Monday, October 27, 2008

Coquis in California

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When I arrived in LA in September 2007, the first thing I asked my friends was if they had any good leads. Matt, who was born in Puerto Rico, said he suspected that a breed of frog thought only to live on the island and Hawaii was inhabiting a hotel pool at Disneyland.

So when an Orange County toga party turned out to be lame, we headed for that place of which children dream. Sure enough we heard the distinct call of the coqui. Seeing no one around we began to look for them in the plants, soon discovering the might of Disneyland's video security. We were politely ejected.

Finding no interest from the LA Times, I turned to San Juan and its illustrious Star which once famously did not hire a young Hunter S. Thompson. In these dark days for print media, freelance payment for one-off jobs is often late and I was warned by my editor--bless him--that it would be.

About once a month for the last year I wrote to request my payment and a copy of the story since it wasn't posted online (although it did appear in print--Matt's parents saw it). This last time, my email bounced and I discovered that the Star had gone under. Truly a loss.

But, to my knowledge it has not yet been documented anywhere on the Web that Puerto Rico's national frog lives at the Neverland Pool. Below is what I sent to the Star more than a year ago.

Coquí-fornia

A coquí colony has emerged in Southern California

By Jason Simms

The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, is one of the most controlled environments in the world. A piece of litter among the Snow White impersonators and Mickey Mouse sculptures will be caught on a security camera and removed seconds after it falls.

Yet somehow this meticulously maintained environment has proved to be the breeding ground--quite literally--for a very surprising fluke. An unknown number of coquí frogs inhabit the tropical garden surrounding the Neverland Pool, a swimming pool that serves the resort’s hotels.

According to Disneyland spokesperson Bob Tucker, the resort has no idea how the frogs—which were once believed only to be able to survive in Puerto Rico—found their way to the pool. A guest might have brought them from the island, but as Tucker notes, “That would be a long ride in a suitcase.” He conjectures that the coquís were transported on one of the pool’s many imported plants.

It is also unknown how long the frogs have been in California. “We just recently noticed them,” says Tucker who adds that some groundskeepers and security guards recall hearing their unmistakable call as far back as three years ago.

This is the first known instance of coquís living on the mainland. Other than the Isle of Enchantment, the only other place the quarter-sized frogs are known to live is Hawaii, where in the last decade their numbers have exploded. According to a 2005 National Geographic article, the volume and frequency of the frog’s call has hurt the Hawaiian tourist industry and driven the locals mad to the point of launching chemical campaigns to kill the frogs.

Could the same thing happen on the mainland? “Southern California is too dry in the summer and too cool in the winter to imagine coquí frogs could spread so wildly there,” says Professor William Mautz, who is researching the coquí at the University of Hawaii. He explains the frog’s ability to survive at Disneyland thusly: “They might establish small breeding populations in spots that are sheltered and irrigated.”

Plus, Californians don’t appear to be as easily bothered as Hawaiians. “Some guests have commented they kind of like the ambiance,” says Tucker.

The frogs were first brought to the attention of this reporter by Mathew Mehne, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican-born resident of nearby Fullerton, California. He first heard the Californian coquís when he visited a bar at the resort last fall.

“To me it’s totally exciting,” Mehne says when asked how he feels about the presence of coquís at Disneyland. “What was sad to me was when they turned up in Hawaii. Not only did it dispel the legend that [the frogs] could only live in Puerto Rico, but they are treated like pests there.”

He adds that the frogs seem happy at Disneyland, since they sing so frequently (you could hear 8-10 calls per minute on a recent warm night). Mehne contrasts the high number of calls to the relatively few he heard during his last visit to the island during a drought last March.

Photo: Coquis live here. Can you hear them? By me.

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