Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: It's springtime for the swingers of suburbia

Share

One of the most fascinating things we have learned about life in the past 50 years is that the principle purpose of all living things, in so far as they have a purpose at all, is to reproduce. It's an insight from evolutionary biology (if you want to explore it further, pick up Richard Dawkins's bestseller, The Selfish Gene).

And it certainly fits with what we can observe in the natural world, that reproduction is a pressing, not to say a frantic business, the most urgent of all activities, after escaping death at the hands of a predator. In myriad creatures, from dung flies to elephant seals, we see their urge to pass on genes into the next generation becoming so fierce that it invariably results, among males, in violence towards rivals.

Whereas we humans, we have generally tamed the basic reproductive urge, have we not? Civilised it. At least, we have in my part of the world. That's south-west London suburbia. There, if you try to display your basic reproductive urge in all its primal power, you will probably be arrested. In the suburbs, reproduction is kept under wraps.

Except for now.

Right now at the bottom of our suburban garden, with its neat lawn and its lilac tree just coming into leaf, sex is rampant. Couples are coupling with abandon, and not just couples: there are threesomes, foursomes, maybe even fivesomes going on – maybe, but after a certain point it becomes impossible to disentangle the flesh, to separate out the ecstatic bodies and the grasping arms and legs. It's like a swingers' convention in Florida. If you filmed it for a documentary, you'd have to show it after the watershed. Good job it's only frogs.

I reckon there are probably about 20 in the pond, maybe 30, maybe more. One spring, a few years back, in the most spectacular copulation carnival I ever did see, I stopped counting at 70, and the pond is no bigger than a circular dining table. That's the way frogs do it, the reproduction business – at least, that's the way our native species does it, the common frog, Rana temporaria: as soon as spring comes, they all assemble on the same watery dance floor, so to speak (sometimes travelling a fair distance to get there), and let desire take over.

The zoological term is explosive breeding. It's explosive all right, and it's fascinating beyond words, one of the few examples of the reproductive behaviour of a wild creature most of us will ever be able to observe: at the height of their passion the frogs are so preoccupied, you can approach them closely. A male grasps a female in an embrace from behind known as amplexus, until she drops her eggs, at which point he fertilises them (when they become frogspawn) and lets go.

However, males without females will try to dislodge the embracing males by clinging on to the couple themselves, and this can result in bundles of three or four or, indeed, even five desperate frogs forming a ball in the water like some bizarre stunt from a synchronised swimming gala.

It's most definitely a reason to have a garden pond. I find it one of the most engaging episodes of the year in the natural world, perhaps because it seems so incongruous in its surroundings. The suburbs are respectable. I will have you know that our suburban garden is an entirely respectable garden. Our pond is a respectable pond. It is calm and tranquil and offers no more unruly behaviour than the blue flash of a departing damselfly.

Apart, that is, for one wild week in March, when the celandines are out and the magnolias are blooming, for which we make allowances.

Alas, poor Clement...

Sad news for all those who have been following the remarkable odyssey of the five cuckoos – the birds fitted with satellite transmitters by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) last summer and tracked on their winter migration back to Africa. Clement, the first of the cuckoos to leave Britain, is dead.

His last known position was in Cameroon, more than 300 miles north-west of his wintering area in Congo – meaning that, like his four fellow birds, he had begun his journey back to Britain. But after nearly a month of silence, his final transmission on February 25 has been reanalysed by the BTO, and it shows that his body temperature had dropped significantly – which means he is no longer alive.

BTO scientists are keeping their fingers crossed that the other birds – Kasper, Lyster, Martin and Chris, currently in Ghana and the Ivory Coast – will make it back and be cuckooing in Britain a month from now.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Twitter:@mjpmccarthy

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing