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Brooksville mail-order tadpole swims into trouble

BROOKSVILLE — Here in the Sunshine State, Paul Rudnick has found a welcoming home for his quirky Grow-a-Frog company.

Rudnick has made a good — and interesting — living through his Brooksville mail-order company, which sells tadpole kits to teachers, school systems, budding biologists and exotic pet owners around the country.

"I came here to grow frogs," said Rudnick, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who studied them as a biology student at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s. "And 30 years later, here I am."

However, Montana and a handful of other Western states have not been so friendly. They have ordered Rudnick to stop shipping at least one species of tadpole that grows into the African clawed frog.

Once dubbed the "frog from Hell" by a California newspaper columnist, the African clawed frog is a nonnative species that was banned by Montana in 2005. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks warned residents in October that if the frogs were released into the wild, they could "wreak havoc in a native ecosystem."

"I know they caused problems in California," Tim Feldner, manager of commercial wildlife permitting with the agency, said Monday. "We just don't want to take any chances. We'll err on the side of conservatism."

The bureaucratic backlash has confounded Rudnick, who says he rarely runs into this sort of high-level resistance at his Three Rivers Mail Order Corp. Rudnick has temporarily stopped selling frog kits to Montana and applied for a waiver to the state's ban. He said he didn't know about the prohibition until the state contacted him this fall.

In the meantime, Rudnick has eagerly taken the chance to mollify concerns about the African clawed frog.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with it," Rudnick said Monday. "This is one of the most widely studied frogs in the world."

For prices up to $40, buyers of the Grow-a-Frog kits receive one or more tadpoles, food, a handbook and a decorative plant to spruce up an aquarium-like habitat. Customers can order habitats in several colors: "Gilly Green," "Ribbit Red" or "Dew Blue."

Rudnick said the strain of the pipidae frog — one of several species he sells — has transparent skin, allowing elementary school students to inspect the tiny tadpoles' anatomy without harming it as it morphs into a frog.

"They can keep it and love it as a little pet," said Rudnick.

But not everyone loves the African clawed frog.

Once used extensively in laboratory research and sold in pet stores in the 1960s, the frogs were most likely released into the wild by their owners over the years. Since then, the frogs have made pests of themselves in places like California and Nevada.

The frogs are known to devour native wildlife such as aquatic insects, small fish and other frogs. They are generally impervious to predators because of a foul-tasting froth that appears on their skin when touched, and they're known as an intermediate host for a parasite that infects the lens of fish eyes.

"There's increasing evidence that … the fungus has killed lots of amphibians globally," said Cecil Schwalbe, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey's Sonoran Desert Research Station and a faculty member at the University of Arizona. The frogs are "known to be a scourge in the Western states."

Florida, however, has not issued a ban. Officials say there have been no reports of the frogs being released into the wild here, and some researchers doubt the frogs, in a state with 450 nonnative species, would pose much of a threat.

"For whatever reason, amphibians as a group don't seem to do so well in Florida," said Scott Hardin, an exotic species coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "As of now, we've got things higher on our list of concerns."

That's good news for Rudnick, 54, who's spent more than half of his life devoting himself to his frogs and his business. He even wears his passion to work: On his left ring finger, Rudnick has a gold ring topped with a diamond-studded frog.

"I spend all days looking at frogs," he said. "You have to love what you're doing."

Staff writer Luis Perez and researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis)

Size: Up to 2 ounces, 2.5 inches long (male); 7
ounces, 4.5 inches (female).

Lifespan: Up to 15 years.

Characteristics: Changes its color (dark, light or mottled) to match background; has no tongue, no teeth.

Habitat: Prefers warm, stagnant ponds and quiet streams.

Appetite: Voracious; will attack anything that comes near.

Sources: Animal Diversity Web and Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan; Smithsonian National Zoological Park; Nevada Department of Wildlife

Brooksville mail-order tadpole swims into trouble 12/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 1:20pm]
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