Beloved Passover song due for an update

froggie
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If you’ve ever attended a (fun) seder, you know the song:

One morning when Pharoah woke in his bed
There were frogs on his head and frogs in his bed
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes
Frogs – here!
Frogs – there!
Frogs were jumping everywhere!

Sometimes I’m not sure where to draw the line between blogging and oversharing, and this is one of those times, but I will admit that every year (certain members of) my family sing(s) that very song while hopping around. On the floor. Usually twice. I’m not naming names.

In any event, the song could use some updating in light of recent scientific discoveries. Late last week, Australian scientists with “the Lazarus Project” announced they had taken the first crucial step in resurrecting an extinct species. But not just any species: Rheobatrachus silus.

In case that doesn’t ring a bell, it also goes by the name gastric-brooding frog. And if that sequence of words still doesn’t evoke anything, this image should do the trick:

gastric brooding frog

This isn’t a big frog swallowing a little frog (or even a little frog swallowing a tiny frog — look at the size of that thumb!); it’s a tiny frog emerging from its mother. Before we discuss how or why that’s happening, think for a moment of the second of the ten plagues, the one memorialized in the children’s song that kicked off this post:

And the LORD spoke unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh, and say unto him: Thus saith the LORD: Let My people go, that they may serve Me. And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs. And the river shall swarm with frogs, which shall go up and come into thy house, and into thy bed-chamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading-troughs. And the frogs shall come up both upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants. Exodus 7:25-29.

As the song says: frogs on his head and frogs in his bed and as the scripture adds: frogs in his river and frogs in his house and frogs in his ovens and frogs into his kneading-troughs — and now imagine frogs IN HIS FROGS. That’s right, if the gastric-brooding frog hadn’t been confined to Australia, Pharaoh might very well have had frogs coming out of frogs coming out of his ears. It’s a lovely thought, really.

And what if the frog wasn’t actually confined to Australia? Jenny (Pardon!) points out that maybe the Midrash was onto something, as cited by Rashi (via Chabad): “and the frogs came up: Heb. וַתַּעַל הַצְפַרְדֵעַ, literally, and the frog came up. It was one frog, and they [the Egyptians] hit it, and it split into many swarms of frogs. This is its midrashic interpretation (Tanchuma, Va’era 14).” Maybe the frog “split” — but maybe it just started coughing up other frogs! Maybe the Midrash forgot more science than you’ll ever know.

So let’s try our hand at some low-level relyricing:

One morning when Pharoah woke in his bed
There were frogs inside frogs on his head and frogs inside frogs in his bed
Frogs inside frogs on his nose and frogs inside frogs on his toes
Frogs inside frogs – here!
Frogs inside frogs– there!
Frogs inside frogs were jumping everywhere!

I think my proposed changes really add to the imagery. But they’re not the updates referenced in the title of this post.

I’m taking great pains to connect last week’s scientific achievement with Passover for the obvious reason that the holiday begins exactly one week from tonight. Indeed, you may recall my week-old post highlighting two other Biblical plagues that have made headlines in recent weeks: locusts in Egypt and fiery hail in Japan. I didn’t think I’d see a third plague making headlines this soon before the holiday, or I might have just held off and posted them all together.

But no matter. If you do remember that post, you may also recall that I did more than simply point out the eerie parallels between headlines and the Jewish calendar: I also forecast doom and gloom and endless future plagues if we don’t act on global warming. With one exception (yeah, I’m about to blockquote myself):

Sure, climate change will decrease frog (2) populations … but on balance, I don’t think we’re going to like it very much.

That hyperlink on the word “frog” goes to a seven year-old story in National Geographic, but — while it is certainly not expected to produce a plague of frogs anytime soon – climate change has been linked with amphibian decline for considerably longer than that. You might even think of climate change itself as a plague on frogs [in the Shakespearean sense].

I first became aware of the past existence of the gastric-brooding frog through the work of Tim Flannery, and — more specifically — his book, The Weather Makers. In a chapter devoted largely to the golden toad (which is thought to have gone extinct in the late 80s), he devoted roughly a page to documenting another species thought to have fallen victim to climate change [yes, I typed this all up by hand -- sure, I'd happily hire you as an intern]:

South Australian Museum researcher Steve Richards has documented a series of amphibian declines in the mossy mountain rain forests of eastern Australia. These began in the late 1970s, when a remarkable creature known as the gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus) disappeared from southeastern Queensland. When first discovered in 1973, this brown, medium-sized frog astonished the world. The surprise came when a researcher looked into a female frog’s open mouth — to observe a miniature frog sitting on her tongue! Not just the frog — scientists were open-mouthed too. This might lead the casual observer to think the species was cannibalistic, but this was not the case; it just had bizarre breeding habits. The female swallows her fertilized eggs, and the tadpoles develop in her stomach until they metamorphose into frogs, which she then regurgitates into the world.

When this novel method of reproduction was announced, some medical doctors understandable got very excited. How, they wondered, did the frog transform its stomach from an acid-filled digesting device into a nursery? They thought the answer might assist in treating a variety of stomach complaints. Alas, they were unable to carry out many experiments, for in 1979 — six years after its existence was announced to the world — the gastric brooding frog vanished, and with it went another inhabitant of the same streams, the day frog (Taudactylus diurnus). Neither has been seen since.

[At this point, the reader turns from page 119 to page 120 and is confronted with a closeup of the gastric-brooding frog next to a paperclip that takes up 2/3 of the page, accompanied by the caption: "Australia's gastric brooding frog nurtured its tadpoles in its stomach, which it somehow transformed from an organ of digestion into a brood chamber. The species may well be Australia's first victim of climate change." That picture -- its sudden appearance, the bizareness of what I was seeing, the beauty and senseless tragedy of it all -- left such a mark in my memory that I was able to stand up and pull The Weather Makers right off the shelf above my head -- even though I read it back in August 2006. For some perspective, I'd had Facebook for about four months by that time. Back to the book:]

Five years after the last gastric brooding frog hopped into oblivion, the discovery of another species in the same genus was announced. This one, Rheobatrachus vitellinus, lived farther north, on Queensland’s central coast. It was larger, but otherwise strikingly similar. You may have noticed that it lacks a common name [e.g. "gastric-brooding frog"], so it won’t be a surprise to learn that the herpetologists’ excitement was short-lived. Before it could be studied in detail, this species too could no longer be found — its existence as a known species was measured in months rather than years.

In the early 1990s, frogs began to disappear en masse from the rain forests of northern Queensland, and, as with the golden toad [in Costa Rica], these vanishings occurred in otherwise undisturbed rain forest. Today some sixteen frog species (13 percent of Australia’s total amphibian fauna) have experienced dramatic declines. The cause is still debated, but the climate change experienced in eastern Australia over the past few decades cannot have been good for the frogs, for a persistence of El Nino-like conditions has brought about a dramatic decline in Australia’s east coast rainfall. The latest analyses suggest that at least in the case of the gastric brooder and day frogs, climate change was the most likely cause of disappearance.

I’ve already offered some alternate lyrics to the frog song, reimagined to describe the Biblical plague of gastric frogs. But the truth is, if we don’t do something about global warming — and fast — we may have to rewrite it entirely, to explain for the children what a frog is in the first place. It’s so you ask questions, dear.

But don’t lose too much sleep over it (or turn out the light, though that might help with the losing sleep) — if we do a good enough job with the lyrics, why even bother bringing them back from extinction!

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