Science Spotlight

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  • September 11, 2018

Brown and tan striped snake lightly curled on itself on top of leaves
Northern watersnakes are native to the eastern United States. A breeding population was discovered in Placer County in 2007 and a second population confirmed in 2014. Photo courtesy of Todd Pierson.

Golden colored frog atop green plant blade
Coqui frogs have appeared periodically in Southern California. The first coqui was collected from a private residence in Orange County in 2012 and arrived on a tropical house plant.

Large brown furry rodent  with long whiskers and small ears holding front paws to mouth and sitting in water at steep, mossy bankline
Nutria have been confirmed in six central California counties, including Tuolumne County where this nutria was photographed near Don Pedro Reservoir in 2017. Photo courtesy of Peggy Sells.

Dark brown and brown striped snake curled up on gray ground.
Southern watersnakes are native to the southeastern United States and can reach lengths of 5 feet. They have been found in Yolo, Sacramento and Los Angeles counties. Photo courtesy of Todd Pierson.

Six months after announcing the discovery of a breeding population of invasive nutria in the San Joaquin Valley, CDFW’s Invasive Species “hotline” continues to receive multiple reports each week of nutria sightings from the public.

The reports come in on the toll-free line – (866) 440-9530 – or its e-mail counterpart – Invasives@wildlife.ca.gov – and numbers have reached as many as 30 e-mails and nine calls in a day.

The hotline accounts are checked each weekday – and often multiple times a day. CDFW attempts to respond to every individual submission. To date, about 95 percent of the nutria reports have turned out to be false – either sightings of other wildlife mistaken for nutria or reports that lack enough information to confirm one way or another.

“If it’s on your roof or chewing up the wires in your car, it’s not a nutria,” said Helen Benson, an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Invasive Species Program.

The misidentification of nutria is understandable. Nutria closely resemble several species of native and non-native wildlife, including muskrats, beavers, and rats, which adds to the challenge of a positive identification. Nutria are semi-aquatic rodents native to South America that haven’t been seen in California for 40 years until the spring of 2017 when a pregnant female turned up in a beaver trap.

Still, CDFW welcomes and encourages all reported sightings, preferably accompanied by a photo or video to help verify the identity.

In April, the hotline received one of its most important tips when an Animal Services officer with the City of Lathrop called to report catching and releasing a nutria – without realizing what it was at the time. The officer took photos of the animal, however, which became the second nutria confirmed in San Joaquin County on the edge of the Delta.&

CDFW has focused its early eradication efforts on keeping nutria out of the Delta, where their destructive burrowing into levees, ditches, canals and other water infrastructure could jeopardize the Delta’s flood control and water conveyance systems. CDFW has since launched nutria surveillance and eradication operations in the Delta to mirror those occurring farther south in the San Joaquin Valley.

While CDFW’s Benson estimates that about 80 percent of the Invasive Species hotline’s reports involve nutria these days, the hotline itself predates the nutria infestation by more than a decade. It was created in 2007 to help combat another invasive species crisis: the discovery of quagga and zebra mussels in California.

“Most people don’t realize that invasive species are the second-greatest threat to native species after habitat loss,” Benson said.

It’s easier to combat and possibly eliminate invasive species early before populations become entrenched, which explains CDFW’s aggressive nutria eradication response.

Coqui frogs are another invasive species dealt with quickly when reports come into the hotline. The voracious, tiny tree frogs native to Puerto Rico, Central and South America emit a deafening raucous that belies their small size. The call from one of these tiny amphibians can reach noise levels of 80 to 90 decibels – the same as a running lawnmower. Colonies of coqui frogs have been blamed for lowering property values on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Coqui frogs have turned up in Southern California, arriving in nursery plant shipments from Hawaii and other exotic locales. CDFW asks those contacting the hotline to record the frogs’ calls for confirmation, at which point CDFW will dispatch biologists to catch and remove the frogs.

The Invasive Species hotline has also proved helpful in combatting two invasive aquatic snakes that have turned up in Northern California – the northern watersnake and southern watersnake – likely released into the environment by disenchanted owners who acquired them as pets. Their ill temperament and unpleasant odor make them poor pets – along with the fact they are illegal to possess in California without a permit. CDFW has launched trapping efforts in the suburban Sacramento communities of Roseville and Folsom, where breeding populations of the snakes have been confirmed. It’s possible these snakes could find their way to backyard ponds and swimming pools, and reports to the hotline would help CDFW’s efforts to eradicate them.

