Sunday, November 11, 2018

Limited-Edition Hellbender Art to Protect These Imperiled Amphibians -- New Foundation Partnership and Initiative --

Hey everyone I'm excited to announce a partnership between The Alongside Wildlife Foundation and one of my favorite artists: Logan Schmitt. Logan has created a limited edition Hellbender print and will be donating all of the proceeds directly to a brand new Hellbender conservation project in Tennessee. This project will help a population of these imperiled amphibians hold on while we learn more about the threats they face. Please keep reading this post to learn more about this important project and get yourself a print!

What Are We Doing?

We are raising funds to expand an existing Hellbender conservation project into an additional stream located in the Western Highland Rim of Tennessee. We hope this expansion will help stabilize the population in this stream while we work to understand why they are declining.

                                                    How Will We Do It?

We will install a series of nest boxes within a Tennessee stream to provide critical habitat the Hellbenders there urgently need for nesting areas and hiding spots. Then we will initiate a health assessment and monitoring program to better understand why the Hellbender population is in trouble.

Where is This Happening?

Hellbender populations inhabiting streams of middle Tennessee have experienced alarming declines over the past two decades. This project will occur in a small stream in the Western Highland Rim of Tennessee. Our target stream contains only large adult salamanders, an important clue that the Hellbender population is declining, probably because they are not reproducing successfully. Our conservation efforts will aim to bolster this population by improving the chances of reproduction as well as increasing the survival of hatchling Hellbenders.


If I told you that a large salamander known colloquially as the “snot otter”, “Allegheny alligator”, “old lasagna-sides”, or “Hellbender” lived in the same streams where you swam and fished, you might never want to get in the water again, however, these animals are harmless to us and mostly eat crayfish. Hellbenders are quite impressive; they can get bigger than two feet long, making them the largest salamander in the New World, although they are smaller than the only other two species in the Cryptobranchidae family, the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders. Hellbenders have been around for about 60 million years, but they are in trouble today.

Hellbenders once thrived in streams within the Ohio, Cumberland, and Mississippi river drainages of the eastern United States. Many of these rivers used to be well-oxygenated (great for Hellbenders, which use gills to breathe) and were surrounded by natural landscapes. Unfortunately, things like river damming, channelization, and land use change have now drastically altered these streams, driving hellbender populations down dramatically. There are other potential problems facing Hellbenders that we don’t know as much about, such as diseases like chytrid fungus and ranaviruses. The situation is so bad for Hellbenders that the Ozark subspecies is now protected by the Endangered Species Act and the eastern subspecies may not be far behind.

What can we do to protect remaining Hellbender populations and potentially resurrect declining populations? With funds generated from this print sale, we will initiate a two-phase project that we hope will allow Hellbenders to hold on at an imperiled site while producing information that will help us understand why they were declining there and elsewhere.

Phase 1: Dr. Jeff Briggler has dedicated a majority of his professional career protecting Hellbender populations (primarily in Missouri), and he has developed a unique approach to improve in-stream refuge and breeding habitat for Hellbenders. Dr. Briggler’s invention, which is known as a ‘bender box, is an in-stream, concrete structure that simulates Hellbender cover and breeding sites. These ‘bender boxes have been used successfully in a variety of stream environments to improve in-stream habitat and nesting success. Although researchers have used nest boxes in Tennessee before, they’ve only been placed in a few locations. Our goal is to deploy up to 20 Hellbender boxes in the western Highland Rim stream where we know Hellbenders are declining and where they need some help.

Phase 2: Even where Hellbenders are hanging on, researchers have noticed that they are experiencing a number of health problems including congenital abnormalities, pathogens, and harmful toxin concentrations. Unfortunately, we don’t know why. For a disease to affect an animal, three things need to happen: 1) A host that is susceptible 2) A pathogen or toxin that can infect or cause harm, and 3) An environment conducive to disease. To figure out what’s going on with Hellbenders that means we need to examine changes in Hellbender health, changes in the environment, and changes in pathogen presence. The ‘bender boxes we are installing in Phase One will help us monitor Hellbender health! We will use the lids on the boxes to peek in to see if there is anyone home - for every animal we find we will perform a thorough physical exam and take blood and skin samples to evaluate their health. While we are assessing their health, we will also be looking for changes in water quality and pathogen presence to see if we can tease out any patterns that can help explain why some of the salamanders are in poor health.

