Everyone knows the government counts people. There’s the short form, there’s the long form, and I recently learned that some people get a return visit or call to ask the questions again, as a form of quality control. (If the answers don’t match in too many cases, that’s an indication that the results of the census as a whole aren’t too reliable.) Some people willingly cooperate, others resent what they perceive as governmental overreach.
But did you know the government counts frogs and toads? If you think the census of people has some quality issues, just imagine what it’s like trying to get all the country’s frogs and toads to stand up and be counted. As the article on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal explains, frogs are shy. And the frog census workers have to make their visits at night, when the frogs are up and about. In the dark they can’t very well count noses (do frogs have noses?). Instead, they listen in on the frogs’ calls. (No warrant required.)
Their mating calls, that is. Each species has a distinct mating call, and the listeners try to estimate the abundance of each species by the volume of their calls. This is highly imprecise, both because listeners can under- or overestimate the numbers behind the sounds they hear, and – as the Ribbit Radio demonstrates – they mistake one specie’s call for another. (Then there’s the matter of frogs that just don’t feel “in the mood” for mating and don’t make any calls – but I have no idea how common that is, and probably the frog experts don’t either.)
I’m sure I would be a very poor frog census taker. I have enough trouble recognizing voices of people I know on the telephone (though with caller ID at least I have a better idea who’s calling than I used to). I’m sure I would score poorly on the online test used to check the abilities of potential frog-counters. (Not to mention that I wouldn’t feel safe out alone at night.)
Oh, and in case you haven’t read the linked article, and you’re wondering why in the world the government spends money counting amphibians, there are some valid reasons.
Frogs have sensitive skins, so their changing population helps scientists track pollution, disease and other ecological maladies. Other research has indicated a sharp and somewhat mysterious decline in amphibians around the world, which helped spur the American census.