Lent is no stranger to rhythmic sounds—he plays percussion for a two-person band called Mirthquake—but this, like a cross between a birdsong and a smoke alarm, was just irritating. “It sounded electronic, with perfect intervals,” he said, “like a smoke alarm with a dying battery,” adding: “That’s a sound I really hate.” However if it was a smoke alarm, it was acting strangely: the device would chirp for just fifteen minutes and then go silent.
After two irritating nights he contacted Security, thinking they’d be able to help him track down which of his neighbors was too lazy to change a nine-volt battery.
By this time Lent had posted a message on the Village Green Facebook Page:
“Does anybody else hear that non-stop chirping sound that starts at about 8:45pm into the rest of the night?? Is that a bird or an alarm? It always seems to start at around 8:45-9pm. Never hear it during the day time…”
Tewes was the first to answer: “As far as I can determine,” she wrote, “it sounds like the Coqui frog (well known in Puerto Rico). Does it sound like this?” and here she linked a YouTube recording:
Miano is a widely-published freelance biologist, a field worker who spends his working days traversing mountain passes and desert washes, peering into the underbrush around gullies and streambeds, gathering data on the status of California wildlife and its precarious habitats. He specializes both in the eradication of invasive species and the preservation of environments for the endangered ones. He’s evaluated the habitats of Swainson hawks and San Joaquin kit foxes, surveyed desert tortoise and salamander populations to preserve their numbers, and rid lakes and streams of invasive water snakes and toads. He was, in short, the right man for the job.
Miano knew that time was of the essence, that he needed to catch this frog before it climbed a tree and eluded him for good. The recording showed the corner of a building and so Miano went in the direction of Court 6 in search of that unit, armed with a flashlight and a Tupperware container.
Given permission to poke around, he began peering beneath the leaves of Isabel Tewes’ potted plants, looking for pockets of shade and humidity, the ideal environment for a frog. This is a tiny thing after all—about the size of an American quarter—so it would be easy to overlook. After dispensing with an enormous brown widow spider, he started to peel back ivy leaves, and in a matter of a few minutes, he’d found his culprit, a tiny, terrified creature, clinging to an ivy leaf with his sticky toepads.
No such phrases are uttered in Hawaii. Coquis are considered an invasive species in the Hawaiian islands. A coqui infestation can drive down housing prices if a neighborhood is overrun. Unfortunately the frogs thrive in the Islands’ many plant nurseries, and are thus transported to California with relative ease.
One of their adaptive traits has made them especially well-suited for transcontinental travel. Amphibians typically come from eggs hatched in water, spending their early lives in a larval ‘tadpole’ stage, swimming in shallow pools while they mature. For some reason though a coqui’s tadpole stage occurs in the egg; while the eggs must be kept moist, the creature itself doesn’t require standing water in which to develop. Without the need for water, a coqui is much more portable than your average frog. According to Miano, this one probably came to the Green via potted plant, spent a few days acclimating, keeping quiet, making sure this environment as amenable to his needs. Then he (only the males chirp) started doing what males do—he started looking for a mate.
Once an invasive species is discovered, says Miano, a whole host of protocols kick into action. The first priority is to locate the source of the pest. In this case, the likely sequence of events was easy to piece together: A few days before the hurricane, Isabel Tewes had purchased some ivies from the local garden shop. Those plants, it’s believed, were propagated in Hawaii and shipped to Los Angeles. The hurricane likely suppressed for a time the frog’s desire to express itself.
His catch in hand, Miano called his colleague, Greg Pauly, who serves as the herpetology curator and director of the Urban Nature Research Center at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Pauly collected the frog—he has a sizable collection of these creatures at the Museum—and began an investigation at the nursery to ascertain the severity of the problem. “Coqui have been established at a handful of nurseries over last decade in Southern California,” says Pauly. But he’s not seen any evidence that they ever successfully reproduce outside a nursery setting. “Nurseries are high humidity environments,” he says, “buffered from cold and from hot temperatures”—ideal for all kinds of frogs. There’s no telling whether the Village Green would have been an hospitable environment for coqui, but for Pauly and Miano, it was best not to find out.
Whatever you may think of invasive species—a problematic and often deeply unfortunate byproduct of global capitalism—it is hard not to marvel at the peregrinations of this tiny creature as it made its way from at least one tropical island, across at least one ocean, to the wilds of Los Angeles and the Village Green urban forest. He got around in his short life, and made sure everyone knew he was here.