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A Harlequin frog at the Shedd Aquarium. The exhibit includes newly developed acrylic tanks designed to put the animals on display while letting them think they’re hiding. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune)
Eye of newt? Check. Toe of frog? Yes, lots of those. It’s not a medieval potion Shedd Aquarium has cooked up, however, or an ingredients list for the witches of “Macbeth.” It’s a new, special exhibit called “Amphibians,” a bright, closely detailed look at the coldblooded, skin-breathing, water-loving, slimy, mostly tetrapod vertebrates.
Frogs, salamanders and the earthworm-resembling caecilians — the three major amphibian groups — greet visitors at every turn. Well, not greet exactly. But they’re in there, 40 species in 30 terrains ranging from Illinois roadside to African savanna, from Japanese river to tropical rainforest, a few in overhead tanks.
“There’s such a diversity in a relatively small space,” said Kris Nesbitt, director of exhibits. “These are worlds in and of themselves.”
Half the fun of “Amphibians” is playing “Where’s Waldo?” trying to spot critters such as the hellbender and the mudpuppy in their habitats, including newly developed acrylic tanks specially designed to put the animals on display while letting them think they’re hiding.
Another portion of the fun is saying such names as “hellbender” and “mudpuppy,” both big salamanders that inhabit Illinois, and learning that the hellbender has also been known as “American dragon” and — you won’t easily forget this one — “snot otter.”
Some of the amphibians, like Waldo in his striped hat, are brightly colored on the exterior; this usually means they’re poisonous. Some are blenders, like the Surinam horned toad, which buries all but its giant mouth and waits for prey to pass.
The last time the Shedd filled this space it came up with “Jellies,” an examination of the watery blobs that was both biology and art exhibit. The show was a hit, a “temporary” exhibition that ran for almost four years.
So it’s safe to surmise the aquarium has big aspirations for its amphibians show, also designed and executed in-house. It certainly looks as polished and ready for prime time as “Jellies.” If anything, there’s even more here to absorb, although not, in the case of humans, through our skin.
“Amphibians are a good story,” said Mark Schick, the aquarium’s collections manager for special exhibits. “It’s animals you don’t see a lot of, but there are actually thousands of species. I like their adaptations in general. Breathing through their skin, that’s like a science-fiction movie.”
One frog species sees one adult stick the eggs to the other adult’s back. Skin grows around them, and then the baby frogs emerge. “If that’s not the most alien thing you’ve ever seen,” Schick said, watching a video of it.
Wood frogs, common in Illinois, can just freeze up for the winter, hard as an ice cube. There are real wood frogs aplenty in the show, room temperature, and there’s a time-lapse video of one thawing out.
Some amphibians eat the skin they regularly shed, maybe to hide it, maybe for nutrients, maybe because they can. “All newts have skin that oozes poison,” says a wall card, while another informs us that one newt variety is about 10 times as toxic in adolescence as in adulthood. That sounds about right.
Amphibians are also a good story because of the extreme changes most go through from youth, or tadpole, stage to adulthood. “It’s almost a different species altogether when it’s born,” Schick said. An overhead tank teems with tadpoles.
Visitors will learn that lizards are not amphibians, an apparently common misconception, and that there really isn’t a distinction between “frog” and “toad.” All newts, meanwhile, are salamanders, but not vice versa.
The show is full of advice to people who want to help amphibians. The whole last section deals with amphibians in a changing world. And it does talk, briefly, about the chytrid fungus that hardens amphibians’ skin, along with other threats worldwide to the animals, whose permeable skin makes them a good environmental barometer.
But it is surprisingly quiet on the subject of frog deformities, perhaps because the issue has proven to be more complex than the frequent initial hypothesis of chemical pollutants causing the malformed limbs.
There’s also a line to walk in such an exhibition, explained Nesbitt.
“We didn’t want people to connect with the animals and then just be depressed and frustrated,” she said. “We’re trying to be sunny and optimistic here.”
Unless, that is, you are an Australian visiting this show. Down under, the softball-size cane toad is a major pest, messing with the native ecosystem and emitting poison strong enough to kill dogs. In the Shedd special exhibit, it’s a star, along with the similarly huge, similarly stolid African bullfrog.
“They’re hard not to like. Look at that grumpy face,” Schick said of the cane toad. “They’ll just sit there. They don’t care.” Cane toads, in this view, are the honey badger of the amphibian world.
Perched across from each other, these two megafrogs look ready to rumble. Nearby is an even bigger amphibian, several thick feet of giant Japanese salamander. But it has a flaw. The giant salamander, visitors learn, “relies on touch and smell, not its tiny, weak eyes.”
As for the African bullfrog, Wikipedia offers this tidbit that somehow didn’t make it onto Shedd’s wall cards: “In a single-sex environment, the African bullfrog can switch sexes.” Attempts to confirm this, however, came up with a scientific paper suggesting it is a type of African tree frog that is a documented sex changer. Either way, it’s very 2015.
When: Saturday through 2017
Where: Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included in Shedd Pass Plus ($35.95), 312-939-2438 and http://www.sheddaquarium.org
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