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Too Many Angelenos? 100s Of Years Ago There Was A Whole Lotta Frogs

A small Western Toad sitting on a person's finger. It's about the size of a fingernail.
The Western Toad helped inspire some of the nicknames in Elysian Valley.
(Courtesy Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Public Domain via Flickr)
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Before a frog army took over TikTok, early Los Angeles used to be swamped with frogs and toads in a marshy paradise.

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One of those species was the American bullfrog — despite its name, an invasive species. They were first introduced to California as a source of food and insect control from the eastern United States. (Frog legs have a history in French gastronomy, but many cultures regularly dine on the amphibians.)

Those frogs are bullies. They’ll eat baby skunks, amphibians in their own colony and so many other frogs that L.A.’s native populations are decreasing.

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“The largest American bullfrog I've ever seen in my life weighed 2.2 pounds,” Dr. Greg Pauly, herpetology curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, told Marcos Trinidad for LAist Studios’ Human/Nature podcast. “It's like a small Jabba the Hutt.”

But more than 100 years ago, Pauly said the L.A. basin was a giant native frog heaven.

L.A.’s Homage To Water In Name

It’s hard to believe in our drought-ridden times, but parts of L.A. County once were overflowing with water.

In the winter and spring seasons, the rainwater that fell in the mountains would roll down into the San Gabriel and L.A. rivers. When the water got into flatter areas, like the San Fernando Valley, Pauly said it would get stuck and become a swamp. That gave frogs and toads a safe place to populate.

“So you'd have a big storm and the L.A. River would just quickly overflow its banks,” Pauly said. “You just had huge amounts of water coming down. It was a great time to be a frog.”

Those swamps were a landmark of L.A. life. The name of La Cienega Boulevard, the arterial road that runs up to the Sunset Strip, is a vestige of those times — it means “the swamp” in Spanish.

“That's because there used to be a giant swamp,” Pauly said. “On the north side of the Baldwin Hills, there was a swamp that was probably something like 10 miles long and up to three miles wide.”

Pauly said there’s an early description where someone talked about the challenges of crossing the L.A. basin. Their main concern? Trying to keep their wagon wheels from getting stuck in the mud.

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Toadtown Not Frogtown

Of course, there’s also Frogtown — another intentionally amphibious nickname. The area is officially known as Elysian Valley, which sits by the L.A. River. There were multiple species of frogs breeding there — the Baja California Treefrog and Western Toad were some of the largest colonies. During the spring and summer, there would be thousands of little tiny toadlets about the size of a pinky finger that hopped across the landscape.

 A small spotted frog sits in a pond of water, perching near a raft of algae.
The California treefrog can be found all over the state. This species is usually pale, which is unlike the colorful ones found in Baja, California.
(Joshua Tree National Park
Public domain via Flickr)

“If you want to be more technically correct, it should actually be called Toad Town because it was predominantly Western Toads,” Pauly said.

The list of frog homages goes on. There’s Polliwog Park. Glendale was known for its trio of frog statues (that’s now removed). And Frogtown’s Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park used to have an old, clever name: Marsh Park.

You can get an aural snatch of what it must have been like in Playa Vista, where there is still a singing chorus of the frogs at the Bluff Creek Trail. Listen closely and you’ll hear the famous “ribbit” echoed hundreds of times. But more than 150 years ago? Pauly said it wouldn’t even be possible to have a conversation because the chorus would be so loud.

L.A. Isn’t A Swamp Anymore. What Changed?

The region we know today is quite the opposite of a marsh wonderland. For starters, there are millions of more people in California, and the state has been plagued by drought problems for decades — not the usual marker of a water-rich region.

Large environmental changes impacted the rivers. In archaeological records, Pauly said that the Tongva and the Chumash lived away from the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers. That was intentional: Indigenous people wouldn’t build along the water because of rampant flooding.

A black and white view from above the bridge. There's water underneath it and parts of the ground look full of swamp debris.
An archival photo of the Riverside Drive-Dayton Avenue Bridge across the L.A. River from 1937.
(Courtesy of the L.A. Public Library's digital collection)

Floods were a big issue before big developments came in. During the Great Flood nearly 200 years ago, a 28-day downpour made the L.A., San Gabriel and Santa Ana river banks overflow. It created an 18-mile sheet of water, which was a “totally devastating situation” for the region.

That didn’t stop developers from building along the river, so the solution became “we can control nature,” Pauly said. The builders could raze the landscape and reshape river flow. Basically, they made it easier for the water to flow down to the ocean by straightening the path out and removing vegetation.

“For frogs, the habitat wasn't necessarily the river channel. It was the backwaters. It was the side channels,” Pauly said. “When we channelized the river, what we really did is we allowed those other areas to then be developed.”

Reimagining LA's Habitats

To help give L.A.’s frogs a leg up, conservationists are working to repopulate certain species, like the Baja California treefrog, and create stable homes for them. But creating a habitat that works for both humans and wildlife will take community effort, and a lot of water.

Dozens of small dark tadpoles swim across a dirt floor. The water is murky.
A group of Western toad tadpoles move through the water.
(Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Public domain via Flickr)

“I hope people recognize that decisions we make now are absolutely going to make a difference to [the] species that we're seeing across greater L.A.,” he said.

Locally, Pauly said people should be looking to increase water conservation, such as installing a climate-friendly lawn with lavender or sage bushes. The city can also make use of stormwater, so it doesn’t runoff into the river. These changes will not only help our drought, but it could help restore some of L.A.’s wildlife.

“Five years from now, 10 years from now, what are the species that our kids are going to see in the next generation?” Pauly said. “I hope people feel empowered by that message.”

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Corrected June 25, 2022 at 10:18 AM PDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the herpetology curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. He is Dr. Greg Pauly, not Polly.
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