This Hellbender conservation project is an initiative of The Alongside Wildlife Foundation. Want to help us do even more to create and promote science-based solutions to living alongside wildlife in perpetuity? Please consider joining our growing network of recurring small donors here.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

California Waters: The Deserts ---Guest Post---

“Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”

Preserving space
There’s a fence. So we turn our car to the right and go around...and around. Miles drag on desert roads of a certain quality. It’s wonderful that the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area has expanded to encompass nearly 40 square miles, I just wish they had told our maps program.

A Longnose Leopard Lizard (Gambelia wislizenii)
in front of the interpretive center
Other than the dirt road, the fence, and the occasional pile of trash dumped by some fool, there is little evidence of human presence. The parking lot we eventually reach is empty save for a leopard lizard. It lies prostrate against a rock, soaking up the early sun.

Good omen.

As I shared in the first installment, we had set out on a journey across California to see how the state’s most vulnerable herp populations were coping with the pressures of the 21stcentury. My fellow-traveler for the desert stage of this odyssey is Matt Dagrosa, a wildlife surveyor from Oregon who has traversed nature with me since childhood. We want to witness the effects of ongoing drought and development on desert herptofauna – myself as someone who spent a fair amount of time here back in the years before drought conditions peaked, and Matt as a first-time observer of this unique desert assemblage.

We enter the preserve and loop in opposite directions to scan the landscape from as many angles as possible. Flat, sparsely vegetated desert gives way to more desert, beyond which sprawls yet more desert as far as the eye can see.

It takes patience to find the jewel in all this space
Diligent attention reveals life scattered amid the space. We come across side-blotched lizards, tiger whiptails, zebratail lizards. The first find worthy of a shout is a Desert Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) camouflaged against the sand. If not for a nerveless dash it would have remained undetected. Then, to our delight, Matt spots a Mojave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).

Not content with one tortoise, we loop opposite routes on another trail. I take a wrong turn and end up on a longer path. Soon I lose sight of Matt. Pushing on, scanning in every direction, I look to expose a tortoise, a rattlesnake, some interesting denizen of the dryness. Lizard life appears here and there. Habitat sprawls out into the distance. My eyes tire in the sun.

“Gaze not too long into the abyss, lest the abyss gaze into thee.” 

There is a color theme here

Alone in this land, I should appreciate Edward Abbey’s “great stillness of the desert.” But my mind dwells on how the hunt is dragging. I am desperate to score a find, my impatience a mismatch to the abiding landscape. A horned lizard reveals itself here, another there, but no more tortoises emerge in the hour it takes to navigate the abyss and return to Matt.

Something doesn’t quite fit
Of course, while Matt was looping a shorter trail he ran into the preserve manager, who showed him two tortoises failing to mate. I’ll leave their obstacle to your imagination. Matt is giddy with the dopamine rush of a once-in-a-lifetime herping moment. I am weary with the space, and wish to move on. 

“We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.”

Danger when constrained

Three hours of driving brings us to the Coachella Valley. Famous for retirement communities and rock concerts, this desert valley also hosts considerable herptofaunal diversity. Our goal for the afternoon is an empty lot of sand on the overdeveloped valley floor, dunes that host a fascinating endemic herp – the Coachella Fringe-toed Lizard.

Coachella Fringe-toed Lizard (Uma inornata)
spotted on a pre-development visit
The fringe-toed lizard has a range of striking adaptations – fringed toes, shoveled snout, ear flaps, valved nostrils, and more – that are necessary to thrive in the dunes. Golf courses, retirement homes, and palm plantations have wiped away over 80% of this dune habitat, leading in 1980 to the designation of the Coachella Fringe-toed Lizard as a Threatened Species on the Endangered Species List. Of the habitat that remains, only nineteen square miles are considered “optimal”. 

