Zoos Release Critically Endangered Dusky Gopher Frogs Into The Wild

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Oct. 30 2018, Updated 5:12 p.m. ET

The dusky gopher frog is one of the most vulnerable creatures in the world. Conservationists estimate there are less than 135 adults left in the wild, making the frogs a critically endangered species. But these prickly amphibians might be poised for a comeback, as multiple zoos recently banded together to release around 300 frogs into the wild.

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The zoo-bred frogs were released along the Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Area in Mississippi this month. According to a press release, the Detroit Zoo contributed 25 dusky gopher frogs, while zoos from Omaha, Memphis, and Dallas pooled the rest. The amphibians all have ID trackers, so the zookeepers can keep tabs on their whereabouts — and survival.

The Detroit Zoo posted footage of the frogs checking out their new habitat on Facebook late last week, and they seemed to be acclimating just fine to the tall grasses and mossy waters.

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“It was gratifying to watch the frogs hopping off into the pond and peering at us on the shoreline – they looked completely at home, snapping at flies and acting like frogs,” Dr. Ruth Marcec, director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo, said in the press release.

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The Omaha World-Herald reports this was the third successful release since 2017. Last year, 98 froglets were added to the Mississippi habitat.

This is all very good news for the dusky gopher frog, also known as the Mississippi gopher frog. While the species once boasted high numbers in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, it’s now on the brink of extinction. The frogs haven’t been seen in Louisiana since the 1960s, and their future in that state is currently under review by the Supreme Court. 

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The Weyerhaeuser Company v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service case will determine whether federal conservation agencies can deem private land (in this case, acres owned by a timber company) a “critical habitat” for struggling species like the dusky gopher frog.

Advocates for the animal say drastic action is required to save the species from annihilation. “With nearly half of the world’s known 7,878 amphibian species threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, pollution, infectious diseases and other factors, bolstering the population of these amphibians in their natural environment is critical to their survival,” Marcec said in the Detroit Zoo press release.

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And their survival is critical to the environment, conservationists argue, due to the frog’s prey of choice. 

“They eat mosquito eggs and larvae, and those mosquitoes can carry diseases that kill human beings,” Jessi Krebs, the curator of amphibians and reptiles for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, told the World-Herald. “It’s a natural way to control pests.”

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The dusky gopher frog is also known for the dark bumps, spots, and ridges along its back. It’s a medium-sized amphibian that spawns in special, shallow pools — sometimes called “ephemeral ponds” — that only contain water certain times a year, making it impossible for preying fish to live there. Zoos like the Henry Doorly utilize in-vitro fertilization to breed their populations.

Krebs says their program will continue next spring, when dusky gopher frog tadpoles will be released into the Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Area. Though zoos have been confining their releases to Mississippi for the time being, a favorable Supreme Court decision could expand efforts to Louisiana.

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