Invasive species are a persistent threat to California, and the public plays an important role in helping CDFW identify and respond to new threats. Whether in their backyard or hiking their favorite trail, everyday citizens across the state are partners in protecting their natural resources by reporting unfamiliar plants and animals they don’t recognize.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Juvenile Coqui frog.

Categories: General
  • July 24, 2018

Frog resting on rock
Yellow-Legged Frog

Small river pool of water featuring a small waterfall trees, rocks and steep, rocky terrain
Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog habitat

Many years of painstaking monitoring and assessment efforts undertaken by CDFW have helped guide an ongoing effort to bolster the dwindling populations of mountain yellow-legged frogs in Southern California.

Tim Hovey, a senior environmental scientist in CDFW’s South Coast Region, has been hiking through the forest to monitor and evaluate yellow-legged frogs in Little Rock Creek and Big Rock Creek in the Angeles National Forest since 2002, when they were listed under the Endangered Species Act (they were listed as state endangered in 2013). At that time, it was estimated that fewer than 100 adult frogs remained in the wild. 

The drastic decline of this population over the last 50 years has been a cause for concern to biologists. “The mountain yellow-legged frog is a critical part of the fragile stream ecosystem here in Southern California,” Hovey explains. “We hope that our efforts to increase the wild population through captive tadpole release will eventually lead to self-sustaining populations that will no longer require captive care to recover.”  

Hovey estimates that fewer than 400 adult mountain yellow-legged frogs currently exist in the wild in small populations throughout its range in Southern California. Threats to the species include habitat loss, pollution, non-native predators and the deadly amphibian disease chytridiomycosis, which is caused by the chytrid fungus. Some measures have already been taken to help the species. From 2002 to 2012, for example, CDFW was the lead agency involved in removing non-native predatory fish in a section of Little Rock Creek, located below the current mountain yellow-legged frog population, which essentially doubled the amount of high-quality habitat available for frogs in the stream.

But more human intervention is necessary, in the form of captive rearing. The multi-pronged effort to bolster mountain yellow-legged frogs includes contributions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo Global, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and others.

According to Hovey, the captive rearing project began in 2014, when wild-caught tadpoles were removed from Little Rock Creek and Big Rock Creek by USGS staff during a breeding cycle. The tadpoles were raised to adulthood in captivity at the Los Angeles Zoo in temperature-controlled aquaria in a quiet frog-rearing room, carefully equipped to mimic the frogs’ natural life cycle conditions.

While the tadpoles were growing, CDFW staff conducted field surveys to evaluate suitable habitat, using the data to identify specific streams where mountain yellow-legged frogs could potentially be released. The criteria for evaluation considered current recreational uses, access for monitoring, safety and property ownership. The resulting list of approved locations was reviewed by the other agencies and is being used to guide the releases.

On June 26, 500 tadpoles, descendants of the captive Big Rock Creek frogs, were released back into their historic range in the lower section of Big Rock Creek in the Angeles National Forest. Another 500 tadpoles, offspring of the Little Rock Creek captive group, were released on June 27 into Devils Canyon Creek in the Angeles National Forest. The offspring of the captive frogs, which were bred and kept separate, were released into their creeks of origin.  

“These releases represent a promising first step in the recovery of mountain yellow-legged frogs, as well as hopefully establishing new populations in areas where the frog has been absent for over fifty years,” Hovey said.  “We hope that with continued agency coordination and continued tadpole releases, the dwindling numbers of these endangered frogs will slowly begin to rebound and recover.”

This was the first release of tadpoles into Angeles National Forest with several more scheduled this summer throughout portions of the species’ range. 

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CDFW Photos courtesy of Tim Hovey. Top Photo: Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog.

For more information:

US Fish and Wildlife Service, “Trailblazing Tadpoles
US Fish and Wildlife Service, Draft Recovery Plan for the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog
CDFW, Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog, description and taxonomy
 

Categories: General
  • February 8, 2018

A black-speckled, brown frog rests on a flat granite rock next to a deep blue lake

It does not take a leap of faith to believe that CDFW scientists have gained the upper hand in bolstering the population of yellow-legged frogs in the High Sierra.

