A pilgrim’s progress

two ickle tadpolesIt’s approaching the time of year when tadpoles, which have been appearing in ponds and lakes around us over the past few months, start to resemble their adult state as frogs. Like many of us as children, I’ve often found watching the tadpole’s metamorphosis fascinating – as every stage of it occurs right before our eyes, in gardens and woodland ponds.
But the tadpole's journey has become even more intriguing to me recently, since I realised it wasn't quite what it seemed to be on the surface. Like many of us, perhaps, I'd kind of assumed that metamorphosis in Nature was pre-programmed and occurred at predictable times and in predictable cycles. But with the tadpole, at least, this would seem not to be the case. In fact it would appear that they actually make ‘choices’ about how fast they evolve – a bit like we humans do, from a spiritual perspective (at least that’s the way I see it)!
A clue comes in the fact that you can often see all the stages of the tadpole’s metamorphosis in the same pond. And the difference between these tadpoles isn’t that they were born at different times… it’s that the amount of time they spend as a tadpole differs dramatically from one to another.
Behavioural ecologist Dr Patrick Walsh, who spends much of his time studying tadpoles, says: ‘They’ll be ‘making decisions’ about how favourable it is to be in the aquatic environment and then trying to hedge their bets on how good it is going to be in the terrestrial environment. They don’t all make the same decision.
‘And the difference in time can be huge. The first ones may come out in late June whereas others can spend the entire next winter as a tadpole and then they come out the following spring!’
Scientists have captured the complexity of changes within the tadpole to turn it into a frog. The tadpole’s intestines, for instance, digest mainly algae and plants, whereas a frog can eat meat - which requires enormous changes. Gills are, of course, of no use to a frog so they are destroyed. And a skull must replace cartilage and bone and a backbone must be created. It is an epic reconstruction project of amazing complexity and yet remarkably it appears that the tadpole can influence both the timing and the speed of this metamorphosis.
‘One way the tadpole can do this is as simple as where it spends its time in the pond,’ says Walsh. ‘In the warm, sunlit water near the surface, the biochemical processes that power metamorphosis will be speeded up, whereas in the cooler water towards the bottom, these processes will go slower.
‘Different parts of the pond will have different amounts of sunlight, different amounts of food, different predation risks, so where the tadpole chooses to be will influence how quickly it will go through the metamorphic process.’ And they are choices with different consequences. By metamorphosing earlier in life - and more quickly - says Walsh, it will become a smaller frog and more vulnerable to attack; but if it stays in the pond, it may get eaten!
‘It’s a choice that is made by the tadpole based on an awareness of what is happening around it. There are actually chemical signals that are released by tadpoles when they are injured or eaten - and so the other tadpoles react to those chemical signals. The theory is that the amount of this ‘warning chemical’ will build up in the pond and it will then act to accelerate their development – ie, they’ll feel ‘it’s really risky being here, I think I’ll have a better chance on land’.
Having ponds that dry out is another really powerful decider on how long they spend as tadpoles. So they can actually judge the change and depth of water and it will accelerate their development from the aquatic stage into the terrestrial stage of their lives. If they have an abundance of food and safety and all those things they’ll stay at that stage for much longer.
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this was far-fetched (and perhaps it is), but I think this process is happening at some levels for the human race just now: the planet, our ‘pool’, is being threatened on many levels – by extreme weather patterns, financial volatility, resource depletion and scarcity... And this is perhaps, metaphorically at least, creating a build-up of 'warning chemicals'. Some, sensing this, are thinking, ‘hmmm… maybe I better move to a different place in the pond;’ others are thinking about finding another place in the universe to live (doing research into other habitable planets, for example); others still are, consciously or unconsciously, choosing to accelerate their own spiritual development – to evolve spiritually - so that they are more able to deal in a balanced, harmonious way with any physical changes or threats and perhaps even have a positive influence on others and on events.
And I think a lot of us perhaps feel a lot in common with the humble tadpole (though I say this partly tongue-in-cheek)... in the way we have lived our lives. Surely I am not alone, for example, in having left a relationship, a job, or a lifestyle where I could see myself becoming too contented, 'safe' and, even, complacent - in having uprooted myself and thrust myself into the unknown, into a situation that seemed alien and challenging, simply to ensure that I kept growing and evolving...
And it might be seen that we have on some level 'created' the challenging environmental conditions in our planetary 'pond' right now in fact to 'wake up' to the reality of our true spiritual natures: as magnificent, unlimited beings - and evolve! What do you think? I’d love to hear.