Weather-forecasting frogs

In recent years, I've become a huge fan of the writings of the late W.G. Sebald. Not that I always understand what's going on in them, you understand. Sebald blends fiction, biography, memoir, and a bunch of other genres in a prose style which is frankly breathtaking. Although he lived in Norfolk, and had a command of English better than most, Sebald wrote in his native German, working closely with the translators of the English editions of his books.

Such a Sebald-groupie have I become, that I thought it was about time I read some of his poetry. I'm not very good with poetry. I don't get most of it. But I thought I'd give it a shot, and have just finished reading Sebald's Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964--2001.

What can I say? I found Sebald's poetry utterly incomprehensible. I'm sure it's fantastic, but, as I read it, I stared open-mouthed at each page, wondering, ‘What on Earth is he on about?”

Why am I telling you all this on a blog which is supposed to be dedicated to the history of science in general, and Charles Darwin in particular? Well, because one of Sebald's poems, Barometer Reading, begins as follows:

Nothing can be inferred
from the forecasts

Tree frogs
are ignoring their ladders

Do you see what I mean? What on Earth is he on about?

At the end of the book, Sebald's translator, Iain Galbraith, includes some brief notes about the poems. A note about Barometer Reading, reads:

ignoring their ladders: weather-frogs (tree-frogs) were kept in preserve glasses with some water in the bottom and a small ladder. If the weather was changing for the better the frog would climb the ladder; if rain was imminent the frog descended the ladder.

Weather-forecasting frogs. Now that's more like it!

I've done a bit of Googling, but haven't been able to find out an awful lot about these weather-forecasting frogs. From what I can tell, they seem to have been mainly a German/Swiss phenomenon. Sebald was brought up in the Bavarian Alps, near to the Swiss border, so that's almost certainly where he heard about them.

I did, however, discover one wonderful etching on Wikimedia from page 385 of the journal Die Gartenlaube, 1887 (it's worth clicking through to the full-sized version):

page 385 of journal Die Gartenlaube, 1887.

A few things I haven't been able to establish:

  • who first thought up the idea for these weather-frogs?
  • were they a serious attempt to forecast the weather, or where they just a bit of harmless fun?
  • did they actually work?

Any information gratefully received in the comments, thanks.

Hmmm, thinks... I'll bet Thony C knows something.

3 comments on “Weather-forecasting frogs

  1. Thony Christie

    I know that I'm all knowing but in this case I'm just as ignorant as you. However a consultation of the German Wikipedia revealed the following information. It seems that this myth is based on the behaviour of the European tree frog (Hyla arborea), which climbs higher up plants during sunny weather in order to catch flying insects that fly higher when it's warm.

    In the 18th and 19th centuries they were apparently kept in glass jars with ladders because it was thought that they would climb the ladders by approaching warm weather. In Germany weather forecasters are, as a result, known as Wetterfrösche (weather frogs).

    Interestingly the English Wikipedia says that the European tree frogs were earlier kept as barometers because they respond to rain by croaking.

  2. Richard Carter, FCD Post author

    I've just realised... Barometers measure pressure, right? And the S.I. unit of pressure is the Pascal, right? And Blaise Pascal was a Frog, right?

    It's all beginning to make sense!

  3. Thony Christie

    In German the tree frog is called the Laubfrosch which translates as leaf frog. An expression in German for being totally drunk is "platt als ein Laubfrosch" which translates as flat as a leaf frog.

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