Frog Falls and Fallacies

November 18, 2014

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about the classic Fortean phenomenon of mysterious objects falling from the sky. Here's an excerpt:

For millennia, people have reported a rare and strange phenomenon: a sudden rain of frogs--or fish or worms--from the sky. You may be minding your own business walking in a park on a blustery day when a small frog hits you on the top of the head. As you peer down at the stunned animal, another one comes down, and another and another all around you, in a surreal rain of frogs in various states of trauma.

The most likely explanation for how small frogs get up into the sky in the first place is meteorological: a whirlwind, tornado or other natural phenomenon. Charles Fort admitted that this is a possibility, but offered several reasons why he doubted that's the true or complete explanation: "It is so easy to say that small frogs that have fallen from the sky had been scooped up by a whirlwind ... but [this explanation offers] no regard for mud, debris from the bottom of a pond, floating vegetation, loose things from the shores ---but a precise picking out of the frogs only. ... Also, a pond going up would be quite as interesting as frogs coming down. Whirlwinds we read of over and over - but where and what whirlwind? It seems to me that anybody who had lost a pond would be heard from." For example, Fort argued, one published report of "a fall of small frogs near Birmingham, England, June 30, 1892, is attributed to a specific whirlwind - but not a word as to any special pond that had contributed."

What about the reasons that Fort and others cite for why a whirlwind is not a good explanation? Frogs and fish do not of course live in the sky, nor do they suddenly and mysteriously appear there; in fact they share a common habitat: ponds and streams. It's certain that they gained altitude in a natural, not supernatural, way.

That there are very few eyewitness accounts of frogs and fish being sucked up into the sky during a tornado, whirlwind or storm is hardly mysterious or unexplainable. Anytime winds are powerful enough to suck up fish, frogs, leaves, dirt and detritus, they are powerful enough to be of concern to potential eyewitnesses. In other words, people who would be close enough to a whirlwind or tornado to see the flying amphibians would be more concerned for their own safety (and that of others) to pay much attention to whether or not some frogs are among the stuff being picked up and flown around at high speeds. These storms are loud, windy, chaotic, and hardly ideal for accurate eyewitness reporting.

The same applies to Fort's apparent surprise that, following frog falls, farmers or others don't come forward to identify which specific pond the frogs came from. How would anyone know? Whirlwinds and tornadoes may move quickly and over many miles, destroying and lifting myriad debris in its wake. Unless a farmer took an inventory of all the little frogs in a pond both before and after a storm, there's no way anyone would know exactly where they came from, nor would it be noteworthy.


After my article was posted at LiveScience.com, famed Fortean writer Loren Coleman challenged my explanation in the comments, asking on April 14, "How does a tornado explain the finding of a single species in some falls of frogs? Surely, the aerodynamics of the lift might sort for weight, but not for species and genus."

Coleman's critique is interesting, and worthy of a brief analysis. The first thing to note, of course, is that per the skeptical dictum of Hyman's Categorical Imperative, before we try to explain something we should be sure that there is indeed something to explain. In this case Coleman has asserted, without any supporting evidence or documentation, that some falls of frogs contain only "a single species." If that is not true--it is a mistake, for example, or mere rumor or legend--then we need not spend considerable time trying to explain how that could happen.

But the claim does not seem unlikely or unreasonable, and I'm perfectly willing to concede that it's at least possible that in an unspecified number of frog falls (two? ten? fifty?) only one species of frogs was found. Of course I'd like to know who did the investigations (A scientist? A farmer? A little boy who said he only saw one kind of frog, and whose observation was taken at face value?), what their methods were (How big an area did the person survey to determine how many species of frogs were found? A few feet? A few yards? A mile? If it was a forested or urban area, did he or she thoroughly search treetops and rooftops for smaller frogs that might have been trapped up there and not made it to the ground, or did they only count the frogs nearby?) and also how the determination of single-species frog dispensing was made (Different species of frogs may look alike, or have similar colors, or be unidentifiable because of injury from falling from a great height; did the person reporting the data have the frogs collected, catalogued, and identified by a biologist to conclusively determine that only one species fell?); and so on.

I would argue that the evidence for single-species frog falls--however plausible--is far from definitive because of a dearth of information about how the data was collected. Rumors and third-hand information are routinely cited in the Fortean literature as self-evident truth and established fact. These questions aside, Coleman treats this as a mysterious and unexplainable fact that could discredit the theory that a whirlwind or tornado caused the frog falls.

Except, of course, that there's an obvious and simple explanation. As I replied, "The most likely answer is that the ponds and rivers that were the source of the frogs only had one species in them to begin with. Unless we know that the waters over which those tornados and whirlwinds travel have multiple species of frogs in them, there doesn't seem to be much mystery to the fact that only one species may sometimes be found picked up in them." It's entirely plausible that a whirlwind or tornado (especially one confined to a localized area of a few miles) might only cross over one river, stream, or lake during its time and only pick up one species of frog (likely the smallest and lightest).

Furthermore Coleman's comment that "the aerodynamics of the lift might sort for weight, but not for species and genus" is a non sequitur, since of course weight is a function of genus and species. Some species of frogs (just like some species of cats or any other animal) are larger and heavier than other species. I am not an expert on frogs and do not claim to be, but it seems that Coleman's statement would be valid if all genus and species of frogs in a given location had equal mass and weight, and were therefore equally likely to be picked up by a passing whirlwind or tornado, all else being equal. If that were true then it might spawn the idea that the tornado mysteriously and inexplicably "sorted" the frogs by species instead of weight or size. But of course that's not the case.

Furthermore there may be considerable variation in weight even within a genus and species of frog. Some frogs of the same species may weigh less than other frogs of the same species for any number of reasons including age, gender, disease, the amount of food available, etc. I appreciate debate and discussion of Fortean ideas as much as the next person, and I'm happy to put my theories to the test. There may be other explanations for frog falls, but the claims and arguments put forth by Fort, Coleman, and others to discredit whirlwinds and tornadoes as a source of the frogs simply don't hold water.

Comments:

#1 Bruce (Guest) on Friday December 05, 2014 at 11:49am

Different species of frogs also might react differently to being pulled up by the wind into the air. One might curl into a ball, while I guess other species might try to get a footing by stretching out all their limbs maximally. Thus, species could have very different aerodynamic properties, even with equal mass.

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