Rare Native Tadpoles Hatch at L.A. Zoo


Rock star status? Nope. Cuddly and colorful? Nope. Slippery when wet? You bet.

The nearly extinct mountain yellow-legged frog is not your typical poster-animal for endangered species. Sure it’s not a sexy beast (well, maybe in a Mick Jagger sort of way…) but this little hopper is gaining attention and getting a frog’s leg-up from local organizations that want to see the rivers and ponds of SoCal once again filled with extended froggy families.

The Los Angeles Zoo today announced that it has successful bred between 2-300 tadpoles from mating pairs of the yellow-legged frog which will be released back into the wild this summer. It’s the second such time that these frogs have reproduced in captivity (the first being at the San Diego Zoo last year).

“We received the mating pairs about a year ago,” says Ian Recchio, curator of reptiles and amphibians who has overseen the project. The Los Angeles Zoo has been working with the Fresno Chaffe Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research to breed and release these yellow-leggers. Throughout the year, Recchio and staff have best mimicked the frog’s natural environment in this secluded zoo location, controlling the water quality and temperature as well as rotating the light time to correspond to seasonal daylight. It’s all part of setting the stage for Frogging Courtin’ Season which took place this past March. (What? No Barry White?)

“We really didn’t know what to expect [in terms of tadpole success] and these many babies just blew us away,” says Recchio.

With only a few hundred struggling yellow-legged frogs existing in the wild, these tadpoles are an extremely important key to the species survival. The frogs’s native habitats are mid and high mountain streams of Southern California where the water is extremely clean. One crucial frog territory – where these tadpoles will be placed – is the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs, an area that was hit hard with fires in 2006 and shrunk the frog’s already tiny territory. Breeding pairs were scooped up by conservationists and brought to the San Diego Zoo.

A recent lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity claimed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to develop a recovery plan for the frog, adding that federal officials did not take adequate steps under the Endangered Species Act to save the frog from extinction. The frog has been on the list for nine years.

After the tadpoles will be released back to their native home, they will be monitored by zoo staff as well as the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Forest Service and the University of California.

In addition to much of their habitat being destroyed, froglets will have to fight off the problem of invasive species – such as trout and bullfrogs – that like to munch on these tender amphibs. Another hurdle to cross is that the frogs are easily susceptible to the ever-growing problem of Chytrid fungus, which can be fatal to eggs, tadpoles and frogs.

With other conservation projects having big price tags (think of the dollars spent on California condors), Recchio says this project is a mere drop in the bucket. The equipment in the frog house probably only amounts to maybe $5,000. Man-power is the only other real cost. “For us, $10,000 will go a long way to help bring this species back from the brink,” he says. “And you gotta start at the ground up when you are talking about protecting our wildlife. That’s where the life cycle starts, right?”

— Brenda Rees, editor