The rainy season paid no attention to the calendar and the downpours continued. The water was high at the Madre Selva field station, high enough to reach the steps of the kitchen tambo, and to leave the station’s generator on its own island. The boats were tied up close to the kitchen, and one night, Dan Wylie spotted something sculling along the bottom next to the skiff. “Pipa!” he shouted, but he could not get hands on it before it scooted away into deeper water.
A few nights later, we were paddling down the Rio Orosa, coming back after a night of chasing black caiman back in the varzea, and I spotted my first Pipa pipa as it swam under my dugout. Months later the image remains in my mind’s eye, a ghostly pale frog-wraith flapping rhythmically in the light of my head lamp. I probably saw it for no more than three or four seconds, just long enough for a tease, enough to make me wish for more.
Back at the station later that night, Dan got a second chance at what perhaps was the same Pipa that eluded him, and this time he got it in hand. I was expecting a palm-sized creature, but here was a dinner plate of a frog, with skin the texture and color of a hellbender, and the same tiny eyes too. Placed in a tub of water in the kitchen tambo for safekeeping, it escaped; I came in later and followed its wide, wet trail to a corner. We gave it a more secure enclosure and in the morning took pictures.
‘Suriname Toad’ is a poor common name for a frog found across much of the northern third of South America. Pipa pipa resides with other genera in the frog family Pipidae, a tongue-less and primitive group that includes the small ‘water frogs’ commonly seen in pet stores. The word Pipa comes from the Portuguese word for ‘kite’ which leads to some interesting mental images. The males have no vocal sacs, calling to females by clicking a hyoid bone in the throat. Their most famous characteristic, featured often in print and film, involves how the young are reared. As she executes a complicated looping maneuver, the fertilized eggs attach to the female’s dorsum, where they sink into the skin. Once encapsulated. the tadpoles develop and later emerge from under the skin as fully developed little frogs. Our Pipa, with a body easily six inches in length, showed no sign of egg intrusion; perhaps it was a male, or a female not yet gone through the breeding cycle.
The hind limbs on our specimen were strong, with fully webbed toes, as one might expect from a fully aquatic frog. The long front toes were interesting – they ended in little star-like appendages, which probably serve as sensory apparatuses. They put me in mind of the tubercles and barbels sported by hellbenders and some aquatic turtles. Whether the special star toes are just curb-feelers, or function on a higher sensory level, I do not know. There is no doubt that Pipa are bottom snufflers, snapping up invertebrates and small fish as they work their way through the muck and mulm of Amazonian waters.
After pictures, we returned our Pipa to the flooded waters, where it kicked its webbed hind feet and scooted off, looking nothing like a kite and every bit like a mud-colored, wallet-shaped flapjack. From now on, any time I’m out on the water at night in the Amazon Basin, I’m keeping an eye out for Pipa.