NASA launches a frog, and experimental biogeograhy

by Greg Mayer

On Sept. 6, NASA launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) towards the moon, where it will go into orbit to gather data on the thin lunar atmosphere. But along with the rocket, a frog, apparently resting on the rocket or launch pad, was taken spaceward, before being thrown free.

An unidentified frog is launched along with the LADEE rocket (NASA photo).

An unidentified frog is launched along with the LADEE spacecraft on Sept. 6, 2013 (NASA photo).

NASA’s dry caption is priceless:

A still camera on a sound trigger captured this intriguing photo of an airborne frog as NASA’s LADEE spacecraft lifts off from Pad 0B at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The photo team confirms the frog is real and was captured in a single frame by one of the remote cameras used to photograph the launch. The condition of the frog, however, is uncertain.

The photo reminded me immediately of a famous biogeographic experiment performed by Thomas Barbour (1884-1946) and Philip Darlington (1904-1983), who differed over the importance of land bridges (favored by Barbour) versus overwater dispersal (favored by Darlington) in the distribution of animals on islands. The experiment and its results are handed down from one generation of graduate students to the next by a well-known oral tradition at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, but the only published account I know of is by Bob O’Hara (1988):

A how-possibly experiment performed by Philip Darlington and Thomas Barbour at the Museum of Comparative Zoology has become legendary. Darlington and Barbour were disputing the possibility of frogs being dispersed in the West Indies by hurricanes. Darlington, who believed such dispersal was possible, took a bucket of live frogs up to the roof of the Museum, and, with Barbour standing on the lawn below, proceeded to throw the frogs to the ground, one by one. As each one hit the ground, Barbour examined it and called up “That one’s dead,” “So’s that one,” and so on. But after a few minutes, much to Barbour’s disappointment, the frogs all revived and started to hop away. Darlington had thus shown that hurricane dispersal was possible, or at least had removed one of Barbour’s objections to it, namely that it would be too rough on the frogs.

To Bob’s account I would add that the MCZ is 5 stories tall, which gives you some idea how far the frogs fell in their journey to the courtyard below. Bob used the experiment to illustrate his notion of a “how possibly” experiment, which demonstrates the possibility, though not the actual occurrence, of a phenomenon.

I thought of the experiment because I wondered about the “uncertain” fate of the frog. The frog appears to be outside the plume of hot gas escaping form the rocket engine. If so, and if the clear air around it has not been super-heated, the frog could well survive the fall. Many tree frogs are adept at jumping long distances, bodies flattened and limbs spread, so that they reach a terminal velocity more dependent on aerial friction than gravity. The so-called “flying frogs” are ones that have gotten very good at this, usually with both morphological and behavioral specialiazations (see Wallace’s flying frog, an apt example for Wallace Year).

I’m not sure about the identity of the frog. My guess is that it’s a tree frog of some sort. [Note: I’d originally guessed it was a  Cuban tree frog (Osteopilus septentrionalis), a large, introduced species in Florida, but that’s before I realized the rocket was launched from a facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, on the Delmarva Peninsula, and not from NASA’s more usual Florida launchpads.]

h/t Christian Science Monitor


O’Hara, R.J. 1988. Homage to Clio, or, toward an historical philosophy for evolutionary biology. Systematic Zoology 37:142–155. pdf


  1. Nick
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I’d love to see that experiment get IACUC approval today!

  2. sgo
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I think I read about that MCZ experiment in E.O. Wilson’s latest, “Letters to a young scientist”.

    I saw the launch of LADEE live last week. Very impressive. I wonder if the frog was on the rocket, or just thrown up from a puddle from the shock waves of the launch (I thnik I read something like that).

    • gluonspring
      Posted September 13, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      It looks a tad too far from rocket to have leaped off the rocket, but it’s hard to judge the perspective.

      “The launchpad at the Wallops/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport has a ‘pool’ for the high-volume water deluge system that activates during launches to protect the pad from damage and for noise suppression, and likely there was a (formerly) damp, cool place that was a nice spot for a frog to hang out”

      Based on that, I’m inclined to think it was blasted skyward along with all of the plant matter and other debris you see in the smoke plume.

  3. moarscienceplz
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    The fact that it is spread-eagle gives me hope that it survived it’s launch, so I think there’s a reasonable chance it is still a bane to flies.

