Look at this mass of white jelly floating in a bowl of pond water. It is clear and delicate, formed of little globes the size of pease, held together in one rounded mass. In each globe is a black dot.
I have it all in my room, and I watch it every day. Before a week passes, the black dots have lengthened into little fishy bodies, each lying curled in his globe of jelly, for these globes are eggs, and these dots are soon to be little living animals; we will see of what kind.
Presently they begin to jerk backwards and forwards, and perform such simple gymnastics as the small accommodations of the egg will allow; and at last one morning, to my delight, I find two or three of the little things free from the egg, and swimming like so many tiny fishes in my bowl of water. How fast they come out now; five this morning, but twenty to-night, and thrice as many to-morrow! The next day I conclude that the remaining eggs will not hatch, for they still show only dull, dead-looking dots: so reluctantly I throw them away, wash out my bowl, and fill it anew with pond water. But, before doing this, I had to catch all my little family, and put them safely into a tumbler to remain during their house-cleaning. This was hard work; but I accomplished it with the help of a teaspoon, and soon restored them to a fresh, clean home.
It would be difficult to tell you all their history; for never did little things grow faster, or change more wonderfully, than they.
One morning I found them all arranged round the sides of the bowl in regular military ranks, as straight and stiff as a company on dress parade. It was then that I counted them, and discovered that there were just sixty-two.
You would think, at first sight, that these sixty-two brothers and sisters were all exactly alike; but, after watching them a while, you see that one begins to distinguish himself as stronger and more advanced than any of the others,—the captain, perhaps, of the military company. Soon he sports a pair of little feathery gills on each side of his head, as a young officer might sport his mustache; but these gills, unlike the mustache, are for use as well as for ornament, and serve him as breathing tubes.
How the little fellows grow! no longer a slim little fish, but quite a portly tadpole with rounded body and long tail, but still with no expression in his blunt-nosed face, and only two black-looking pits where the eyes are to grow.
The others are not slow to follow their captain's example. Day after day some new little fellow shows his gills, and begins to swim by paddling with his tail in a very stylish manner.
And now a sad thing happens to my family of sixty-two,—something which would never have happened had I left the eggs at home in their own pond; for there there are plenty of tiny water-plants, whose little leaves and stems serve for many a delicious meal to young tadpoles. I did not feed them, not knowing what to give them, and half imagining that they could live very well upon water only; and so it happened that one morning, when I was taking them out with a spoon as usual, to give them fresh water, I counted only fifty. Where were the others?
At the bottom of the bowl lay a dozen little tails, and I was forced to believe that the stronger tadpoles had taken their weaker brothers for supper.
I didn't like to have my family broken up in this way, and yet I didn't at that time know what to give them: so the painful proceeding was not checked; and day after day my strongest tadpoles grew even stronger, and the tails of the weaker lay at the bottom of the bowl.
The captain throve finely, had clear, bright eyes, lost his feathery gills, and showed through his thin skin that he had a set of excellent legs folded up inside. At last, one day, he kicked out the two hind ones, and after that was never tired of displaying his new swimming powers. The fore-legs following in due time; and when all this was done, the tail, which he no longer needed to steer with, dropped off, and my largest tadpole became a little frog.
His brothers and sisters, such of them as were left (for, I grieve to say, he had required a great many hearty meals to enable him to reach the frog state), followed his illustrious example as soon as they were able; and then, of course, my little bowl of water was no suitable home for them; so away they went out into the grass, among the shallow pools, and into the swamps. I never knew exactly where; and I am afraid that, should I meet even my progressive little captain again, I should hardly recognize him, so grown and altered he would be. He no longer devours his brothers, but, with a tongue as long as his body, seizes slugs and insects, and swallows them whole.
In the winter he sleeps with his brothers and sisters, with the bottom of some pond or marsh for a bed, where they all pack themselves away, hundreds together, laid so closely that you can't distinguish one from another.
But early in the spring you may hear their loud croaking; and when the March sun has thawed the ice from the ponds, the mother-frogs are all very busy with their eggs, which they leave in the shallow water,—round jelly-like masses, like the one I told you of at the beginning of this story, made up of hundreds and hundreds of eggs. For the frog mother hopes for a large family of children, and she knows, by sad experience, that no sooner are they born than the fishes snap them up by the dozen; and even after they have found their legs, and begin to feel old, and competent to take care of themselves, the snakes and the weasels will not hesitate to take two or three for breakfast, if they come in the way. So you see the mother-frog has good reason for laying so many eggs.
The toads too, who, by the way, are cousins to the frogs, come down in April to lay their eggs also in the water,—long necklaces of a double row of fine transparent eggs, each one showing its black dot, which is to grow into a tadpole, and swim about with its cousins, the frog tadpoles, while they all look so much alike that I fancy their own mothers do not know them apart.
I once picked up a handful of them, and took them home. One grew up to be a charming little tree-toad, while some of his companions gave good promise, by their big awkward forms, of growing by and by into great bull-frogs.