By Ethan Hatchett
Gopher frogs are Georgia’s rarest frog. These small, stocky amphibians are sparsely distributed in the state’s Coastal Plain region, where they inhabit longleaf pine forests and temporary freshwater wetlands. Gopher frogs range from 2-and-a-half to over 3 inches long and have small limbs and a thick body.
Life for this chubby amphibians is split between wading in seasonal pools of water and hopping in and out of other animals’ burrows.
Seasonal, or vernal, pools are shallow depressions that hold water for only part of the year, usually from late fall into summer, before rising temperatures and the lack of rain dries them out. Because the pools are filled only by rains, they’re fish-less. This allows tadpoles to grow up without fish eating them, one of the tadpoles’ biggest threats.
Gopher frogs are drawn to these seasonal pools by heavy rainfall usually in late fall to early spring. The frogs will often travel great distances to reach these special habitats. Once they arrive, they begin breeding. Male gopher frogs spend most of their time using their unique snore-like call to try and attract mates. Females lay viscous egg masses filled with more than 2,000 potential new frogs.
It takes only about a week for the eggs to hatch into tadpoles. In another 87 to 215 days, the tadpoles will grow into frogs. But for these tiny larvae, it’s a race against the clock to mature before they are either eaten by predatory insects or birds or the seasonal pool dries up. (The roots from surrounding vegetation help hold water to make future vernal pools possible.)
When not visiting the water, gopher frogs make use of burrows made by gopher tortoises and other animals, such as small mammals like the pocket gopher and even crayfish. Like all amphibians, the gopher frog’s skin is semi-permeable, and death from drying out is a significant threat. Burrows offer shelter from the sun and heat while providing high humidity and cool temperatures year-round. In addition to comfort, the burrows also offer protection from many predators.
CONSERVING GOPHER FROGS
The longleaf pine ecosystem is essential for the survival of gopher frogs. One reason is the habitat is critical for gopher tortoises, whose burrows provide key refuge for gopher frogs. Also without these forests, seasonal pools would not have the vegetation needed to keep the depressions from drying up.
The lack of regular fires, coupled with habitat loss and fragmentation, are the primary threats to the survival of gopher frog. Those issues are also challenges for longleaf forests. To benefit rare species like the gopher frog, Georgia DNR works to manage longleaf habitats on state-owned properties and with landowners on private tracts.
With help from partners including the Amphibian Foundation, Zoo Atlanta, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gaskins Forest Education Center in Alapaha and the University of Georgia, the gopher frog is getting a head start. Captive colonies of gopher frogs are being bred and released to managed sites to help boost declining populations (watch) .
Gopher frogs are a charming and important species in Georgia. As a bioindicator (like all amphibians), what’s good for the gopher frog is good for its entire ecosystem. Other sensitive species can thrive when the habitat requirements for the gopher frog are met. When gopher frogs have homes, their neighbors do, too.
Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan includes the gopher frog is a high-priority species for conservation.
This comprehensive, statewide conservation strategy lists 640 animal and plant species as high priorities for conservation. The 150 conservation actions recommended in the plan focus restoration and protection efforts where they’re most needed and most effective.
The next revision of the plan is in the works. Conservation partners will again be critical to updating the strategy and putting its recommendations into practice.
Which bodes well for gopher frogs and other native wildlife.
Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.