A focus on frogs
Monitoring Utah’s native amphibians
Chris Crockett is an aquatic biologist who specializes in native amphibians. When he isn’t working, Chris enjoys fishing for native cutthroat trout, hunting forest grouse and kayaking with his wife, Emily, on the Great Salt Lake.
DESPITE A SLOW START, it looks like spring is finally here. Some frogs and toads emerged several months ago, but cold weather kept most of them in their winter refuges. They typically spend the coldest months under logs, in burrows and buried in wetland sediments.
Now, warmer temperatures and spring rains have brought many of these creatures out of hibernation, and they’ve begun their nightly chorus to attract mates.
One frog in particular, the Western (or Boreal) Chorus Frog, is especially vocal. This common frog is only around one to two inches in length but has a call that can be heard from hundreds of yards away. The call is a loud series of “preeps” and has often been described as the sound of someone stroking the small teeth of a pocket comb.
Utah has 14 species of native frogs and toads. Most of those species are very secretive, and the only clue to their presence is their nightly chorus. You can hear more of Utah’s frogs online at amphibiaweb.org.
As a child, I spent many days and nights catching these fascinating creatures. Most summer evenings, I could be found at the pond near my house, covered in mud and holding a bucket full of tadpoles. Luckily my mom, a science teacher, didn’t mind the mess and usually let me back in the house. Little did she realize I was honing my skills for a future career working with amphibians.
As an aquatic biologist for the DWR, I conduct annual monitoring surveys of Utah’s amphibian populations. We use different methods of surveying, depending on the species and the project goals.
For example, we just recently finished our annual monitoring of Columbia Spotted Frog populations along the Provo River. These frogs are seldom seen, so instead of trying to count adults, we count the egg masses they deposited during the breeding season. The number of egg masses we count gives us an idea of the total population (one mass equals one female and one male frog). The gelatinous egg masses are about the size of a baseball and can contain up to 1,000 tiny embryos. Typically, less than five percent will grow up to be adult frogs.
I’m often asked about why amphibians are important. Frogs and toads actually fulfill several roles in the ecosystem. Their diet consists primarily of insects, many of which are considered a nuisance to humans. The amphibians, in turn, are eaten by other species, including fish, birds and otters.
What may be a surprise is the role that amphibians play in protecting and preserving human health. Many of the medicines we rely on today are based upon enzymes found on frogs and toads.
Recently, scientists developed a drug for the treatment of brain tumors based on an enzyme contained within the eggs of Northern Leopard Frogs. These frogs are native to Utah and found in most counties. The cure to cancer may very well be a frog in your backyard!