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Facebook Winner Joins Us in the Field

From left to right: Facebook winner Jeff Williams, research technician Frank Santana, UC James Reserve Director Rebecca Fenwick

When we got to the gorgeous University of California James Reserve in the San Jacinto Mountains, the sun was high and the sky was a clear, deep blue. We lucked out. It was the perfect day to take our Facebook winner, Jeff Williams, with us into the field to take part in our mountain yellow-legged frog project. It was also apparent by the conversation we had in the two-hour car ride up to the mountains that Jeff was the perfect candidate to take with us.

An avid outdoorsman, Jeff’s passion for nature and the wildlife therein was palpable. It turned out that Jeff used to breed blue dart frogs, a hobby catalyzed by an encounter he had with wild frogs in Costa Rica. “I thought it was amazing to come across these fluorescent spots of light in the forest all around you,” he said. A love of wildlife also runs in Jeff’s family. After learning that meat came from animals at the age of four, his daughter chose to be vegetarian. “It’s kind of a good thing because it forces us to eat healthier,” Jeff said.

Jeff was also very interested in the project, and asked Frank Santana, our lead field technician, a million questions about mountain yellow-legged frogs (MYLF) and their plight. We learned that the chytrid fungus is the main reason for the frog’s alarmingly rapid decline. The fungus affects the keratin layer of skin and impairs the frogs’ ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through their skin, resulting in a slow suffocation. The species also faces threats from pollution and introduced predators like brown and rainbow trout. I also learned that historically there were 160 populations of MYLF in the region, now there are just 9. In fact, 33% of all amphibian species worldwide are threatened by extinction, with threats from habitat loss, pollution, introduced species, and chytrid. This knowledge gave our work renewed gravity and purpose in my mind.

When we broke off the beaten path toward the wild stream where we had released about 500 critically endangered mountain yellow-legged frog tadpoles earlier this year, it was clear that we were in for an adventure. Soon we were climbing over fallen logs, thrashing through dense foliage, and wading in knee-deep water. Our goal was to hike upstream in search of tadpoles that may have dispersed from their original release pools. Jeff didn’t get off easy. We put him to work searching for tadpoles and measuring the length, width, and depth of certain pools, and he gladly indulged us. He was an important part of the team for a day. He even brought some useful equipment with him, like a super-small, super-bright LED flashlight that really came in handy for searching dark pockets of water. In fact, many of the pictures we captured of tadpoles wouldn’t have come out without Jeff shining his flashlight in the water.

After a few hours of searching the stream we had yet to find tadpoles, even with the help of UC James Reserve Director Rebecca Fenwick. It wasn’t until we got to the most upstream release pool that we saw about five tadpoles, which believe it or not is a good sign, since tadpoles face threats from many predators in the wild. It was an incredible feeling to finally spot the little guys. “After all that work it’s good to see that they’re still there and hopefully they’ll start to see some success,” Jeff said. I think we can all agree.

It was an absolute pleasure having Jeff along with us. We appreciated his help and had an awesome time “doing science” with him. Like our facebook page for a chance to fill Jeff’s shoes and ride along with us into the field for our cactus wren project.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Summer SCVNGR Safari.

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Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs: Life Beyond the City

The San Gabriel Mountains tower over the Los Angeles basin like sentinels. Heading up a winding highway into the mountain wilderness leaves all signs of the urban landscape behind. Stoplights, mini malls, and highways are replaced with trees, birds, and steep cliffs. Climbing further up the mountain reveals a wilderness teeming with amazing sights and a cacophony of sounds that stimulate the senses. Colorful butterflies, amazing wildflowers, and chirping frogs are all regular parts of the mountain landscape.

As a biologist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, Southern California’s mountains are my office and outdoor laboratory. The goal of my research is to improve our understanding of the critically endangered mountain yellow-legged frog Rana muscosa with the ultimate goal of reintroducing poopulations back into the mountains of Southern California. Every summer for the last three years I have headed up into the mountains to learn as much as possible about these magnificent and beautiful frogs. One third of the world’s amphibians are in decline, and by focusing our research on the mountain yellow-legged frog, the San Diego Zoo is working to do our part to save frogs from extinction.

Scientists noticed that mountain yellow-legged frogs were experiencing severe declines in Southern California during the 1990s, and in 2001 they were listed as an endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The exact reason for the drastic declines are unclear, but we suspect that the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus may have played a major role in population declines. In addition, the species faces pressures from habitat loss, wildfires, water pollution, global warming, and introduced predators. Today only nine populations of mountain yellow-legged frogs exist in Southern California.

This summer I am focused on understanding the population demographics of wild mountain yellow-legged frog tadpoles. With the assistance of our summer research fellow Stephanie Wakeling, we are hoping to gain insight into the survival rates of tadpoles during their two to three years of life before they metamorphose into frogs. Keep an eye out for a regular series of blog entries as we share this exciting research with you throughout the summer.

Frank Santana is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Desert Memories.