Learning from Tadpoles

The nearly flat soybean field surrounding our childhood home was bounded on its lower side by a drainage canal, fondly known as the “big ditch.” The clear, still water in the canal created the ideal habitat for toads at all stages of their life cycle. The transformation from eggs to tadpoles and then toads was astounding and otherworldly to me. I spent many hours watching and learning, sometimes the hard way.

I visited the ditch every day to check the water until I saw the eggs—black dots dispersed evenly throughout thin ropes of gooey stuff. Over a few days the dark dots would grow tiny tails and break through the egg casing, becoming tadpoles. For hours I watched them wriggle about, stop and nibble on the sandy bottom or an underwater leaf.

Over time, the growing tadpoles sprouted four little legs. The legs and tail of each tadpole grew larger over time. And then one day they would be gone, having taken to land as the toads they were destined to be.

I never saw a tadpole make the crucial transition at the water’s edge and hop away from its aquatic birthplace. No matter how hard I tried, I was never at the ditch at the right moment to see baby amphibians emerge. This challenge needed a scientific approach, and I knew from my science books that observation was the main tool of a scientist.

I reasoned the best way to observe the transition was to bring the tadpoles into my bedroom in a shallow pan with water and sand from the ditch. Under my watchful eye they would complete their metamorphosis. This investigative plan was a stroke of genius, and it would save me hours of observing at the ditch with uncertain outcomes.

Sadly, this experiment was repeated unsuccessfully several times. Who knows how many tadpoles met their demise in my bedroom. I tried everything my 8-year-old scientific brain could muster: putting them in different containers; using soil, water and plants from different places in the ditch; and feeding them guppy food as a last resort. Nothing worked. The loss of the little creatures was a tragedy to me, and I felt responsible for their untimely deaths.

My grand bedroom-as-laboratory endeavor ended with a simple but persuasive argument from my mother. She explained the tadpoles and their mother missed each other, so I should let them stay in the ditch. It didn’t matter that I had never seen a momma toad anxiously waiting near the water, attending eggs or tadpoles. Momma’s argument made sense to me. Scientific discovery would have to wait.


This was an early experience on my path to becoming a behavioral scientist with an appreciation for the study of behavior in its natural setting rather than the laboratory. I am grateful to my mother for her successful efforts to instill me with empathy for all living creatures. But it is possible her immediate goal was to reduce the smell resulting from the failed experiments. Either way, she was a wise woman.