Over the past three decades, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs have become imperiled in California due to the two-pronged impact of introduced (non-native) trout and chytridiomycosis, a disease that is affecting amphibians worldwide.

Past introduction of non-native fish, including rainbow trout and golden trout, to benefit sport fishing in the High Sierra took a heavy toll on the species. High-elevation lakes where these frogs once flourished were largely fishless until fish stocking came into vogue. As the years passed, scientists determined that these introduced fish were depopulating the frogs by competing for food sources (primarily insects) and by predation (trout ate both adult frogs and their tadpoles). Chytridiomycosis, which affects many frog species, also impaired the ability of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog’s skin to exchange vital nutrients, which often leads to death.

As a result, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs are believed to have vanished from approximately 92 percent of their historical habitat, and halting and reversing that decline has become an important goal of CDFW, as well as other state and federal entities.

“This is an animal that only lives in the Sierra Nevada,” said Sarah Mussulman, a CDFW senior environmental scientist. “It is one of our unique California species that lives in high-elevation areas, and as an amphibian it serves as an important link between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This link is especially critical in the low nutrient, granitic basins of the High Sierra, where frogs and tadpoles consume insects and algae and are themselves consumed by a variety of snakes, birds and mammals.”

CDFW recently completed two projects as part of its ongoing efforts to reverse the population decline of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs.

The efforts took place at two sites: Highland Lake and Clyde Lake, located approximately seven miles apart on the Rubicon River in the Desolation Wilderness area of El Dorado County. The projects were completed with federal grant funds earmarked for the recovery of endangered and threatened species (the species is listed as threatened by the State of California and as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Highland Lake, along with its outlet, an unnamed stream, and two small adjacent ponds, supported a small population of rainbow trout when the project began in 2012. Trout abundance had declined in the absence of stocking in recent years but sufficient natural reproduction occurred in the inlet to Highland Lake to sustain the population. CDFW began using gill nets to remove rainbow trout -- the descendants of fish planted in the lake by CDFW from 1935 to 2000 -- in 2012, in partnership with Eldorado National Forest personnel.

During a frog-monitoring survey at Highland Lake in 2016, approximately 800 adult frogs were observed, as compared to a 2003 survey in which only a few tadpoles were observed. Because the frogs have consistently survived in this area despite the presence of chytridiomycosis, scientists believe they have a good chance at persisting in the area for a long time.

“Highland really had a population explosion over the past five years and can be counted as one of the most successful projects of this type ever undertaken,” Mussulman said.

The project at Clyde Lake was smaller and had somewhat different factors.

Golden trout, which frequently have the same negative impacts on Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs as rainbow trout, including predation and competition for food sources, were planted by CDFW at Clyde Lake from 1932 through 2000.

Once stocking was halted, the golden trout proved less resilient then the rainbow trout at Highland Lake, due to habitat factors.

“Clyde Lake sits in a north-facing granite bowl bordered by 1,000-foot cliffs, and no flowing streams enter the lake,” explained Mussulman. “There was no spawning habitat, which is likely why golden trout did not persist there after stocking was halted.”

The stream flowing out of Clyde Lake and four nearby ponds did support a small population of golden trout after plants were halted. The fish in the stream and ponds, which are self-sustaining populations, are precluded from moving from the stream into Clyde Lake by a fabricated dam. In 2013, frogs and a few tadpoles were observed in the stream alongside fish, and CDFW began removing the fish from the stream with gill nets to provide additional habitat for the frogs.

Nine years of monitoring data collected by CDFW scientists indicate that the area’s Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog population, while small, is slowly increasing. Surveyors observed more than 120 frogs in 2016, compared to a low of six observed in 2005. Moreover, in 2016, for the first time, dozens of tadpoles were observed in the newly fish-free lower reaches of the stream.

“It is great to see these populations recovering,” Mussulman said. “It is a great privilege doing this work that helps keep these frogs on the landscape.”

CDFW photos: Highland Lake in the Desolation Wilderness, and a Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog

Categories: General