TIFTON – South Georgians are accustomed to spotting gopher tortoises slowly navigating the area landscape. But gopher frogs have been slowly disappearing from southern pinelands for decades.
Dr. Vanessa Lane, an Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management in the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College School of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is partnering with other agencies to help replenish the species.
For years, state biologists have collected gopher frog egg masses from the few remaining healthy populations to raise in captivity. The egg masses were distributed to head-starting facilities at the University of Georgia, The Amphibian Foundation, and Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery.
Earlier this year, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) asked Lane to start the state’s fourth captive-rearing facility.
“It’s very exciting to be part of this project,” Lane said. “I’ve only seen one gopher frog in the wild. They’re quite rare.”
The medium-sized, toad-like frog needs pine savannas and wetlands, habitats that have become rare throughout the Southeast due to fire exclusion and conversion to agriculture and intensive forestry. Over the last decade, the Georgia DNR, along with private organizations and other government agencies, have purchased and protected new habitat areas for the species.
Now, they just need the frogs.
The Gaskins Forest Education Center in Alapaha agreed to take in the egg masses and raise the frogs there. Once there, Lane takes the miniature adults, called “metamorphs,” and weighs, feeds, and marks each one prior to release.
The frogs are marked with an injectable visual implant elastomer in the bottom of the foot, a harmless non-toxic implant that can be seen under ultraviolet light. Lane hopes to see the marked frogs return to breeding ponds in a year or two.
Because predators such as raccoons and owls love to eat young frogs, the head-starting programs hatch out more metamorphs than would probably occur in the wild naturally.
“We’re trying to boost populations,” Lane said. “Getting the frogs past the egg and tadpole stage gives them the best shot at surviving to adulthood.”
Nearly 450 metamorphs were released locally, a number that Lane was pleased with for the first year. Heather Brasell is the director of the Gaskins Forest Education Center, and she is also excited about the progress.
“This is a great opportunity for private volunteers like us to support DNR conservation programs,” she said. “We also incorporate this project into environmental educational outreach programs at our Education Center.”
Now, it’s time for the frogs to take over the process.
“It’s up to the frogs to become established in the wilds of southern Georgia,” Lane said. “With time and maybe a little bit of luck, gopher frogs will once again be a common sight in our restored pine habitats.”