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Hawaiians Lose Sleep Over Tiny Frog With Big Voice


October 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.


This type of tree frog, known as coquí in Puerto Rico, weighs less than a seeded grape. Males issue a high-pitched shriek when vying for females.
[PHOTO: Cory Lum for The New York Times]


HONOLULU – The high-pitched shriek – co-KEE! co-KEE! co- KEE! – was piercing enough to awaken Gail Souza in the middle of the night.

At first, she thought it was the cry of a tropical bird, perhaps belonging to the family next door. But when that family moved several weeks later and the shrieks persisted – indeed, they seemed to grow only more frequent – Mrs. Souza was baffled. She was also not sleeping.

It wasn't until months later, when she and another exhausted neighbor summoned wildlife officials to their ordinarily tranquil suburb, that the mystery was solved.

The cause of their sleep deprivation was found to be a male tree frog that, until recently, was rarely seen outside Puerto Rico. It weighs less than a seeded grape and is usually smaller than the face of a quarter, yet it can be as loud as a lawn mower when its voice is joined by other males competing for the attention of a female.

But identifying the nocturnal mating call that was keeping Mrs. Souza and her neighbors awake has been far easier than silencing it.

More than a hundred of the frogs, the oldest of which probably hitch- hiked to Hawaii on imported houseplants, have established a beachhead in the eucalyptus trees and moist gullies of Mrs. Souza's neighborhood, known as Wahiawa, and several others here on Oahu. And on an island that prizes its silence – Hawaiians, for example, rarely hit their car horns – these vocal visitors have not exactly been greeted with a flowery lei and a kiss on the cheek.

Indeed, an informal task force of federal and state officials has been convened to address the problem. It is considering killing the frogs the only way that has proved effective in a laboratory: by spraying acres of their borrowed habitat with concentrated caffeine. The frogs would be stimulated to death.

"If you can get rid of them, you should," said Harry Ako, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Hawaii, who helped develop what is essentially a lethal cup of coffee, spiked by a pesticide intended for chrysanthemums. "They have no natural enemies. Unchecked, you never know what's going to happen."

But the proposal to save Hawaii from being overrun by tree frogs has angered some Puerto Ricans, both here and as far away as Puerto Rico itself, where the frogs are omnipresent and often beloved. There, they are called coquí, a phonetic approximation of the sound they make.

"Obviously, it's something that requires getting used to," said Kenneth McClintock, the minority leader of the Puerto Rican Senate, who hears the frogs from dusk to dawn at his home in the mountains south of San Juan. "But after some time, it becomes music to your ears."

Of the plans being readied in Hawaii to eliminate the frog, Senator McClintock added, "If anyone suggested that here in Puerto Rico, they would be unanimously condemned."

But while Senator McClintock said he missed the sound of the frog when he traveled, people here cannot relate.

"The frogs have driven our whole neighborhood nuts," said Mrs. Souza, who runs a small nursery in her backyard, and who may have unknowingly imported the first of the amphibians to her neighborhood. "We learned to sleep with the air- conditioner and the television on. But it just masks it. You still hear them no matter what."

Mrs. Souza has been unnerved by reports that the frogs, while new to Oahu, have proliferated in recent years on Hawaii's less populated outer islands. On the Big Island of Hawaii, for example, thousands of the frogs now occupy a state park. In some instances, home sales have been jeopardized when the frogs were discovered nearby.

While government officials weigh the merits and logistics of eradicating the frogs, teams of biologists fan into Wahiawa several nights a month to give Mrs. Souza and her neighbors temporary relief. They have sought to catch the frogs by hand. Over the summer, they apprehended more than 70 males. But because the females can lay several eggs at a time and are difficult to see because they make no sound, the frogs have continued to multiply.

On a recent night, Leila Gibson, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, patrolled the neighborhood at dusk. She was armed with a clear plastic bag. If she caught a frog, she intended to put in a freezer, where it would grow sleepy and die.

Though she empathized with Mrs. Souza's insomnia, Ms. Gibson's primary motivation was different. Like Dr. Ako, she worried that the frogs posed a danger to the surrounding environment, including several species of native spiders and crickets.

Just after 7 p.m., as a light mist fell, an unmistakable voice cried out from behind Mrs. Souza's wood- frame house: co-KEE! co-KEE! co- KEE! Turning on her blue flashlight and falling in behind a colleague in camouflage pants, Ms. Gibson sprinted toward the woods. But the coquí went silent.

Soon after, the team heard another sound: click-click-click-click.

It was only a gecko.

A moment later, there was a soft gurgling noise. Ms. Gibson and her colleague, Fred Amidon, exchanged puzzled looks.

"Coffee maker," Mr. Amidon finally said.

At one point, Ms. Gibson sought to coax a shriek by playing a tape recording of another male, whom a real frog might perceive as a competitor.

But her prey remained quiet and out of sight, nestled in the rough brush at the base of the strand of eucalyptus. After almost two hours, Ms. Gibson climbed into her black Nissan and drove home, her bag empty.

On this night, at least, the frog had won.


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