So you can imagine my horror when we arrive at our destination and find construction vehicles breaking ground. A mile-square of desert dune is being turned into a residential development. One more project in a valley full of homes looks normal to Matt, but I remember my walks here and am aghast.

“This was nothing but dunes before! All of this was habitat! It was full of sidewinders, kangaroo rats, fringe-toed lizards...they’re an endangered species! We notified the state of their presence here! I can’t believe it’s all being developed!”

On the remaining undeveloped edge,
the dunes stretch out...and stop.
At the lot’s edge are trees and buildings, nesting 

and resting spots for predatory birds
We drive halfway around before finding the point at which construction stops. Hoping to verify that not all is lost, I enter from an intact corner and begin my search. It isn’t long before a familiar shape darts from a sandbank into a bush. Still here! I spot a second fringe-toed lizard, then a third. I am pumped to see them holding on. Yet only a few hundred meters of dunes remain. 

Kestrels hunting on the sand
Reduced habitat is tough for any animal. But in this case there is an ominous undertone to the constricted space. Historically these dunes were sweeping landscapes of wind-blown sand interspersed with brush, nothing rising to the height of a man...and no perches from which predators could survey the land. Birds of prey such as the American Kestrel can hunt from flight, but they prefer to spot their prey from the rest of a perch, and their nests must be placed in tree cavities or building nooks. In the open desert the fringe-toed lizard is relatively safe. But set a power line or ornamental tree in that same habitat, and it becomes a killing zone. 

So the conversation about desert conservation revolves around space. I may underappreciate the open expanses that define the desert, but for reptiles they are a defense from the kestrels, shrikes, and owls that otherwise decimate their numbers. One study found that Flat-tailed Horned Lizard populations decline within 1500 feet of human development, apparently due to an increase in depredation. Desert tortoises are eaten by coyotes and ravens, which once struggled to persist in the barren desert but now make inroads by feasting on the trash of human presence, waste that no one thinks will be a problem because “it’s just the desert.” Every campground and dump is an oasis from which predators branch out, and the tortoises suffer. 

It will get worse. The average size of a new single-family home in America has grown from 983 square feet in 1950 to over 2,500 square feet today, even as the number of people per household has dropped over the same period. Larger homes lead to larger plots, leading new suburbs to leach away from the original cities. To some degree it is a product of vast central planning; “An economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human.” But it is also the result of millions of individual decisions, every family that moves further out to get the big yard, every speculator or vacationer who buys a second home in the desert. Suburban sprawl has maxed out the LA Basin and now reaches to the north and east. Is this constant growth necessary? Inevitable? Sustainable?
Exactly the right amount...

“Water, water, water....There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation.”

If you travel to the Anza-Borrego Desert Visitor Center this year, you may see a remarkable notice. The paper stapled to the wall states that only 1.12 inches of rain has fallen on the desert, and 0.99 inches of that was in one day in early January. With virtually no rain, the park’s famous spring wildflower bloom was a dud. 

So dry you can feel the brush crackle
Many of us assume that the desert doesn’t need water. And it is true that its inhabitants are adapted to persist on limited rain, just the right amount. But that amount is essential. Water brings life to plants, which are fed upon by insects and rodents, which provide nourishment for lizards and snakes, which are eaten by owls and kit foxes. Every form of life is part of a chain for which water is at the core.

Take the water away, and life diminishes. Thus goes desert vitality in California’s ongoing drought, labeled a “hot drought” due to rising temperatures that exacerbate the situation. Research shows that this changing climate has a negative effect on some populations of Mojave Desert Tortoises and Coachella Fringe-toed Lizards, and anecdotal reports by herpers suggest the same for many other species. We see their numbers ebb and flow with the climate.

Anza-Borrego is one of my favorite wildlife spots in the world, but Matt and I are disappointed. No lizards move on the dunes, few snakes cross the roads. One particular expanse usually riddled with desert iguanas now fails to produce a single one. The highlight for the day is a palm oasis with an array of frogs and canyon lizards. But even that stream is deficient, its famous waterfall dry.

