Wildlife documentaries have been found to have a profound effect on our mood, boosting our positivity even under conditions as depressing as lockdown. It’s easy to see why, as via a screen you are transported to some of the most breath-taking and remote wild spaces on Earth. Documentaries such as David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet can plop some of the world’s most dangerous animals in the middle of your living room, but not all the show’s stars are so fearsome.
Enter the Marshmallow frog (Breviceps macrops). This unexpected desert dweller (the sandy place, not dessert – though marshmallows I suppose are at home in both) was introduced in episode three of the BBC's A Perfect Planet, which focused on weather. As a type of rain frog that favors moisture, the expanse of coastal deserts in South Africa might not seem like the most obvious habitat for this frog, but these animals are surprisingly well adapted to their surroundings.
“Its legs are paddle-like, it almost waddles across the sand like one of those wind-up swimming frogs," Assistant Producer at BBC Studios Natural History Unit Sarah Walsh told IFLScience. “Its toes are also webbed, which although common for the general frog as we know it is actually very unique to this type of frog. They also have a unique belly patch of very thin and absorbent skin. This means when they find wet sand, they can just touch their belly to it and it will absorb the moisture through their skin.”
Unfortunately, as little legs giveth they also taketh away and at full pelt this round frog can only travel a maximum distance of 38 meters (124 feet) in its waking day. Its movement is also limited to night time, when the Moon brings cool relief from the beating midday Sun, so it must choose those 38 meters wisely.
An oasis for these animals is any form of moisture, and termites are as good a place as any to start in the desert. Unfortunately, when you’re a little frog with questionable reflexes, catching even bugs that crawl across your face can be a struggle. The comical sequence delivered with the tongue-in-cheek narration for which Attenborough is famous sees a small but determined female marshmallow frog strutting her stuff in pursuit of food and a mate, two things that aren’t easy to come by as a little frog in a giant desert.
After following the distinctive call of males looking for love, our determined Marshmallow is rewarded with a little backpack in the form of a mate. Like many couples in the animal kingdom, it’s the female of the species who is gifted with girth while the male looks miniature by comparison. Mating is particularly pressing for Marshmallows, who have been suffering from widespread drought since 2015, some of the worst in history for the region. Finding water is hard enough for these animals when conditions are favorable, and the ever-changing weather is bringing them to the brink as what little moisture is left evaporates.
She may look comical, and the nickname Marshmallow doesn’t exactly command respect, but after spending some time observing these hardy animals Walsh believes there’s a lot we could learn from this little frog. “Patience is a virtue, these little frogs are really the most patient creatures I have met, and that’s something we can all learn from especially while waiting for lockdown restrictions to end and the pandemic to become under control,” said Walsh. “They patiently wait underground for those foggy nights where they might be able to get some hydration and then patiently call out and hope they find a mate. The population is small and their habitat very vast, they really have to have the patience and hope that they get lucky.... literally.”