A new breeding program at the Memphis Zoo could nearly double the known population of an endangered frog species.
Biologists estimate there are only about 100 adult Mississippi gopher frogs left in the wild, but zoo officials say they’ve successfully produced 94 tadpoles through in-vitro fertilization.
The reclusive, stocky frog measures about 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) long as an adult and has large hind feet made for digging through holes and burrows made by other animals. They have a pointed snout and large eyes, which they cover with their front feet when threatened.
The species once lived in Louisiana’s lower coastal plain, parts of Mississippi and the Mobile River delta in Alabama, but now is only found in two locations in Mississippi.
Named by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species in 2001, the frog’s habitat in longleaf pine forests and breeding sites in isolated ponds has been threatened by natural processes and residential development.
Linda LaClaire, a biologist for the wildlife service, oversees the frog’s habitats in Mississippi and says the agency hopes to use the new tadpoles to grow the population in the wild.
“They are endemic to the longleaf pine forest, which is almost gone in the south,” LaClaire said. “We also have a disease problem that creates tremendous mortality in tadpoles.”
The zoo, which has been successful at in-vitro fertilization of another amphibian, says this is the first-ever captive breeding of the Mississippi gopher frog.
“We can now replicate this on a regular basis and hopefully can apply what we have learned to other endangered amphibians,” said Dr. Andy Kouba, the Memphis Zoo’s director of research and conservation.
Kouba said the tadpoles are currently about the size of a half dollar and just started sprouting legs. While the adult frogs that were used in the breeding are not on display, Kouba said the zoo might consider putting the new frogs in a public exhibit.
“They like to hide, so we have to figure out a way to display them appropriately,” he said.