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Learning Activity

Life Defeats Death in the Desert

Eco-Principle All Life Transforms
Art Forms, Media draw/paint, storytelling, writing, creative dramatics
Multi-Disciplines science, art,
grade levels 2 thru 8
You will need journals, draw/paint materials
time one hour


Inquiry is one of the surest paths to learning. With this story, we learn how ingenious life is when survival is threatened, how dead tadpoles can send messages to live tadpoles, and how very stubborn life can be.

Share the Story

There is a little toad that lives in the desert country of the American West, called a spadefoot toad. A desert is a tough place for a toad to make a living and to reproduce, for as you know, deserts are dry and toad tadpoles need water to live in. In dry times, spadefoot toads estivate, that is, they become dormant, like hibernation in cold climates, but estivation is to save water. To estivate, these little toads bury themselves in soil or mud, and their skin produces a kind of waterproof "coat" or capsule that encloses them and prevents drying. They stay buried until rain comes to soften that coat. When the toad feels the moisture, it wakes up and digs out.

In dry years these toads do not sing; they do not lay eggs; there are no little tadpoles making a pool wiggle. All the adults are buried, and they stay put.

But in some blessed years, it has rained, and when the season is upon them the male  toads go looking for pools to sing from. They hop into a fresh pool of water where last year there was only dust. And they stay there, and they sing. They sing for the large-eyed beautiful females to come to the water, they sing with a sense of urgency, for desert water evaporates fast. Come quick, come now, they sing! It’s lovely, but it’s now. Hurry! 

The females do come and the singers do clasp them and together in the pond they lay and fertilize eggs. The eggs float for a day, then hatch into tiny tadpoles, who wiggle about enthusiastically for bits of algae growing quickly in this temporary desert pool.

If it’s an ordinary year, there will be a little more rain, and the pool will exist for the six weeks it takes the little tadpoles to grow arms and legs and learn to breathe air and live on land. But this year is not an ordinary year.

Here our story gets hard.

The sun is fierce this year, and within four weeks of hatching the sun burns the pool right into air. Everything in the pool dies. Tadpoles are almost entirely water, so you cannot even make out their bodies in the dusty depression that was a shallow pool. If you could distinguish them you could see under magnification that their hind legs had not quite emerged; they were still a long way from being little toads able to survive on land. 

Now our story leaps ahead a year.

Same pool, same kind of tadpoles, again four weeks after hatching from the eggs. But this year the fierce sun has been more kind. The pool is half evaporated, but half is here, and crowded together in the remaining water are many, many little tad-toads , almost ready to leave the water and hop onto land.

Their tails are absorbed right down to a nub, and their four legs swim vigorously. They are tiny  toadlets, but other than size they look just like Mom and Dad.

What happened here? Why did the tadpoles die the first year but not the second?

The first batch of tadpoles did die and their bodies stayed right in that dried-up dust. When the rains returned and filled that pool again, a different kind of song began in the pool, after the males began to sing to the females, just after the new eggs hatched.This 'song' was a chemical song, a message song. The corpses of the dead tadpoles told the new living tadpoles, "Hurry, hurry, grow your legs fast ‘cause there isn’t much time!"

The song was a chemical message delivered through Time by death. When the rain came and filled the little pool, the dried bodies of last year’s tadpoles merged with the water. When the living tadpoles’ bodies received through their skins the chemical signal in the water that said tadpoles died here last year, they began to develop much faster than they ordinarily would, squeezing six weeks of development into four weeks, so if the sun this year had dried up the pond in four weeks, the toadlets would have lived.

• Note: You can stop here and discuss, or read the next part, and discuss. With elementary kids it is a good idea to suggest drawing a scene from the story, or a scene from the next material.

Discuss: So what? What can this toad teach us about life?

• This is a story where the result of death is more life.

• This is a story where life defeats death.

• This little toad has found a way for the dead to communicate with the living.

This story is filled with wonder.

Life is like that. It’s amazing.  Life is stubborn and Life is tough; Life will get right down in the nitty-gritty and even use the corpses of the young to send its survival messages.

How did this simple little toad accomplish this complex survival strategy? It must be smarter than it looks.

Life is smarter than it sometimes looks. Life is brilliant at the only thing it must be brilliant at—survival. If there is a way to stay alive, Life finds that way. Life hangs on. Life on Earth has had three billion years of practice. Even little toads with brains the size of peas get pretty smart with enough practice. How many creatures have found a way for the dead to communicate with the living?

Almost every square inch of Earth’s surface is filled with Life (except for fresh lava), and each living thing has an amazing story of how it learned to not just survive, but to thrive.

Every cubic inch of the oceans’ surface layers is also filled with life.

Almost every cubic inch of Earth’s air is filled with Life as well. The atmosphere has its own plankton of spores, seeds, pollen, spiders and insects. The winds are an enormous dispersal system which spreads life all over Earth. Think of all the dandelion seeds your own breath has launched on a journey on the wind. All that dandelions need to survive and spread are kids playing and a little breeze.

A sample of air from a mile above your house in summer will contain dandelion seeds, thistle seeds, daisy seeds, grass seeds and the downy seeds of cottonwood trees. It will also contain millions of microscopic spores of fungi (funguses) and yeasts, along with millions of dormant bacteria. A cubic mile of summer sky over North America will contain around 25 million assorted creatures (such as aphids, flies, thrips, tiny wasps) and spiders. The sky looks empty, but it’s not. Our eyes are limited.

Much of the life in air is too small for us to see. These are the microscopic yeast and fungus spores and grains of pollen.

Every inch of Earth is filled with stories like the story of that desert toad. These stories are ready to tell themselves, if you are ready to listen.

Discussion: How can a person be a good listener and truly hear Earth’s stories?

• The first thing it takes is Willingness. To be willing you have to be open. Willing is what little kids are. Willing is what you were when you were little and saw the world with fresh, wide-open eyes. If you can re-awaken even a small part of those fresh little-kid eyes and recapture your sense of the sheer wonder of the Earth, you will have all the willingness you need.

• Part of being willing is to wake up your sense of wonder and curiosity. Then with your curiosity, observe. In science, you observe carefully—you Notice and you Note (record your observations).

• To be willing, you have to decide not to be bored. Life is interesting, which is a good thing, because it is what we have.

• Artist/Naturalists are people who listen to Earth’s stories and then share and celebrate those stories in art.

Note: Here is a good place to introduce the idea of the Artist/Naturalist. (see  Artist/Naturalist)

Art-Making Possibilities

draw or paint a scene from the story that was fun. Or one that was sad. Or one that expressed hope. Enter in Journal.

Make a list of living things you have noticed flying or floating in the air. Use the list to make a poem or story. Enter in Journal.

Write a story of your own about something that happened in or near the pool in the desert. Other animals? Other seasons? Enter in Journal.

Creative dramatics: Act out the desert pool from egg to tadpole to toadlet. Include the sun as a character.


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