Vail Curious Nature: One species at a time
July 19, 2010
AVON, Colorado – The whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. When we talk about something as large as a global extinction, it’s even more so. It’s overwhelming to even imagine what you could do to save a species, much less an entire vertebrate class of organisms. But if we break it down and talk about just one example in the Rocky Mountains, the task to save a species seems less daunting.
Amphibians worldwide are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to a recent global assessment, as reported by noted author James P. Collins, almost half of all amphibian populations are in decline and approximately 10% of known amphibian species are close to extinction or already extinct.
Amphibians aren’t particularly numerous at high altitudes, largely because cold weather isn’t very hospitable to cold-blooded animals. However, our valley is home to a few of these precious relics from our prehistoric past. Notable among these species is the boreal toad, Bufo boreas complex, the only amphibian listed as an Endangered Species in Colorado.
The Boreal Toad is an unassuming little creature. It looks like a typical toad, approximately 3.5 inches long, fat and blackish-colored with warts on its back. The distinctive mark, most prominent in adult females, is a faint yellow stripe down the center of its back. The toad’s call is relatively indistinct, a series of short bird-like chirps. The Boreal Toad, however, is far from ordinary, and some of you may recall my friend Dale’s article about the intricate chemical manipulations that allow these animals to freeze solid during the winter, waking up to renew life again each spring.
Look for these toads in spruce-fir forests and alpine meadows that have suitable water for breeding such as lakes, marshes, ponds, or any small rut where moisture from snowmelt collects long enough to support the small strands of black eggs in clear jelly, and the resulting tadpoles. Breeding occurs between May to July, depending on elevation and seasonal conditions, with complete larval development taking two months or more. Upon maturity, the toads prepare for the long winter, typically hibernating in abandoned burrows a short distance away.
So what can we do? Once common in alpine areas between 7,000-1,000 feet, the boreal toad has experienced a dramatic population decline over the past several decades. The first declines were not well-documented, but beginning around 1995, they appear to have been caused by a fungus that attacks the toad’s skin, eventually causing death in adult toads. Listed as an Endangered Species in Colorado in 1993, the toad was a candidate for federal listing in 1995, although its status was decided to be “warranted, but precluded” from federal protection. The Colorado Division of Wildlife currently has a recovery plan in place to help monitor and protect the toads.
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One vital component of the recovery plan is to gather current data on populations of Boreal Toads and other amphibians. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has established a Colorado Herpetofaunal Atlas at http://ndis.nrel.colostate.edu/herpatlas/coherpatlas/. The Atlas provides all the tools for everyday citizens (that’s you) to gather and report data on amphibian and reptile sightings in Colorado. It is these reports – your reports, from your hikes, bike rides, and other jaunts out into the high country, that will provide the data we need to understand and protect this species. Log on and sign up to be a herp spotter. They provide plenty of resources including field guides and workshops to support your search.
The plight to save endangered species sounds like a vast and daunting challenge. And certainly, one person can only have so much reach. However, the potential consequences of losing even one small alpine toad species represents a great loss to humankind, both in terms of the knowledge we might gain and in terms of the ecological links that will be forever lost. So let’s start small, with one small endangered amphibian that happens to live right in our own backyard.
Jaymee Squires is the Graduate Programs Director at Walking Mountains and enjoys taking global tasks into putting them into a local perspective.