It's Raining Frogs and Fish
Waterspouts have nothing to do with popular stories of frogs and fish falling from the sky.
by Brian Dunning
September 8, 2009
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Also available in Chinese
A rainstorm of frogs in China preceding the 2008 Sichuan earthquake
(Photo credit: Public domain)
Today we're going to run in panic from a meteorological downpour only Bartholomew and his Oobleck could appreciate: Storms of frogs and fish falling from the sky! For at least 200 years, newspapers and books have published accounts of people being pelted by huge numbers of frogs and fish coming down during rainstorms, or even sometimes out of a clear blue sky.
In 1901, a rainstorm in Minneapolis, MN produced frogs to a depth of several inches, so that travel was said to be impossible. Fish famously fell from the sky in Singapore in 1861, and again over a century later in Ipswich, Australia in 1989. Residents in southern Greece awoke one morning in 1981 to find that a shower of frogs had blanketed their village. Golfers in Bournemouth, England found herring all over their course after a light shower in 1948. In 1901, a huge rainstorm doused Tiller's Ferry, SC, and covered it with catfish as well as water, to the point that fish were found swimming between the rows of a cotton field. In 1953, Leicester, MA was hit with a downpour of frogs and toads of all sorts, even choking the rain gutters on the roofs of houses. The stories go on and on: More frogs in Missouri in 1873 and Sheffield, England in 1995, and more fish in Alabama in 1956.
How could such things happen? Obviously frogs and fish are heavier than air and can't evaporate up into clouds, nor can they suspend themselves up there to breed. Almost every printed version of these tales offers a single explanation: That a waterspout somewhere sucks the animals out of some water and lifts them up into the clouds, from where they later fall back to land. This explanation is so ubiquitous that even the Encyclopedia Britannica suggests it as the only offered hypothesis.
I've always had problems with the waterspout story, and the more you look into it, the poorer an explanation it turns out to be. Waterspouts come in two varieties, just like tornadoes on land. The first and most common is a non-tornadic waterspout, which is a local fair-weather phenomenon, akin to a dust devil you might see over farmland. They have little or no effect on the surface of the water. The second much rarer type is the full-blown supercell tornadic waterspout. The decreased air pressure inside a tornadic waterspout can actually raise the water level by as much as half a meter, but water itself is not sucked up inside. The visible column of a waterspout is made up of condensation, and is transparent. The high winds will kick up a lot of spray from wavelets on the surface, but if you look at pictures of waterspouts, you'll see that this spray is thrown outward, not sucked up inward. Just below the surface of the water, things are undisturbed. Waterspouts simply do not have any mechanism by which they might reach down into the water, collect objects, and then transport them upward into the sky.
If you've watched video of destructive tornadoes on land, you've seen this same effect. When a tornado rips through a building or a town, you'll see debris kicked up into the air, often quite high, from where it takes a ballistic trajectory outward. Never do objects ascend the inner column, because there is simply no mechanism inside for doing that. It's not an elevator; it's a destructive force scraping stuff off the surface and throwing it upward and outward. Stuff might take a lap or two around the column while it's being snatched up and tossed. Debris goes everywhere; groups of related objects are never picked up from one place, kept together, and neatly deposited somewhere else. Certainly there is no mechanism that might carry a group of objects way up into the clouds, transport them laterally great distances through fair weather while somehow counteracting gravity, and then suddenly release them in a single tight group to drop to the ground.
Not once in a single case of several dozen that I read was there ever a report of a tornado or waterspout in the vicinity, or even at all, no matter how far away. I conclude that waterspouts have no connection, either hypothetical or evidentiary, to the phenomenon of frogs, fish, or any other animals, falling out of the sky. There's a much better explanation that's well known to zoologists, but for reasons I can't fathom, is almost never put forward to explain these stories.
The thing is, we've got these stories repeated over and over again, and all of them, or almost all of them, are completely credulous. Nearly every author uncritically repeats the story, often giving the waterspout theory as a possible explanation. Almost never will you hear someone ask the question "Wait a minute; did this actually happen the way witnesses thought?" These authors don't know one of the fundamentals of critical examination: Before you try to explain a strange phenomenon, first see if the strange event ever really happened; or at least whether it happened the way it's been reported.
Drop a frog off a building, and unless it's extremely small, it goes splat; so undoubtedly, what people think they're seeing in these stories can't be what's actually going on. If the frog didn't come from the sky, could it have come from somewhere else?
