Summer is an especially exciting season for the Phoenix Zoo’s Conservation team. One program that kicks into high gear during the warmer months is our Chiricahua leopard frog (CLF) head-starting effort. In collaboration with the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), we raise CLF egg masses up to large tadpole or froglet stage from late spring through summer in our lab at the Zoo and then release them into the wild to boost the populations in their native habitat. Large tadpoles and froglets are not as vulnerable to predators as eggs and small tadpoles, so we’re helping give the released animals a better chance at survival. Each year, agency biologists determine where help is most needed, and then collect egg masses for the Zoo based on those assessments.
On July 31, AGFD and Zoo staff gathered 886 CLFs reared at the Zoo’s Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation Conservation Center and transported them to release sites near Payson, AZ. With this release, we passed a significant milestone – we have now released more than 20,000 Zoo-reared CLFs into the wild since our work with these animals began in the 1990s. Approximately 1,300 additional tadpoles are still being reared at the Johnson Center and another release is planned for late September. We look forward to sharing updated grand totals when that field trip is completed.
For the past three years, we have been working with the AGFD on a project funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Sky Island Grasslands Conservation Program, specifically aimed at improving habitat and increasing wild numbers of CLFs in the Sky Islands region of southeastern Arizona. We are grateful to NFWF for their support for our work and look forward to continued involvement in CLF recovery in the Sky Islands region as needed. We have also been working with AGFD and a researcher from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to better understand how genetic factors influence disease resistance in CLFs. This effort has been funded by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums through their Conservation Grants Fund, or CGF. We have two grant proposals to continue this important work currently awaiting review.
Our CLF work is an important demonstration of the unique role the Zoo plays in supporting field conservation. We can explore research questions in our lab that help inform and sometimes improve management in the field. We have developed a robust internship program that has trained numerous students and recent graduates from state universities who have gone on to careers in wildlife biology. Some have stayed on or returned to the Zoo as full-time conservation technicians or have gone on to employment with AGFD and other conservation organizations. We are proud to share our stories with all Zoo guests who visit the Johnson Center and hope you’ll stop by to see what’s new next time you visit the Zoo.