Today the CFZ launched (or to be more accurate relaunched a project that has intrigued me for years. Back in 1997 I wrote the following in my monthly column for Uri Geller's Encounters. (This was a late, and not very lamented, magazine published by a bunch of people from Bournemouth. But I shouldn't be churlish, because they gave me my first regular paid work as a fortean scribe):
"In this column I have written on a number of occasions about my search for mythical and semi-legendary beasties. This month, however, I am going to tell the sad tale of how I very nearly caught one!
Devonshire is full of folk stories, most of which were almost certainly invented to while away the long winter nights in years gone by. Occasionally, however, you can find one which has its basis in some kind of truth.
There is a charming medieval folk story of a poor woodcutter who lived with his family in the woods near what is now Bovey Tracey. One bitterly cold night, during the middle of a wild thunderstorm his only child was dying of an unspecified illness when there was a knock at the door.
A beautiful lady, dressed in white and surrounded by an unearthly radiance was standing on his doorstep. He invited her in, gave her the best seat by the fire and the few scraps of food that they had. He used their last few sticks of firewood to feed the fire for her, and he gave her his warm, winter cloak to make her comfortable through the night.
The next morning when the family awoke the storm was over, the sun was shining, and their child was miraculously cured but their mysterious guest had vanished leaving a note which told them that henceforth their luck would change and they would become happy and prosperous. In order to remind them of her visit she had magically created a well in which golden frogs were swimming.
The books of folklore go on to suggest that this was a visitation from the Virgin Mary, and note that to this day there is a Mary Street in Bovey Tracey" They were unable, however to explain either the golden frogs or the mysterious stream.
A couple of years ago we discovered a holy well, half forgotten in a wall in Mary Street opposite Bovey Tracey Hospital, and almost simultaneously we began to receive reports of bright yellow and golden frogs from across the westcountry.
At the beginning of July I was lecturing at a Reptile Fair in Newton-Abbot, and during my talk I mentioned the story of the golden frogs of Bovey Tracey (which incidentally is only about four miles up the road from where I was delivering my talk). After I had finished a rather shy woman called Rosemary came up to me and said:
"Um, I`m not quite sure how to tell you this, but I`ve got a family of golden frogs living in my garden pond!"
The next day, a contingent from the Centre for Fortean Zoology, consisting of me, Graham Inglis and a leather-clad geezer called Richard Freeman (who apart from having the questionable taste to be a `goth` is a zoology student at Leeds University, and was also once a Zoo Keper at a well known menagerie in the West Midlands), turned up at Rosemary`s house in search of these semi-mythical golden frogs.
Our search was hampered by what seemed to be dozens (but was probably only about four or five) small children who followed us around shrieking with excitement whenever we sighted an amphibian of any colour. We caught at least a dozen frogs of various shapes, colours and sizes, but although we caught several glimpses of what appeared to be a canary-yellow frog hopping around distractedly deep inside Rosemary`s shrubbery we were unable to catch it!
Rosemary promised us that she would do her best to catch either this creature or even the bright orange frog that she had seen on at least a dozen occasions during the year so far. At the time of writing we are still waiting, and there is a palatial fish-tank, decked out with a rotten log and some sphagnum moss on my landing waiting to receive any golden frogs that we get sent. However, although, I have various peculiar reptiles and amphibians in terraria on my landing, this particular tank remains empty. I live in hope though!
No-one knows exactly what causes the mutation which has started to produce these remarkable amphibians. Some people claim that they are a direct result of the hole in the ozone layer or indiscriminate use of pesticides, but those of us who have studied the ancient folklore of the region know better don`t we?
Well I have to admit that absulutely nothing came of that experiment. Rosemary singularly failed to deliver the goods, and although we had a mustard-coloured frog in our collection for a few months a year or two later, itescaped. What we did notice however was that after she had spawned, she got gradually less yellow as the months went on.
Then last week I received this photograph:
Its a frog! But it is also unquestionably a golden one, and it was photographed only a few hundred yards from where the CFZ now resides in rural North Devon. What is even stranger is the two frogs which are pictured at the top of today's entry. If you look at them, they are both unquestionably Rana temporaria but their markings are so radically different that they could quite easily be mistaken for different species.
Now, with help from the newest member of the CFZ team, David Phillips (13), who works with the CFZ every weekend, they hope to solve the mystery. David – a keen amateur photographer – is working with Mark North on setting up photo tanks, and together they will be collating the pictures, and they hope to eventually publish a book detailing the results of the project.
We are hoping to collect a library of pictures of different coloured frogs from across the region. Then we shall try and collate the different markings and colour variations with the environmental factors, and see if we can publish an atlas of froggy morphology and try to gain some clues as to what causes these variations.
But we want to take the project further. When we find some healthy yellow or golden specimens, we want to see if they breed true, with none of the signs of malformed tadpoles and infertile eggs that one would expect from a harmful mutation. And btw no animals will be harmed and that all the frogs will be released back into the wild.
David prepares the first of our vivaria. Will these two froggies (that Mark insists on naming after characters from the Sharpe TV series) change colour and patterns over the next few weeks and months?
The CFZ are hoping for YOUR help. Have you got unusually coloured frogs in your garden? Contact the CFZ on 01237 431413 and ask for me, Mark or David. They will be overjoyed to hear from you.