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Phoenix Zoo marks restoration of 10,000th frog to the wild

Good news for a change for frogs: A consortium of conservation agencies and organizations recently celebrated the release into the Arizona wilderness of the 10,000th Chiricahua leopard frog reared at the Phoenix Zoo’s Conservation Center. The milestone was reached after many years of many people working hard to restore the native frog to habitat where it has been declining and disappearing.

By Jordan Schaul

Threatened by habitat loss and the insidious chytrid fungus, the Chiricahua leopard frog, Rana (Lithobates) chiricahuensis, a member of the family of “true frogs (Ranidae,)” which includes the better known bullfrog and Northern leopard frog, is literally leaping back into the riparian habitat and freshwater ecosystems, such as springs and ponds.

The animals are being restored to a region of the Southwestern U.S. thanks to some help from wildlife biologists, zoo biologists and a number of passionate conservationists. In Arizona, where these amphibians were released last week, these frogs are found at higher altitudes in both mountainous areas and within high valleys. As part of the USFWS Chiricahua Leopard Frog (CLF) Recovery Program, staff from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Phoenix Zoo’s Conservation Center CLF Breeding program, released 1,707 threatened ranids of various age cohorts into Arizona’s Tonto National Forest in August.

This release included the 10,000th Chiricahua leopard frog reared at the Phoenix Zoo’s Conservation Center, a significant milestone for the zoo’s captive breeding program for this rare and once vanishing species.

Chiricahua Leopard Frog.jpg

Photo of Chiricahua leopard frog courtesy of FWS.

Also this year, the Phoenix Zoo’s Anuran Conservation Center produced an additional 100 frogs that were reintroduced near Arizona’s Camp Verde in the Coconino National Forest as part of a nearly decade-long reintroduction and translocation project.

Similar to many translocation and reintroduction programs for herpetiles (reptiles and amphibians), this breeding/rearing program was initiated through cooperative efforts among a number of agencies to collect egg masses and wild-caught specimens from healthy populations of frogs.

“Thanks in part to Game and Fish’s Heritage Fund, we are making great strides in reestablishing Chiricahua leopard frogs to their native habitat in Arizona, and this release marks a significant accomplishment and milestone for the recovery effort,” says Michael Sredl, ranid frog project coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Our goal is to work through partnerships to preclude the need to list species on the federal Endangered Species list, or in cases where they are already listed, to recover them to a point where they can be removed from the list.”


Photo of Chiricahua leopard frog egg mass courtesy of FWS.

Arizona may be known for its dry heat and desert eco-regions, but it is home to a relatively rich herpetofauna, particularly among species of true frogs.

Plains leopard frogs, relict leopard frogs, Northern leopard frogs, Tarahumara frogs, lowland leopard frog, and two introduced ranids–the American bull frogs and Rio Grande leopard frogs–range through parts of the state.

The Chiricahua leopard frog is distinguished from the other leopard frogs in the region by a combination of character traits listed on the USFWS species description page. Included is a “distinctive salt and pepper pattern on the rear of the thigh of adults and some juveniles, [along with] dorsolateral folds that are interrupted and inset towards the rear, stocky body proportions, eyes that are relatively high and upturned on the head; and relatively rough skin on the back and sides.”

The Chiricahua leopard frog grows to be about four inches, and inhabits a range of open freshwater bodies from excavations to large ponds. Until the 1970s, Chiricahua leopard frogs lived in ponds and creeks across central and southeastern Arizona, but populations have declined significantly since then due to drought, disease, habitat loss and threats from non-native species.

“Recovering a species threatened with extinction is never an easy task,” said Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, southwest regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Because of the expertise our partners bring to the table, along with their dedication and innovative work, we are beginning to see progress toward recovery of the Chiricahua leopard frog. It is through collaborative efforts such as this one that that we hope to preserve our natural environment for future generations.”

The Phoenix Zoo has long been committed to repatriation programs for locally extinct or otherwise imperiled species, including Mexican wolves and thick-billed parrots. They also have an exemplary record for commitments to international recovery efforts.

My colleague, Dan Subaitis, director of animal management for the Phoenix Zoo, is working in Jordan with wild stock related to Arabian oryx now managed at the Phoenix Zoo. This project is a contemporary extension of the work of Operation Oryx, a recovery program that was initiated in the 1960s. At that time, the last remaining wild oryx were sent to the zoo to serve as founder stock for a captive breeding and recovery program.

“The Phoenix Zoo has a legacy of conservation and works locally, regionally and internationally to support conservation efforts like this one for the Chiricahua leopard frog,” says Ruth Allard, executive vice president of conservation and experiences at the Phoenix Zoo. “This particular release is exciting for the Phoenix Zoo as it marks the 10,000th frog that was cared for by our staff, and released into the wild.”

Zoos continue to play a critical role in species restoration programs which often also require corresponding habitat restoration. As amphibian decline continues at an alarming rate as a result of climate change and other stressors, wildlife rearing facilities will become increasingly important. Rearing and breeding chytrid-free populations of anurans (frogs and toads) is a huge contribution these facilities make to wildlife conservation at this time.


Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul or the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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