FROG AFICIONADOS LEAP TO RESCUE OF VANISHING CROAKERS.
Consider the obvious handicaps of frogs: they are ugly, squat and live in places that evoke images of politicians at their sleaziest. Pond scum is their home.
Yet, warts and all, the four-legged amphibian's profile has never been higher. At a time when anurans (frogs, toads and similar amphibians) are disappearing from the Earth at an alarming rate, frogs have improbably attained a rank of animal celebrity once reserved only for the cute and cuddly.
Last month, after congressional Republicans agreed to lift a year-old moratorium on new additions to the list of endangered species, the California red-legged frog joined wolves, eagles and grizzly bears among the list of creatures given federal protection. It was the first species to be listed after the moratorium ended.
The selection by the Clinton administration of the red-legged frog, the amphibian celebrated by Mark Twain in his story about a legendary leaper in this old Gold Rush town, attests in part to the surge of frogophilia sweeping the land.
Frogs are on fancy shirts, restaurant doors and wine labels. When Anheuser-Busch decided to lose the obnoxious partying people and roll out a cast of toads for its big Super Bowl ads two years ago, the response was phenomenal. Today, the beer maker says, more people drink Bud because they saw a bunch of toads get their tongues stuck on beer trucks.
The Internet has become a big habitat for frogs, too. Many neighborhoods are without real frog sounds, but on the World Wide Web, virtual croaks are ubiquitous. On the Froggy Page(http://www.cs.yale.edu/HTML/YALE/CS/HyPlans/loosemore-sandra/froggy .html) browsers get frog jokes, frog fables, frog gossip and answers to commonly asked frog questions.
Kermit ``It's Not Easy Bein' Green'' the Frog, has appeared at the Oxford Debating Society, and last month gave a commencement speech at the Southhampton College of Long Island University. It wasn't a completely smooth lily-pad ride for Kermit, however. One student at Southhampton, Samantha Chie, complained about laboring for five years ``only to have a sock talking to us at our commencement.''
The children's book series featuring Frog and Toad, two grumpy anurans, has become a huge seller, rivaling the Curious George books.
Even U.S. senators now try to cloak themselves in the frog's glow. At a news conference in which he announced his relationship with the gossip reporter Claudia Cohen, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York said, ``I feel like the frog that was kissed by the princess.''
The pair has since broken up, and D'Amato has not made any recent personal references to the amphibian world.
Behind the frog's popularity is this paradox: it seems that many things human and wild become objects of infatuation just when they are dying out. Indians became icons only after the last free-roaming tribe was effectively wiped out at Wounded Knee more than a century ago. Wolves were big, bad predators, with bounties on their heads, until they vanished from all but a handful of states.
Frog populations are now plummeting around the world. In North America, it is estimated that one-third of the continent's 86 species of frogs and toads are in trouble.
Like canaries in mines, frogs in nature are considered an indicator species - their decline signals a loss of life and biodiversity throughout an area. Along the Wasatch Range in Utah, for example, Mormon pioneers knew that clean water could be found wherever frogs existed. They followed the croaks.
Today, rana pretiosa (the pretty spotted frog), a once common species, is disappearing from Utah - a victim, biologists say, of pesticide spraying, cattle grazing and draining of wetlands for new housing developments.
In fighting to save endangered species, scientists have always bemoaned the fact that it is the good-looking animals - the so-called charismatic megafauna - that get all the attention, while the uglier, slimier critters become metaphors for the environmental movement in Pat Buchanan's stump speeches.
Maybe the frog has taken a leap up the ladder of public approval.
``My guess is that the Fish and Wildlife Service picked red-legged frogs as the first species to be protected since the moratorium was listed because they are really in trouble,'' said Rodger Schlickeisen, director of the Defenders of Wildlife.
``But if they can bring around critics of the Endangered Species Act, I'm all for it. We all grew up as kids with frogs.''