Amphibian Conservation: Crawfish Frogs in Crisis

What is the best way to repurpose a basement in one of the buildings at the Detroit Zoo? Turn it into an amphibian’s paradise!

Amphibians across the globe are in crisis, with populations declining rapidly due to climate change, habitat destruction and a disease called the chytrid fungus. In an effort to reverse this trend for the crawfish frog (Lithobates areolatus), which is listed as Endangered in the state of Indiana, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources and staff at Indiana University. In 2013 these entities began a repatriation project, which is an effort to return a species to its natural habitat. This involved the collection of egg masses from grasslands in Indiana, which were then transported to the Detroit Zoo, where staff raised them until they were almost froglets before releasing them back into the wild.

The crawfish frog can lay egg masses with as many as 5,000 eggs. That might make one wonder how these animals could be endangered, right? Well, even if all of those eggs hatched into tadpoles, less than one percent of those tadpoles would ever make it out of the water. Tadpoles are an easy prey for a wide variety of animals including birds, fish, mammals, frogs and even larger tadpoles. And even fewer tadpoles would make it far enough into adulthood to breed. This shows how vulnerable the tadpole stage is in a frog’s life, which is why we focused our efforts on this stage.

We knew what we needed to do, but where is there enough room for thousands of tadpoles at the Detroit Zoo? How about right under the noses of Jasiri and Tamba, two Southern white rhinos! Not directly under them, since 12,000 pounds of rhino would be harmful to a tadpole, but rather in the basement of their indoor habitat. It took a lot of hard work from staff, but the space was eventually turned into a fantastic temporary home for crawfish frog tadpoles. Some of their luxury items include manufactured ponds with an automatic rain system, spotlights and temperature control systems – and of course, plenty of food.

In April, the crawfish frog egg mass is transported from Indiana to the Detroit Zoo in a cooler. We take this egg mass right down to the basement where it is placed in water. In a couple of weeks, tadpoles start to emerge, which are then counted and moved into long pond-like pools. We raise these newly hatched tadpoles for about three months, with the amphibian department staff feeding and cleaning them daily. It takes hours to care for the tadpoles each day, but it is all worth it in the end when they are driven back to Indiana and released. The total number of tadpoles varies from year to year, but since this project started in 2013, the DZS has released a total of 10,411 tadpoles back into the wild.

While wild tadpoles have less than a one percent chance of survivability, we were able raise that to an astounding 99 percent in 2014 and 2015 for these “basement” tadpoles. That’s because they don’t need to worry about predators, disease, lack of food or pollution. This lets them get a good head start on life – but we don’t make it too easy for them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know what to do once they got back to the wild. So before they fully metamorphose – or turn into frogs – they are taken back to Indiana and released into the ponds. Since some frogs lead a “double life” – aquatic and terrestrial – they are able to finish their aquatic life stage in enclosed repatariums, or screened-in containers, that allow protection before they are released as full frogs in the environment in which they will live. This method works well and provides exposure to the environment they will be living in before they become too accustomed to the luxury of the rhino basement.

The DZS crawfish frog conservation project requires long hours, but it is also the best time of the year as a member of the amphibian department staff. Seeing how the DZS can make a positive impact on this species and the ecosystem is very rewarding.

– Michael Andrus is an amphibian department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Amphibian Conservation: Wyoming Toads Prepare for Breeding

A pair of small gold eyes peers out from under a mass of sphagnum moss. In a day or two, this warty creature will complete its climb out from the depths of the sandy soil where he has spent the last 30 days sleeping and “chilling” at a cool 38 degrees. Along with seven other individuals of this species, he will awaken due to an increase in temperature and light. By the time the temperature reaches 74 degrees, he will have completely removed himself from the soil and be sitting atop it, hopefully alongside his companion, a slightly larger female. In the week that follows, events these two small cold-blooded creatures will go through could lead to producing thousands of their species in a matter of hours due to their “explosive” nature.

