The Los Angeles River and its environs is home to a wealth of flora and fauna. This series of posts on Confluence attempts to unveil the hidden wildlife that thrives along the river banks.
Elysian Valley got its moniker, Frogtown, from the many four-legged amphibians that used the crawl into the neighborhood up until the 1970s. Seeing these slimy creatures, residents casually identified them as frogs. “At the time, they were not very many environmentalists or scientists living in the neighborhood,” said Raul Rodriguez, whose family in the neighborhood since 1942.
At the time, Elysian Valley was just getting used to being called Frogtown. Modern day cartographer Eric Brightwell, writes the area was first called Gopher Flats around 1900, when it was established for railroad workers. It was later called Little River Valley and by the 30s, it finally got the name Frogtown.
But Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science at the L.A. County Natural History Museum (NHM) and program coordinator for Play the LA River, says these “frogs” were more likely to be Western Toads. More specifically, baby Western Toads, which were tiny.
“There are all these stories about hundreds and hundreds of frogs in the neighborhood especially in the 50s and 60s, but when I spoke to a herpetologist, he said they sounded more like Western Toads,” says Higgins.
Higgins goes on to say that these toads were tiny. “You could even call them toadlets,” says Higgins. “Some of them could be as small as the eraser on a number two pencil.”
Rodriguez, a former biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife himself, agrees with Higgins.
The biologist realized the frogs' true identity when he started attending college at Los Angeles City College back in 1972. “I realized they weren’t frogs because they weren’t close to the water all the time,” said Rodriguez. “A western toad migrates down to the water, breeds, lays their eggs, and then goes back upland away from the flooding.”
Some actual frogs do live in the river, such as Pacific Tree frogs and the endangered Red-Legged frog.
Rodriguez, now 63, still remembers playing with the frogs as a child in Elysian Valley. On a few occasions, he’d even bring a few of these toads home in his pockets. Sadly, he sometimes forgot about them and they would end up surprising his mother come laundry time.
According to Rodriguez, the neighborhood backyards were covered with these toads, which burrowed in the ground. When it rained, the toads would sense the difference in moisture in the air, come out of their burrows and make their way to the river to start breeding. “There were so many toads that they would cover the streets. People couldn’t drive or walk without running over a few of them.”
These days, it’s rare to see toads in the Valley. Rodriguez says he hasn’t spotted one in five years.
Higgins says their gradual disappearance from the scene is probably due to the presence of the American bullfrog, an invasive species that was introduced to Elysian Valley multiple times.
Frog leg farms in Los Angeles once raised American bullfrogs. When they closed up shop, they released their inventory, which naturally gravitated to the city’s river.
There are also instances where these bullfrogs were kept as pets, but then discarded. “These bullfrogs can be troublesome. They can eat anything that fits in their mouths,” says Higgins, “Lizards, birds, other frogs.”
Other environmental factors are also in play when it comes to the Western Toads' decline: increased development along the over, pollutants in the water and changes in the river's hydrology.
Though Rodriguez could be a stickler and start educating people about this common mistake, he says he would rather enjoy the river by walking his dogs on the bike path with his wife. “It’s always been a misnomer,” says Rodriguez, “Whenever people call them frogs, the biologist in me always says, ‘no, no, no,’ but something like that is hard to change. Plus constantly correcting people would hurt the community.”
Greg Pauly, Assistant Curator of Herpetology at NHM does point out that Western Toads (and all toads) are a kind of frog, so Toadtown would be a more specific and accurate name, but Frogtown wouldn't be incorrect either.
The frog has become a de facto mascot for the community, an informal symbol that gives a tight-knit neighborhood an identity, much like a barrio in El Monte called Canta Ranas (Singing Frogs). Long running Elysian Valley events such as the Frogtown Artwalk or special venues such the FrogSpot heavily feature the amphibian. Frogtown may not appear on any official map, but it seems it’s stamped in the hearts of its residents.