Conservation Partners Embark on a Five-Year Experiment to Revive Declining Populations of the Rare Gopher Frog
Posted by Miqe on September 5, 2007
Biologist release an experimental population of gopher frogs in Early County, Georgia
EARLY COUNTY, GA — September 4, 2007— A rare frog has been given a fresh start in southwest Georgia, thanks to teamwork between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), The Nature Conservancy, Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Jones Ecological Research Center.
Biologists released 68 gopher frog tadpoles and four newly-metamorphosed gopher frogs recently in an artificial pond at The Nature Conservancy’s Williams Bluffs Preserve in Early County. The release marks the start of a multi-year collaborative effort to establish a self-sustaining gopher frog population at the 1,980-acre preserve.
“This project would not be possible without the collaborative efforts of all parties involved,” said John Jensen, a senior wildlife biologist with the Nongame Conservation Section of the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division. “Only the Jones Center has donor eggs from a nearby source. Wildlife Resources does not have the expertise that Atlanta Botanical Garden does for raising the eggs and tadpoles. And The Nature Conservancy has the best suitable habitat currently without gopher frogs for releasing them.”
Information gathered from the project could help inform other conservation partners throughout the species’ six-state range on how best to protect and save the gopher frog from further decline.
Scientists Work to Revive Gopher Frog Populations
In preparation for the August release, biologist collected eggs from the wild at the Jones Ecological Research Center in Baker County, Georgia. These eggs were then nurtured to legged tadpoles and metamorphs – the stage in which young frogs develop lungs and four legs and no longer need the water – at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG).
“While we seem to get a lot of attention for amphibian work in Latin America, we also care about species here in our backyard, and thanks to the dedication and expertise of ABG amphibian specialist Beth Timpe, we were very happy to participate in this collaboration,” said Ron Gagliardo, amphibian conservation coordinator at the Garden.
Typically, the tadpoles and metamorphosed frogs would have been released in the preserve’s limesink wetlands on the outer edge of the longleaf pine forest. However, drought conditions caused the wetlands to dry out.
“We built a shallow pond next to the natural wetland and planted aquatic vegetation to create a structurally diverse habitat for the tadpoles and frogs to live and hide among,” said Malcolm Hodges, an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Georgia. “We have the pond well protected from predators, so this is an ideal environment for them to continue to grow and then, hopefully, they will return to breed in the natural ponds once the water levels return.”
Before they were released, Jensen injected all four metamorphosed frogs and many of the tadpoles with a small amount of fluorescent elastomer under the skin of the thighs. Harmless to the critters, this bright orange substance illuminates under black light, allowing biologists to track the progress of the tagged individuals as they continue to grow and breed.
Subsequent stockings will have a different color, allowing scientists to identify the year class of stocked frogs. The goal is to release about 500 tadpoles annually for at least five years. Biologists will continue to monitor the site with the hope that surviving gopher frogs will return to the natural pond to breed.
About the Gopher Frog
Only two to four inches long with heavy dark spots covering their body, gopher frogs have been documented at fewer than 10 sites in Georgia. Easily heard by its loud, guttural call, sounding similar to a snore, this unique frog with a large head and an appetite for other frogs is found almost exclusively in the Coastal Plain’s longleaf pine ecosystem.
Gopher frogs spend most of their time in stump holes and burrows – often those made by the gopher tortoise, another imperiled species. Breeding adults and tadpoles, however, thrive in shallow, fishless ephemeral and isolated wetlands embedded within the longleaf pine woodlands.
Unfortunately, the species is declining drastically as a result of significant threats: habitat destruction, the decline of gopher tortoises, fish stocked in breeding areas, and a lack of natural and prescribed fires in longleaf pine forests.
Photo credit: © Christine Griffiths/TNC (from top: Gopher frog; Malcolm Hodges with gopher frog tadpoles