Step into the new South Florida Science Museum exhibition, "Frogs! (The Un-Toad Story)," and it's obvious why organizers included the exclamation point in the title. They're excited about the slew of ribbiters now on view in customized amphibian habitats. They should be -- and so should viewers. These are excitin' critters, not your backyard variety, and they come in a wide spectrum of vivid colors beyond your everyday green. Tomato frogs are -- you guessed it -- tomato red. The tiger-legged tree frog, as its name implies, sports bright orange skin with black stripes. The tummy of the fire-bellied toad is crimson red. Poison dart frogs come in a variety of hues, including a striking blue. In fact the creatures here come in every color of the rainbow. Except for purple.
"I've seen frogs with purple hues, but never any with a real purple," says Chris Koch, curator of the exhibition, which opened at the end of last month and runs through December 3. Oh, well. No one will really notice if one measly color isn't accounted for: This is the largest temporary amphibian display in the United States, with more than 200 frogs representing some 30 species from around the world, including some from Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, and Suriname.
And it's not just the colors that are exotic. So-called "frozen frogs" from the Arctic, which create their own antifreeze to survive, are on view along with bumblebee poison dart frogs (just about the size of small bumblebees), African clawed frogs (and their even more fascinating albino brethren), Amazonian milk frogs (shiny silver specimens with black markings), and poison dart frogs (the terrible poison dart frog, Phyllobates terriblis, is one of the deadliest vertebrates in the world).
However, the poison frogs here lack poison; they were bred in captivity without the jungle diet from which their bodies manufacture the superpotent chemicals. This makes handling them a whole lot safer, but it's also a matter of ecological correctness. "We don't want people to think that we've taken them from the rain forests," stresses Koch, who bred many of them himself.
Koch, the museum's director of education and aquariums, saw his first frog exhibit about three years ago at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. "It was so cool," he says. "I got to see what I had only seen in pictures or on television. None of that came close to seeing the real thing."
Last year he took in his second frog display, this one at the Exploratorium in Los Angeles. That exhibit included fewer live animals than in Chicago but more interactive exhibits. Koch liked the combination and pitched the idea for a similar show to the rest of the staff back home. They liked it, too, so Koch put the wheels in motion this past August with the purchase of his first poison dart frogs -- which he kept as house pets.
"I wanted to learn as much as I could about them before making serious arrangements for an exhibit," he says. "I needed to know about how to care for them, what to feed them."
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Viewers will learn about the care (change the water every day) and feeding (every other day) at the exhibit. And if there is anything they still don't know about frogs by the end of the tour -- after peering into 50 or so frog habitats and the fruit fly- and cricket-breeding nursery, trying their legs at leapfrog, and stomaching the frog anatomy display -- they can ask Koch. He's the guy holding that slimy green thing in the palm of his hand.
"They're really not slimy," says Koch, defender of the underfrog. "They're just moist.
"And," he tells the group gathered around him, "because they're cold-blooded, they actually like the warmth of my hand." That's why they don't leap -- at least not usually. Not unless they see someone's green shirt and mistake it for a plant. To date, though, there has been no escapee.
"Frogs! (The Un-Toad Story)" is on view through December 3 at the South Florida Science Museum, 4801 Dreher Trail N., West Palm Beach. Admission prices are $4 and $6. Hours are Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Call 561-832-1988 or log on to www.sfsm.org.