  4. Newish Gnu
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    When my son was a few years younger, he went to a science camp just a few miles down the road from the launch site. As I recall, a consortium of landlocked Pennsylvania universities own a campus down there for marine research. My son helped catch and measure some sort of toad (Fowler’s Toad, I think).

    Apparently this involved going out in a canoe at night with grad students, flashlights and nets. He loved it.

  5. Pliny the in Between
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    FYI – I believe the launch vehicle for this experiment is a refurbished Peacekeeper ICBM.

    Glad to see it put to use in a manner that doesn’t kill us all.

    • Jeff J
      Posted September 13, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Tell that to the frog.

    • David Duncan
      Posted September 13, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Yep, it’s based on the Peacekeeper, according to this Wikipedia article:

      When you mentioned it but before I looked up Wikipedia I thought the exhaust nozzle looked familiar. (The weapons of doomsday are one of my interests.)

  6. Posted September 13, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Your phrase “terminal velocity more dependent on aerial friction than gravity” makes no sense. The complete meaning of the term “terminal velocity” is the velocity at which acceleration ceases due to the balance between gravity and “wind resistance.” I think you just meant “limbs spread to reduce their terminal velocity.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 13, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink


      • John Taylor
        Posted September 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink


    • Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      A falling mouse, I am told, reaches its terminal velocity in about 5 feet of drop, Therefore dropping a frog five stories is likely to be no worse for it than dropping it 10 feet. So there is hope that a frog thrown 100 meters or so might be no worse off than the frogs dropped from the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Depending on the temperatures, of course.

    • Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      No, it makes perfect sense. For a falling frog, aerial friction is a quantitatively more important influence than gravity on its velocity, so it’s terminal velocity will be far less than v=at (gravity alone).


      • John Taylor
        Posted September 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Air resistance is a pretty complicated thing and varies in a complex relationship with velocity. Either way terminal velocity ends up being some function of gravity divided by a constant related to the friction between the object and the medium it is moving through. I would say that gravity and the constant that relates velocity to friction are equally important in producing a terminal velocity. No gravity no velocity at all. No frictional constant no terminal velocity.

      • Thanny
        Posted September 14, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

        You’re just getting confused about terms. Gravity has no terminal velocity. Velocity under gravity alone has no upper limit before collision, unless you count the speed of light. The very concept of terminal velocity refers to a maximum speed before collision, which doesn’t exist without air resistance.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Reading the comments, it appears unlikely the frog is cooked. My first reaction was to ask if birds (well, cats on this bl*g) likes cooked frogs.

    NASA has made much hay of that it is Wallops first (and perhaps last) Moon shot.

  8. Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink


    Amazing shot!

  9. Mary Sheumaker
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Dad, You did hear about the NASA frog, right? M

  10. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    A Cuban infiltrator spying on our space program. O Noez!

    • Skistimas
      Posted September 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Just wait for the stork spies.

  11. Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    50 years ago the frog would have been strapped in a seat in the nose cone.

  12. Adrian Johnson
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Toad in the hole!

  13. Posted September 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    It looks like the frog was launched from the ground in the ignition blast. Note the large amount of what looks like grass blown into the air at the same focus as the frog.

    • Posted September 13, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      That’s just what they want you to think.

  14. Marella
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    The hazards of being a frog, who’d have thought?

  15. Matthew Jenkins
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Off-topic: the Daily Mash, a UK website similar to The Onion but less likely to be taken seriously by the Chinese, has an interesting article on the Pope today.

  16. cherrybombsim
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    From their relative sizes in the photo, I figure the distance from the camera to the frog is about 1/10 of the distance to the rocket. The poor thing is obviously being blasted laterally rather than falling off the rocket.

  17. mordacious1
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Anur-ther leap forward for the space program. One small step for man, a giant hop for amphibians. This was ribeting. (enough?)

  18. HaggisForBrains
    Posted September 14, 2013 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    To Bob’s account I would add that the MCZ is 5 stories (sic) tall

    Sounds like a very tall story to me.

  19. marksolock
    Posted September 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  20. staffordgordon
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    I have no idea how large the rocket is but unless it is tiny that is an enormous frog!

    Someone’s having a joke methinks.

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