The Wyoming toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) is one of North America’s most endangered species and one of the amphibians we work with as part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP) at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.  This toad’s wild populations began declining in the 1970s, and by the 1980s was listed as an Endangered Species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Possible causes for the population decline are use of aerial pesticides to eliminate mosquitoes, habitat manipulation, and disease in the form of the amphibian chytrid fungus. Realizing a decline was occurring, the last remaining toads were collected and by 1994, all remaining wild-born Wyoming toads were believed to be entirely in captivity. The IUCN now describes the Wyoming toad as extinct in the wild, meaning any toad currently found in the wild has come from captive breeding, in which the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been actively involved.

The Wyoming toad SSP is managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The DZS has been a member of this conservation program since 1995 and since 2001 has sent a total of 6,505 tadpoles and toadlets to the wild. All Wyoming toads are the responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), so members of the AZA work closely with them to follow all USFWS permit guidelines for keeping them in captivity. The goal of any captive breeding program is to produce healthy offspring for release into the wild with the goal of rebuilding them into a self-sustaining population. Each toad in captivity is identified and tracked, which helps to pair toads that will produce the most genetically diverse and healthy offspring. Breeding pairs of toads are chosen almost a year in advance so toads have plenty of time to move from one zoo to another to create the breeding pairs.

Although not as well known as Jabari and Kivuli, the giraffe couple at the Detroit Zoo, Wyoming toads Butler and Beverly are a very important couple of toads. They are part of a “bio-secure” population and will never be seen by the public, which ensures they will not accidentally release diseases, known or unknown, into the wild via their offspring. They are held with four other pairs of Wyoming toads in a special room away from all other amphibians, so they will remain free of diseases that could otherwise be found in species not native to the western region of North America.

At the AZA’s recommendation, Butler arrived at the Detroit Zoo last October to be paired with Beverly, who arrived in 2012. Both are now 3 years old, which is about middle aged for a Wyoming toad. In early April, they were placed together into a thermostat-controlled “hibernaculum”, which is used to cool the toads, simulating the hibernation period a wild Wyoming toad would go through during the winter. The toads are kept cooled for about a month to help prepare them for breeding; eggs or sperms may develop and mature as a result of this cooling. The toads are given plenty of sandy soil to bury down into and sleep in just as they would have in the wild, and the Zoo’s animal care staff checks in on them weekly to make sure they are doing well.

At the end of May, the temperature in the hibernaculum will be increased to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the toads will begin to awaken. Once they have climbed out from the soil, we will place them back into regular husbandry for a few days where they will continue to warm up and eat. Recordings of male toads calling are played during this time to condition toads further for breeding. Within a few days of emerging from hibernation, Butler and Beverly will be placed into a breeding chamber with 2-3 inches of water. The pair will hopefully go into “amplexus” within a few hours, which happens when the male positions himself on top of the female using his front legs and squeezes her, encouraging her to lay eggs. He fertilizes the eggs as she lays them, usually in the dark, overnight. Butler and Beverly should lay thousands of eggs, which is typical of toad species. Described as “explosive breeders”, the more eggs they can lay the better the chance offspring have of surviving the elements, diseases and predators. Since this is a captive breeding, we can help the thousands of eggs that Butler and Beverly produce survive into strong, healthy tadpoles.

Approximately two to three weeks after eggs have hatched into thousands of hungry tadpoles, arrangements are made with the USFWS to ship the tadpoles to Wyoming, where they will be released into protected wetlands. These tadpoles will add to those previously produced in captivity sent yearly by the zoos that participate in this program and the USFWS.

The wetlands are monitored during the spring and summer as part of yearly field surveys done to track the health and population of the toads. This year we hope that Butler, Beverly and the three other pairs of Wyoming toads at the Detroit Zoo are able to contribute thousands of healthy tadpoles to the wild population.

– Rebecca Johnson is the associate curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society.