Giving the endangered gopher frog a chance

As longleaf pine habitats disappear, so do many species that rely on them, including the Carolina gopher frog. The NC Zoo and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission are raising Carolina gopher frogs during their most vulnerable time: the egg, tadpole and froglet stage.

ASHEBORO The Carolina gopher frog may not have bright yellow spots or look warm and cuddly, but it's endangered. Amphibians worldwide are struggling. Habitat loss, diseases and invasive species have caused a decline in more than half the world’s frog, salamanders and caecilians.

“In North Carolina, the problem frogs are facing is habitat loss,” said Jeff Beane, herpetology collections manager at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Carolina gopher frogs are habitat specialists. That means they rely on specific ecosystems to live, work and play. For the Carolina gopher frog, that ecosystem is longleaf pine forests. They live most of their lives in pine stumps, and emerge in the winter to breed in ephemeral ponds.

Longleaf pine forests were once a ubiquitous feature of the southeast—now more than 90 percent of longleaf pine forests have disappeared.

“It’s been milled, it’s a habitat that’s used for agriculture, it’s developed for homes,” said Dustin Smith, curator of amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates at the North Carolina Zoo. “Historically, we had more than 30 populations of longleaf pine forests, and now we’re down to 6 or 7.”

The remaining longleaf pine forests are located in the Sandhills and the southeastern parts of the state. That’s where the last populations of Carolina gopher frog survive.

“We want to see this species recover in the wild,” said Smith.

To do that, the North Carolina Zoo partners with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to give frogs a boost during their most vulnerable time: the egg, tadpole and froglet stage.

“We collect a portion of each egg mass, bring them back to the zoo, raise them until they turn into tadpoles and small frogs, and then we go back out with the Wildlife Resources Commission and release them,” said Smith.

Before releasing the froglets, the team injects a tiny piece of colored plastic in the frog’s hind legs, which corresponds to the year they were released. That helps the zoo keep track of individual frogs years into the future, tracking whether or not they were able to survive.

They also radio track a few froglets. Mike Martin from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission goes to the release area every night to see how the frogs are doing. That’s how the team found out that invasive fire ants are eating a lot of these frogs.

“We’ve learned that in order for this program to be successful, we need to manage fire ants,” said Smith. To Smith, this work is important because diversity is important. “Every species has a role to play. We should care about these frogs because they’re unique.”

But in order for gopher frogs to recover, the longleaf pine ecosystem has to be maintained. “Frogs need places to live and places to breed,” said Beane. “Not everything can live in concrete buildings and sidewalks. Very few things can.”