A California Chorus Frog, Western Chuckwalla,
Granite Spiny Lizard, Desert Pupfish, Banded Rock Lizard,
and Baja California Collared Lizard enjoy the last reservoir of
remaining moisture in the palm oasis
We had planned to spend two days in Anza-Borrego. But a tangible depression overcomes us as we miss out on one target after another, the dryness of climate change an intimidating foe. Less than 24 hours in, we throw our hands in the air and move on to the next desert. 

An altered valley
“there is method at work here, method of a fanatic order and perseverance: each groove in the rock leads to a natural channel of some kind, every channel to a ditch and gulch and ravine, each larger waterway to a canyon bottom or broad wash leading in turn to the Colorado River and the sea.”

This Desert Blind Snake (Leptotyphlops humilis), found
 in moist sands below the dry desert surface,
was uncovered on  an earlier trip to the river's shores
The Imperial Valley is a fertile desert laid down by floods. Over millions of years the Colorado River cyclically surged and dried here, draining water and sediment from seven western states to deposit in the valley’s flats. Flora and fauna adapted, some species utilizing the arid desert and others the unique niche where the sands and waters met, making use of the “just enough” water that all desert life craves.

It all changed in 1900. The California Development Committee dug irrigation canals to divert water to Imperial Valley and create farmland from the rich deposits. But the engineers failed to account for silt loads which the Colorado continued to bring from the Grand Canyon and beyond. Soon the canals blocked up and a new intake was cut too hastily without the necessary gates and flow regulators. Heavy rains hundreds of miles upriver increased water volume, and the entire output of the Colorado River burst over the levees and poured across the landscape. A dry lakebed called the “Salton Sink” filled with the overflow and became the “Salton Sea”, now the largest lake in California. 

In a rocky canyon west of the agriculture, one productive night
 with our friend Jeff Nordland yielded Speckled Rattlesnake,
Red Diamond Rattlesnake, Leaf-toed Gecko, 

Colorado Desert Shovelnose Snake, and Granite Night Lizard

It took a few years to recover from the debacle, but the water was eventually brought under control. Today the world’s highest capacity irrigation aqueduct, the All-American Canal, carries 3.1 million acre-feet of water away from the Colorado River every year. Thus the lifeblood of the parched Southwest is routed into a network of agricultural fields from the Mexican border to Mecca, redistributed at human discretion. Much of America’s lettuce, broccoli, carrots, and dates are now grown it what was once desert. And the herptofauna of the region has changed forever.

Before the irrigation revolution, an ecosystem existed at the edges of the Colorado River and in the pools and creeks that periodically flowed off of it. Checkered Garter Snakes and Sonoran Mud Turtles hunted in the mud. Lowland Leopard Frogs floated in the small streams. Sonoran Desert Toads, Woodhouse’s Toads, Great Plains Toads, and Couch’s Spadefoots bred in the pools, spreading out into the desert whenever the rains accommodated. 

Woodhouse's Toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii) hopping across
 a city road. Nearby a lively breeding chorus emanated
from a manmade pond
Irrigation shifted the balance. Those species constrained to water now have a more consistent source, not so dependent on the year’s rain. They have expanded their range along the network of canals and across the valley. Checkered Garter Snakes and Woodhouse’s Toads now roam irrigated orchards up to the northern tip of the Salton Sea, fifty miles or more from their historic range.

Unfortunately, not every species could adjust to hard-edged canals, a poor facsimile of the well-vegetated natural shallows that the region’s aquatic life was adapted to exploit. The introduction of pesticides and invasive fish also posed an issue, especially for tadpoles. And in the 1940s the Imperial Irrigation District sprayed oil and burned over 8,000 miles of ditches and canals in an attempt to control muskrat populations. That may have been the final blow for several native species.

Variable Ground Snake (Sonora semiannulata)
found a footstep away from the Colorado's waters
By the 1950s the Lowland Leopard Frog (Lithobates yavapaiensis), Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius), and Sonoran Mud Turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense), ancient denizens of the Colorado’s overflow, had disappeared completely from California.
Not that there aren’t herps to be found. On one bank we flip a board to reveal a Variable Ground Snake, on another a Sonoran Gopher Snake basks in the evening sun. Purple-backed Spiny Lizards and Colorado River Tree Lizards utilize riparian brush, while invasive American Bullfrogs and Rio Grande Leopard Frogs sit just off the shore. 