Frogs do swarm naturally on occasion. It happens frequently enough that people start to correlate these events with other things that happened: Storms, earthquakes, celebrity deaths, what have you. It's been reported that frog swarms were correlated with both the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China. Shortly thereafter, when frogs swarmed in Bakersfield, California, some called for earthquake preparedness. Needless to say, there was no earthquake; just a random population explosion of frogs. Sometimes these explosions can be dramatic. In 2004, four hurricanes hit Florida, making that state about the wettest it's ever been. The local species of frogs and toads all had a banner year, described by the Florida Museum of Natural History as a carpet.
Every spring and fall, frogs migrate between shallow breeding ponds and deeper lakes. Because they're amphibians and need to keep their skin moist, they migrate most often during rainstorms. In many cases, the day with the right conditions will come, and the whole frog population will move cross-country en masse, across roads, across properties, wherever it needs to go. When you look outside during a heavy rainstorm and you see thousands of frogs jumping everywhere all over the ground, the illusion that they're falling from the sky and bouncing can be quite convincing. A swarm of frogs looks like ping pong balls bouncing in a lottery machine. The fact that there usually aren't frogs here adds credibility to the illusion. Throw in a healthy dose of confirmation bias and some exaggerated second, third, and fourth hand reports, and you automatically end up with every imaginable detail like the frogs were choking rain gutters on top of buildings.
Although this explanation might satisfy the stories of frogs falling from the sky, what about fish? You don't find mass migrations of fish crossing overland, do you? Well, maybe not mass migrations, but believe it or not, there are fish species that occasionally take to the ground in search of better waters. There are many species of "walking fish" in the world. Mudskippers are probably the best known variety. In Florida in 2008, a school of about 30 walking catfish emerged from the sewer during a heavy storm and went slithering around on the street. The northern snakehead is another fish that can wriggle its way around on dry land. Throughout Africa and Asia are 36 species of climbing perches. They have a special organ that allows them to breathe air, and are able to walk using their gill plates, fins and tail, despite looking completely fishlike with no obvious ambulatory limbs. None of these fish move gracefully or even look like they have the ability. To the average witness, it's a live fish flopping around on the ground where no fish has any business being, and having fallen from the sky seems as good an explanation as any.
But they can't have fallen from the sky. Drop a fish off a building, and that's a dead fish. These fish are not reported as being burst open with their guts splattered out, but as flapping and squirming about, very much alive. An alternate explanation, that these fish are simply using their rare but well established ability to move overland, doesn't require us to accept some unexplained, implausible hypothesis even in the face of a lack of splattered-fish evidence.
We have no reason to think anyone actually observed the fish falling from the sky. All we know is that some people have reported finding live fish on dry ground. No doubt many of them couldn't think of any explanation other than the fish fell there, so they probably told the reporter "A bunch of fish fell out of the sky." At that point, the reporter had the story he was looking for, and needed to inquire no further.
Go back and read any story you've ever seen about frogs and fish falling from the sky, this time allowing for the possibility that the animals were already naturally on the ground when the witnesses first discovered them. Allow for the possibility that some elements of the report, like the falling part, could be based originally on witness conjecture or assumption. What you'll find is that a tale so perplexing that the only possible explanation seemed to be a paranormal event, has now become a very cool example of rare animal behavior that most people don't even know about. When you fail to think critically, you fail to learn new information. Never stop your investigation prematurely at the popular supernatural explanation, and always be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "It's Raining Frogs and Fish." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
8 Sep 2009. Web.
22 May 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4170>
References & Further Reading
Camero, H. "A Big Night for viewing frogs and salamanders." Wicked Local Bolton. GateHouse Media, Inc., 28 Mar. 2008. Web. 26 Jan. 2010. <http://www.wickedlocal.com/bolton/homepage/x1681298480>
Fort, C. The Book of the Damned: The Collected Works of Charles Fort. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. 42-50, 81-99, 299-305.
Graham, J. Air-breathing fishes: evolution, diversity, and adaptation. San Diego: Academic Press, 1997. 54-56.
Gudger, E. "Rains of Fishes." Natural History. Natural History Magazine, 1 Nov. 1921. Web. 8 Sep. 2009. <http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/271577/rains-of-fishes>
King, F. "Thank goodness for hurricanes: Heavy Florida rains lead to toad, frog population explosion." Science Stories. Florida Museum of Natural History, 1 Mar. 2005. Web. 8 Sep. 2009. <http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/sciencestories/2005/TGFhurricanes.htm>
Schneider, T. "The Vernal Pool A Place of Wonder." Wild Ones Journal. 1 Mar. 2006, Volume 18, Number 2.
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