The shrill, whistling chorus of the spring peepers, a brief recorded sample of which is provided below, normally begins to swell in marshy areas along the Trail a week or so before the vernal equinox, and is one of our area’s earliest signs of the advent of the season.
Prince Maximilian’s scientific description of the spring peeper:
An explanation of the scientific designation of the (northern) spring peeper
“Pseudacris,” the genus (the first part of a scientific name, or taxon, normally derived from Greek), means “false cricket” (or locust, or grasshopper — the Greeks did not rigorously distinguish these). The cry of the NOVA peeper, which is entirely the product of the hormone-driven male defending a tiny plot of muck as it seeks to attract a mate, deceptively (pseudo-) suggests that of certain types of cricket (acris); the similarity is readily apparent to anyone who has ever heard thousands of overlapping cries during the great chorusings of early spring. “Crucifer,” the species (and second portion of a taxon, normally derived from Latin), means “cross-bearing,” after the fact that the back of the frog is marked with an “X” that is more or less irregular in shape. (The repetition of “crucifer,” which extends the bi- to a trinomial, indicates that our frog is a distinct subspecies.) So, the combination of Greek and Latin elements is intended to telegraph a succinct description of the frog in question — and does so successfully, in fact, although, for want of common study of the so-called classical languages that had already begun to evaporate from curricula after World War I, increasing numbers of not only scientists but also both scholars and intelligent laypersons have come to find such encoding obscure.
Alexander Philipp Maximilian (1782-1867) was a Prussian aristocrat, prince of Wied-Neuwied, which was a very small state that was eventually confederated into the German Empire formed in 1871 under Otto von Bismarck. A naturalist largely self-taught (not at all unusual in that era) and explorer, Prince Maximilian first undertook to describe the spring peeper scientifically in print. Because he had frequently observed the frogs, those further to the American west and north where he travelled, in bushes and small trees, the prince himself originally selected “Hyla” (which is derived from the Greek word for “forest” or “woodland”) as the name of the genus. When it was later noted, however, that similar frogs in Virginia and elsewhere prefer the ground, for reasons of taxonomic precision two additional genera came to be distinguished from Hyla (treefrogs): Acris (cricket frogs) and Pseudacris (chorus frogs).
“Prince Max,” as he is referred to more casually by modern zoologists (now scientists, of course, and naturalists no longer), undertook two daring expeditions during his long life: in 1815-17 he traveled in southeastern Brazil, and in 1832-34 in North America (chiefly along the Ohio and Missouri Rivers). For the latter journey he commissioned the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) to accompany him so that a detailed visual record might be available to enhance substantially the prince’s extensive notebooks, the texts of which, upon the return to Europe, were to be organized, revised, and polished for publication. Bodmer not only succeeded in creating an impressive collection of images of flora and fauna (to include those of the spring peepers near the top of this page) but also produced an array of detailed, distinctly unromanticized representations of the daily life, customs, and rituals of a number of Indian tribes. Incorporated into the extensive pictorial record were carefully crafted vignettes, portraits of individuals and groups, and meticulously detailed tableaux of textiles, utensils, weaponry, etc., among which are found jealously protected ritual objects such as the two containers shown immediately below. While the one on the top left, wrought from the corpse of a skunk, may be a medicine — or sacred — bundle, the intricately folded wrapper of animal skin or cloth (on the right, and enlarged just below) fixed to a shield held by an Assiniboin(e) warrior is certainly such a container:
Images of this sort and the lucid observations in Wied-Neuwied’s written account continue to retain considerable ethnographic value in view of the fact that the native material culture, never conceived by its creators to consist of more or less impersonal objects destined for preservation in a museum, was either ritually dispersed or, through pilfering by non-native settlers, scattered — if not simply obliterated — in the course of the westward expansion of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, it will also almost certainly remain beyond the power of ongoing archaeological research to recover anything more than an approximate inventory of accurate details concerning the tribal ceremonies and associated lore of Wied-Neuwied’s era. Although any modern student of aboriginal religions (throughout both the Americas and the world at large) would be quite aware that fetishes are believed to be imbued with immense power and lie at the very heart of tribal spirituality, the fashioning of the bundle itself and the selection of its contents were normally shrouded, quite deliberately, in great secrecy. In fact, the gathering ritual was – and remains, for a number of those who continue to reenact it – a religious one. While it may be reasonably speculated that the bones, viscera, etc. of various species of toad and frog were at least possible candidates for inclusion among the contents of the bundle, any medicinal properties that were attributed to such simples would have been fundamentally indistinguishable from the spiritual — even if, like the drugs of the modern scientific pharmacopoeia, the ability of the substance to cure or to kill depended on the dosage administered. More importantly, a certain logic would have informed the choice of an amphibian like the spring peeper: doubly liminal, this frog also undergoes a metamorphosis that allows its adult form to move freely between the wet and the dry of the marshland that it inhabits. The relics of such an uncanny creature, then, would quite easily have come to be regarded as especially numinous agents of transformation, especially efficacious tools whose employment in a system of magical practices inextricably intertwined religion with a very practical and encyclopedic knowledge of the genuinely medicinal properties of things found in nature.
Upon returning to Europe, the prince spent several years preparing his material and publishing short, scientific papers based on his notes and observations, until, between 1839 and 1841, he published a two-volume study, Reise in das Innere Nord-America in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834 (Journey into the Interior of North America, 1832 to 1834), in which there appeared the first effort, whose text is located near the top of this page, to describe the spring peeper and to provide it with a Linnaean binomial.
The prince expired peacefully in his homeland at the age of 84, having lived an unusually long life for a man who took very unusual risks. Although he seems almost miraculously to have avoided contracting any of a wide range of exotic tropical diseases (dengue, malaria, yellow fever, etc.) during his earlier extended exploration of Brazil, he had apparently lost most of his teeth to scurvy by the time he concluded his travels in North America, largely because his diet had consisted almost exclusively of heavily salted meats and dried grain, foods that resist spoilage quite well but are nutritionally deficient in vitamin C.