Our highlight comes when we stumble upon a ‘Yuma’ Kingsnake, deep black with thin white bands, beginning to consume a gopher snake it has just killed. 

A Yuma Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae “yumensis”)
devours a Sonoran Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer affinis)
in a ditch near the Salton Sea
But even that was found...on the edge of an irrigation canal. There’s something missing from the wonder of the valley when so much of its life can now only be found in these unnatural wounds on the landscape. Matt tires of it, not wanting to herp roads and farms. I struggle to imagine the natural overflow, wondering what habitat looked like before dams were king.

The ongoing drought that plagues Anza-Borrego has impacted the valley as well. Flows in the Colorado River have decreased by about 20% since 2000. It is estimated that they may drop another 35% through the rest of the century. And the demands of household water consumption have been increasing. Caught between climate change and domestic overconsumption, the future of not just the river but the agricultural system it supports is tenuous.

We had entered the Imperial Valley at its northwest edge, stopping when a Woodhouse’s Toad hopped across the road to a manmade pond. We exit the valley at its southeast corner, photographing a dead Checkered Garter Snake (Thamnophis marcianus) hit by a car in its attempt to move from one irrigation canal to another. This valley is millions of years old, and these new changes began only a century ago. But you feel they cannot be wound back.
This Couch's Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii), found
during a dry night on the edge of agricultural fields, was likely
only active due to the moisture from sprinklers

We cross the river and race through the Arizona desert. The Lowland Leopard Frog, Sonoran Desert Toad, and Sonoran Mud Turtle, all extirpated from California, have receded from the Arizona side of the Colorado River as well. We have to go forty miles east to reach one of their last domains in western Arizona. 

Near alfalfa fields surrounding a small town we find a dead Sonoran Desert Toad, its unseasonal May surfacing likely brought about by the pitter-patter of irrigation water. Not to be outdone, a Couch’s Spadefoot has also emerged, similarly confused by the fake rain.

A young Lowland Leopard Frog sits
in the shallows of the creek
Miles of highway followed by country road followed by dirt road followed by hundreds of meters of  bushwacking finally bring us to a stream small enough to be jumped across in spots, the first natural stream we’ve seen in days. Here Lowland Leopard Frogs persist and Sonoran Mud Turtles still roam, along with a dozen other species unique to the riparian zone where water and desert meet. It reminds us of what once existed to the west, and what we hope will remain in those rare spots where we have not yet drained God’s natural work away.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.


All quotes from Edward Abbey, primarily drawn from his 1938 classic, Desert Solitaire.

Thomson, Robert C.. California Amphibian and Reptile Species of Special Concern. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

“Indirect Effects of Development on the Flat-tailed Horned Lizard”, a report submitted to the Arizona Game and Fish Department by Kevin V. Young and April T. Young

“Boundary processes between a desert sand dune community and an encroaching suburban landscape”, paper published in Biological Conservation by CW Barrows, MF Allen and JT Rotenberry

“Struggle for survival: some animals moving, vanishing as deserts grow hotter”, article published in The Desert Sun by Ian James

“Desert Tortoise Threats: Predators”, from the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.,

“A Few California Farmers Have Lots of Water. Can They Keep It?”, article published in Bloomberg by John Lippert

“Preparing for a drier future along the Colorado River”, article published in The Desert Sun by Ian James

Special thanks to Brian Brenhaug for his insight on the water management history of the Imperial Valley.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

California Waters: Frogs on the SoCal Coast --- Guest Post --

Anna’s Hummingbird drinks from the 
stream near the beginning of our hike.
Venture off-trail in the deep woods and you might come across a bear track. Not the worn path the deer leave, but offset indentations, footfalls landing on top of each other until they are imprinted into the earth. The ease of maintained routine suggests that the bear knows a comfort here.

