Scientists working to bolster threatened gopher frog numbers
By Guest Columnist ZACK FOX LOEHLE, a writer based in Atlanta. His work is often about nature, history, and culture and has appeared in Mental Floss, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Explore Georgia and other outlets.
Scientists across Georgia are racing to conserve the gopher frog (Lithobates capito), an amphibian native to the Southeast threatened by the loss of its habitat due to fire suppression and development. Gopher frogs are “indicator species,” meaning that the health of the gopher frog indicates the health of South Georgia’s wetlands and forests as a whole. Already listed as “Rare” by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), federal review for listing under the Endangered Species Act is currently underway.
Gopher frogs were once widespread across the longleaf pine forests of Georgia, Florida, Alabama and the Carolinas. These pine forests historically covered the Southeast, but as they have disappeared due to logging, fire suppression and other human activity, the animals dependent on them suffered. Other species native to the longleaf forests have seen dramatic declines over the years and have received intensive conservation efforts. That includes the gopher tortoise and the red-cockaded woodpecker, among others. Now, the gopher frog is in the conservation spotlight.
“The gopher frog declined precipitously along with many other species associated with the greater longleaf pine ecosystem,” said Daniel Sollenberger, a senior wildlife biologist at DNR. “We now only have around a dozen or so sites the species can currently be found in the state, and some of those populations are apparently small, isolated and at risk of extirpation, as well. For that reason, gopher frogs are Georgia’s rarest and only protected frog species.”
Gopher frogs spend part of their time in ephemeral, open-canopy wetlands and other parts of the year in the drier uplands. When living away from the water, the frogs spend much of their time below ground, including in gopher tortoise burrows. By developing the land where the ephemeral ponds occur, it is possible to destroy their habitat overnight.
“Gopher frogs are kind of in isolated pockets around the southern portions of the state because they need the right wetlands to be there… You can wipe out a population of gopher frogs pretty fast by converting a landscape to something else,” said Ben Thesing, an MS candidate at UGA who serves as the graduate research assistant for the University’s gopher frog conservation project.
Efforts to conserve the gopher frog involve both landscape management and a captive-rearing and reintroduction program; these efforts work in tandem, coordinated by staff at DNR and UGA. Since longleaf pine forests evolved to thrive with fire, burning is an essential part of forest conservation efforts. DNR crews conduct controlled burns in the gopher frog’s habitat, ensuring that the landscape remains welcoming for the species.
“In the absence of regular prescribed fire, the open savanna and grassland-like habitats used by gopher frogs transition into a denser forest dominated by hardwood trees and shrubs that shade out the diverse, herbaceous groundcover gopher frogs need to survive. Fire can be reintroduced to restore these habitats and maintain them, however,” Sollenberger said.
While DNR manages the existing patches of gopher frog habitat, UGA and other institutions are working to raise live frogs and then release them safely back into the wild. This process is called captive rearing.
Captive rearing programs have been established at multiple institutions across Georgia, including UGA, Zoo Atlanta, the Amphibian Foundation, the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Each of these locations takes care of a group of gopher frogs, preparing them ultimately for reentry back into their natural habitat.
Captive rearing is different than captive breeding. Captive breeding would involve capturing adult frogs and keeping them in captivity. Captive rearing, on the other hand, involves conservationists collecting gopher frog eggs in the wild and subsequently hatching and rearing the young frogs in a controlled environment. Once the frogs have grown, scientists release them back into the wild with a radio transmitter for future monitoring and study.
“Because the gopher frog is a species of greatest conservation need, we’ve been…releasing [captive reared] frogs either at the wetland that they came from, or at other wetlands to try to either establish populations again or—more commonly—reinforce a declining population,” Thesing said.
Conservation and reintroduction efforts in Georgia are currently focused around a group of several sites, including William’s Bluff Preserve (owned by The Nature Conservancy) and several State Wildlife Management Areas located throughout central and southern Georgia.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is in the process of determining whether the gopher frogs should be given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act; the timeline for an announcement about their decision is unclear. In the meantime, scientists will continue their efforts to ensure that the gopher frog remains a vibrant part of Georgia’s ecological heritage.
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