that journalism and amphibian science find themselves in a similar place. Fear, crisis and anxiety roused a sleepy field and pushed it forward. New knowledge and daring innovation has bloomed, people have worked harder than ever before, and new heights have been reached.

But the discipline remains threatens and hard work lies ahead. So what better way -- for documenters of biodiversity, natural gas drilling or anything else -- to find rest and release in a tuneful celebration, and then to move on and commit to harder, better, greater work?

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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