Even if we had missed the steps, the heaps of dung and fresh scrape on the tree would have been hard to ignore. We were outside of man’s domain. And today this is the sort of place you have to go – up in the mountains, deep in the woods, off the trail – if you want to find native frogs in southern California.

The author's father, an outdoorsman and retired zookeeper.
Hours before encountering the bear sign I had met my dad at an airport in the middle of Los Angeles’s urban sprawl. Having spent the last six years working in community education in urban India, I wanted to see what had been happening with California’s herps.

In the 2000s I took part in herpetological surveys throughout the West Coast, one of many amateurs recording reptile and amphibian populations through citizen scientist projects (especially I wanted to return to these wild places and see how the most vulnerable herp populations were coping. What impact had another decade of drought, development, climate change and the spread of invasive species 
had on their sustainability?

That's how I found myself well off the beaten path, in the world of bear tracks and tree scrapes, looking for frogs hanging on in their last reserves.

The remote survivor

The non-venomous Coast Mountain
Kingsnake is a lizard predator.
 My father and I woke up that morning to beautiful yellow blooms and buzzing hummingbirds. Whiptail and sagebrush lizards scurried away as we began our hike, highlighting that high elevation SoCal dynamic where dry brush abuts mountain pine. Around one turn a rockfall betrayed someone’s retreat from the canyon rim, the steepness of the source suggesting it may have been a bighorn who displaced the rock. A few hours in we were delighted to observe a Coast Mountain Kingsnake crossing our path.

But there were no frogs.

No frogs in the creek. No frogs sunning on the rocks. No frogs in the tributaries. No frogs in the side pools.

The population I was looking for is so small that I couldn’t risk missing anything. I stalked upstream, examining every surface and every depth. By the time I reached the area I knew to be their prime habitat I was scrutinizing everything twice, pausing beforehand to let my eyes creep over the logs and banks in the hope of locating an undisturbed frog before I approached, then checking again from the opposite side as I passed in case a disturbed frog or a different angle would reveal something new.

Years earlier I had found several frogs in these pools. Now, in the same places, I found nothing.

The Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog was 
once much easier to find in these streams.
Not that they are all gone. Hours into our hike and at least twenty minutes past the point where I had expected to see a frog, I finally spot it. A Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog, one of the rarest frogs in the United States.

It would be the only frog I see on this hike.

The fate of the ranids

When you think of a frog, your mental image will probably match a ranid, the family of frogs known as “True Frogs." Ranids epitomize the prototypical “frog shape” and are the most widely distributed group of amphibians in the world. Yet 99.99% of Southern Californians will never see a native ranid in their life.

This is what happened:

This California Red-legged Frog was spotted at a
 reintroduction site in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The California Red-legged Frog (Rana draytonii), the "celebrated jumping frog" of the Mark Twain tale, once ranged throughout the southern Californian coastal lowlands. By 1970 it was in trouble as urban development inundated any land that wasn’t mountain or desert. In 1996 the frog was placed on the Endangered Species List and began acquiring habitat protections, but the damage was done. Now it is absent south of Santa Barbara save for two relict populations on the outskirts of LA County. Fledgling reintroductions into new streams are being attempted.

The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (Rana boylii), previously found in the foothills and middle-elevations of the coast ranges all the way to the cusp of Los Angeles, was unable to deal with dams and stream diversion. Along the coast it is now extirpated south of Monterey County. Inland in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains only a couple populations are hanging on.

The Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog (Rana muscosa), at one point surveyed in over 165 high-elevation mountain streams, has been reduced to ten small populations scattered across the San Jacinto, San Bernardino, and San Gabriel Mountains. Dams and development did their damage, but the most comprehensive blow may have been the introduction of carnivorous trout to fish-less streams. The largest of the existing populations is now only a few dozen frogs. Reintroduction efforts are underway, but in recent years existent populations have blipped out faster than the new ones have taken hold (in fact, the frogs may now be down to only 7-8 populations). More viable but still endangered populations of this species are found in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

There are still frogs in Southern California. The two chorus frog species that provide a soundtrack for many a Hollywood movie, Pseudacris cadaverina and Pseudacris hypochondriaca, have maintained much of their historic range and even persist in some city parks. Invasive bullfrogs from the east coast are a ravenous presence.

