The little dotted frogs could not have picked a more picture-perfect day for their release into a remote mountain stream within their historic habitat. As wind rustles the swaying tree crowns and sunshine warms our backs, the team of multi-agency collaborators—along with a bevy of reporters—descends on Indian Creek in the San Jacinto Mountains. Bred at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, 65 juvenile mountain yellow-legged frogs Rana muscosa are stowed in pairs in Tupperware containers (with puncture holes) in 2 large, temperature-controlled coolers, awaiting their freedom…and a feast of fresh crickets skirting over the water’s surface. It’s an exciting milestone, years in the making.
In 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Southern California’s mountain yellow-legged frog (MYLF) as endangered, with fewer than 200 adult frogs scattered throughout perennial streams in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto mountains. In 2006, a group of tadpoles (once referred to as pollywogs) were collected from the wild and brought to the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Research Coordinator Frank Santana took painstaking care of little guys, monitoring tank temperature, water quality, ambient light, and everything that could possibly impact the froglets’ development.
Though there was high survivorship, breeding seemed to be at an impasse, so Frank came up with an experiment to let a subset of the frogs hibernate for 60 days in a wine chiller. This proved to be the answer to the amphibian amour riddle, as the hibernated individuals were soon mating after “waking,” with six clutches of eggs laid within two days. With the fertility issue solved, Frank was able to shift his focus to field reintroduction efforts, which culminated in the dozen people buzzing about the three release sites in the stream on June 12, 2013. By raising the tadpoles in captivity into their tailless juvenile stage (about 14 months), it is hoped that there will be less predation and higher survivorship of these animals in the wild. Driving up to the release site, Frank confides that these dappled frogs are “just as deserving of a CHP escort as the pandas.” Given the years of research and collaboration required to get to this MYLF release, I’d have to agree.
The Fungus Among Us
Mountain yellow-legged frogs have not graced this stream since the 1990s when the perfect storm of habitat loss and degradation, nonnative introduced trout, which eat the frogs and their eggs, and the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus sweeping the globe, conspired to destroy this species. It’s up to humans to repair MYLF habitat and safeguard against the chytrid fungus. As the road wound higher into the mountains, Frank shared with me the “extra step” taken to ensure these animals released have the best chance at survival. “We are soaking the frogs twice for 4 hours in water containing beneficial bacteria, to protect them against the chytrid fungus.” Dr. Vance T. Vredenburg, a professor at San Francisco State University, discovered that a naturally occurring strain of bacteria may help ward off the fungus in frogs. This could be a game changer for amphibian conservation!
Frank and Adam Backlin from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) crouch next to the stream with several Tupperware containers bobbing on the surface. Stream water seeps in through the air holes and the frogs seem giddy with their natural habitat so near. Other USGS staff is testing the tiny “backpacks” of radio transmitters, which will be strapped onto 15 of the frogs released. This will enable researchers to track the frogs for the next 30 days to see where they settle, and then remove the transmitters. Frank wades knee-deep into the creek and gently holds a spotted, two-inch long frog on his palm over the water. The frog pauses (for a photo?), then leaps into the water, diving deep into the blessed muck on the bottom. Frank scoops up another frog. Cameras click. The liberation process is mesmerizing. One frog hops back into his Tupperware, but quickly changes his mind. Splash! As we stand under the warm sun, the frogs begin to swim to the surface, eying their audience from their chilly element. They linger, as we do, savoring this giant leap for amphibian conservation.
THANK YOU! San Diego Zoo Global is grateful to mountain yellow-legged frog recovery collaborators at the Los Angeles Zoo, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Chillin’ Out with Cold-Blooded Creatures.