But for half of the state, the native ranids are almost gone.

Toads in low places

Arroyo Toads require sandy sections of creek,
which also attract vehicles and partiers.
I emerged from the tent and laced on my hiking shoes, lathered with quaternary ammonium the previous night to prevent the spread of frog-killing chytrid fungus. There was a long hike ahead and the sun was coming up hot. But I had a question well worth the effort.

Had any Arroyo Toads (Anaxyrus californicus) reproduced this year?

When looking for cryptic species, larvae are a cheat code. The mass reproductive strategies common in amphibians (known biologically as r-reproduction) ensure that many more tadpoles are produced than will ever become adults, and these tadpoles concentrate in specific habitats. Most years that you search for the Arroyo Toad, tadpoles will be the easiest way to find them.

But this isn’t most years. 2018 was a drought year, one of the worst recorded (though 2015 was as bad or worse, an ominous warning about how frequent such droughts are becoming). And Dr. Sam Sweet had warned me that Arroyo Toads in the coastal ranges hadn’t bred at all this year.  Sam, a UCSB ecologist who monitors coastal amphibian populations, had suggested that the lack of early rain kept those toads and other aquatic amphibians from getting the signals they needed to start reproduction.

I wanted to know if the inland populations were the same.

That query is what led to a sixteen mile round-trip hike in the sun. By some estimates there are only twenty or so viable populations of Arroyo Toad left, and every one is vulnerable. I was heading to an area where surveyors just a decade earlier had located hundreds of tadpoles in half-a-dozen breeding locales. Would they still be around this year?

A California Kingsnake, one of two
 snakes seen along the route.
The early portion of the hike was promising. A Great Basin Collared Lizard sunned on a rock, one of five lizard species spotted along the route. A few minutes later a California Kingsnake slowly paralleled the trail. Unlike the previous hike this route was well-trafficked, and so there were some human encounters too.

I took advantage of the maintained trail and passed most of the stream without a look. Arroyo Toads employ a reproductive strategy which requires open, sandy banks (Sam posted a fascinating breakdown of the Arroyo Toad's unique habitat ecology here). If you don’t have the banks, you won’t find the toads. Unfortunately, the flatter, slower sections of creek necessary to build such sandbanks are only found in certain canyons, and those canyons were often the first to get dammed.

American Bullfrog tadpoles.
Three hours later I reached the spot. I scanned sandbanks for juveniles and poked around vegetation in open pools and within the shade of boulders. Not all of the flat spots were contiguous, so it took a couple hours of climbing up the canyon and then dropping back down to the water to check every likely spot. Sweat began pouring off my arms.

And all I found were bullfrogs.

Bullfrogs are a bane to native herps. Introduced to California a century ago, they reproduce in warmer, dirtier, and more human-altered waterways than native frogs can tolerate, but spread right through many of the best native-frog habitats as well. The adults will eat everything they can get their mouths around.

On this day bullfrogs were the only amphibian I could find in the pools. Had the season been too dry for the toads’ mating cues? Was there a viable population of adults still hiding under the sand, waiting for the next good rain? Thankfully, Arroyo Toads have a lifespan of around five years and 2017 was a great season for rain. But four years of droughts hit before then, limiting the number of toads that were left to breed. More drought is on the way.

These particular joyriders at least 
stayed out of the toad habitat.
In the early evening I backtracked six miles to reach a different locality by nightfall. Adult Arroyo Toads are active in the early night, and I was hoping some would be around even if they weren’t breeding. As I got closer to civilization I began seeing more casual day-trippers, including locals with jeeps and 4WD pickup trucks who had driven right up to the creek. The sandy banks that Arroyo Toads love are a target destination for partiers who splash through the pools, cut cookies in the sand, and then relax with drinks on the peaceful shores.

As darkness fell the partiers and off-roaders disappeared. A pair of beavers patrolled the pond they had created in a sluggish stretch, slapping the surface of the water when I approached. As I pushed through the brush to reach an open bank, a fluttering led me to a California Towhee, trapped by the fishing line entangled around one of its feet.  

This Arroyo Toad has survived droughts,
bullfrogs, hikers, partiers, ORVs, and a dam.
I freed the towhee and was rewarded minutes later by a lone Arroyo Toad sitting on the sand bank. They don’t have much to them aesthetically, but to me the sight was gorgeous. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear any calls on this bank, and over the course of an hour and a half of searching in prime activity time I only heard a couple quickly aborted trills.

Walking through Arroyo Toad habitat gives a sense for how profoundly we alter even that habitat we haven’t developed. Trash litters the area. Makeshift roads cut through the same banks that the toads bury themselves into. And there may not be an historic Arroyo Toad locality left in the Transverse Ranges that can be approached without passing a dam.

Dams are the #1 enemy of stream-breeding amphibians like the Arroyo Toad and Foothill Yellow-Legged Frog. It’s obvious that building a dam destroys most animal populations in the newly flooded area. But the full impact is much worse – the dam also prevents downstream spots from getting flooded when they most need it (in winter to maintain sentiment banks) and creates artificially high flow when they least need it (in summer when such flows wash away eggs and tadpoles). Soon not only the populations in the flooded area but all populations downstream of the dam are wiped out, leaving smaller populations isolated in narrow canyons upstream. These disjunct remnants are too far apart to reinforce each other and become vulnerable to traumatic events. The floods of 1969, which may have wiped out the last remaining Foothill Yellow-legged Frogs in the San Gabriel Mountains, were one such event which may not have been so devastating if the populations hadn’t already been imperilled.

As I took my leave of the stream, a Big-eared Woodrat emerged from a gap in the canyon wall. A California Vole rustled in the dead leaves next to the trail. My presence spooked a Striped Skunk, which then ran off into a nearby boulder field and nearly smacked straight into a beautiful Bobcat. While watching the bobcat I found a Baja California Chorus Frog (Pseudacris hypochondriaca) in a pond. Later a Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas) would cross my path (Western Toads utilize a wider range of habitat than the much more endangered Arroyo Toads), while Burrowing Owls watched from the slopes above.

Full disclosure – it took two nights of searching
the area to come up with these.
Even as I mourned the significant human impacts, it was a blessing to see that there was still wildlife to call this spot home.

Frogs are not doing well on the southern California coast. Besides the species I already named, the Western Spadefoot (Spea hammondii) is also extirpated from 80-90% of its historic range here, largely due to the development of lowland habitat. The Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas), once among the most ubiquitous amphibians in southern California, seems to be retreating from many of its historic localities. And it’s not just frogs – other reptiles and amphibians reliant on water, such as the California Newt (Taricha torosa), Southwestern Pond Turtle (Actinemys pallida), and California Red-sided Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis), are meeting the same fate. Even terrestrial herps on the California coast have seen their ranges shrink.

Southern California is vulnerable to development for obvious reasons. But it shouldn’t be seen as a unique case. The basic issues of development and dams and poor allocation of water resources are issues that afflict human communities everywhere, and unless you’re off the grid completely then you yourself are in some part contributing to the demand.

The more we develop, the more we build, the more we consume, the more populations of frogs will wink out. What are those of us complicit in this consumption to do with human development and all that comes with it?

About the Author

Jon Hakim got his love of wildlife from his father, who took him on long days in the woods herping and hiking in rural Oregon. Since 2007 Jon has surveyed extensively as a citizen scientist with the Herpetological Education and Research Project. He currently lives in a slum in India with his wife Rose and daughters Chhaya and Sophia, reaching out to disadvantaged youth and families while also teaching Hindi literacy and training literacy teachers across the country. You can read about his herping adventures across Asia at Bangkok Herps.  


Thomson, Robert C. California Amphibian and Reptile Species of Special Concern. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Nafis, Gary. California Herps: A guide to the reptiles and amphibians of California.

I want to thank Sam Sweet, Jeff Lemm, and Chris Rombough for some insights on particular species.