The Fascinating Wyoming Toad

Wyoming toads

At around six weeks, the toadlets look like miniature (half-inch) versions of the adults. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

A North American toad is fighting its own battle with chytrid, a battle just as devastating as the one frogs in Panama are facing. The Wyoming toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) is one of the most endangered anurans (frog or toad) in North America. Historically, they were found in the Laramie Basin of southern Wyoming. Up until the mid 1970s, they were common throughout this region, but since then, the population drastically declined. Major threats are loss of habitat, pesticide usage and chytrid fungus. In 1994, the last wild toads were rescued from extinction when they were collected and sent to a captive breeding facility. One day, their tadpoles could be released back into the wild, thanks to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZ), and other zoos and federal facilities now breeding Wyoming toads.

The CMZ Amphibian Propagation and Research Center is a bio-secure area and closed to zoo guests to help keep chytrid fungus and other diseases out of the breeding population. CMZ’s Wyoming toad population for 2011 consists of 17 males and 17 females. However, due to limited space for tadpoles, not all of the toads are bred each year. The Wyoming toad studbook keeper and population manager determine what the best matches are to maximize and maintain genetic diversity. CMZ also monitors the overall health of each toad and decides whether they are fit for reproduction.

During most of the year, CMZ’s goal is to keep the toads healthy and growing with exceptional water quality, properly supplemented feeder insects and regularly changed UV bulbs. As spring approaches, we confirm our recommended pairings and prepare for something somewhat disconcerting for an animal keeper–we have to chill our toads in the refrigerator! In order for them to breed successfully, the toads require a period of cool hibernation as would be experienced in the wild. This is a very delicate time for them because their immune systems are suppressed.

Amphibian Propagation Center

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's Wyoming toad room in the Amphibian Propagation Center. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

A few days prior to hibernating, the toads are not given food. As their metabolism slows, so does their digestive tract, and undigested food could make them sick. Their room is slightly cooled from 75 degrees to 65 degrees and the lights are turned off the day before entering the hibernaculum, which is basically a fancy refrigerator. Each tank of toads has its own tub filled with wet gravel, carbon, sand and moss. The toads are weighed, placed in the tubs and the temperature is set to 52 degrees. The next day, it’s turned down to 45 degrees, the following day to 41 degrees and finally, down t

o a chilly 38 degrees. The toads will remain at this temperature for 35 days, misted with chilled water to maintain humidity and checked on about twice a week. We have to limit the number of checks to reduce the amount of environmental disturbance.

After 35 days, the toads are slowly warmed up in reverse order of the cool down. It’s believed the hibernation helps produce the natural hormones that would trigger reproductive behavior in the wild. The toads are placed back in their normal husbandry tanks and offered a few insects. They should be ready for breeding the next day.

Many species of amphibians are not able to be bred in a captive environment. For the Wyoming toad, it was discovered they require supplemental hormones in addition to hibernation in order to reproduce. The females are given their first hormone injection in the morning and placed in a breeding tank. Six hours later, the males are given a hormone injection and the females their second. The breeding tank has about one-and-a-half inches of water and some plastic floating plants. A recording of Wyoming toad breeding calls is played for 24 hours while the pairs are together. (Hear a sample of the Wyoming toad call) By the next morning, the female should have hopefully produced eggs fertilized by the male.

On June 1, 2011, six pairs of Wyoming toads were placed together at CMZ, and all of them produced eggs! Unfortunately, two of the egg masses were infertile, but in total, CMZ had about 2,000 tadpoles. 1,792 of them were released back into the wild in Wyoming. Based on valuable genetics, CMZ held back 60 tadpoles for future breeding.

Wyoming toad

A Wyoming toad in the wild. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

Each year, staff from CMZ, other zoos and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey Mortenson National Wildlife Refuge for offspring from previous released Wyoming toads. This is a non-public access refuge, and reintroductions were stopped at this site in 2005 due to chytrid. The site allows us to see if the population could continue even though chytrid was present. Tadpoles are now released at a different location, which prevents us from confusing recently released animals with those naturally produced in the wild.

Length, relative size, weight, habitat conditions, temperature and wind speed are just some of the data recorded during the survey. Most importantly, though, is collecting a swabbed sample from each found toad to see if chytrid is present. The toads are also given a microchip under their skin for permanent identification, enabling us to know how many different toads are found. If a microchipped toad is caught again, a scanner will tell us.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is very proud to be an important participant in the Wyoming toad recovery program!

Jeff Baughman, Conservation Center keeper, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Prescription for Saving Frogs

SMARxT DisposalPanama may seem like a world away, but you can help save frogs locally by committing to one simple task at home, wherever you may live. Amphibians are super sensitive to water contamination. They show evidence of harm at pollution levels that scientific tests can’t detect. Amphibians are truly today’s “canaries in a coal mine.”

While research on the long-term effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment is ongoing, there’s no question that properly disposing of unused prescription and over-the-counter medications, instead of flushing them in the toilet or pouring them down the drain, means you’re keeping our water sources clean – for frogs and for people.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Pharmacists Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America teamed up to organize  SMARXT DISPOSAL, a campaign aimed at educating consumers on how to dispose of medicines in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. Here’s what they recommend:

  • Pour medication into a sealable plastic bag. If medication is a solid (pill, liquid capsule, etc.), add a small amount of water to dissolve it.
  • Add kitty litter, sawdust, coffee grounds to make it less appealing for pets and children to eat.
  • Seal the plastic bag and put it in the trash.

Help spread the word about this simple step everyone can take to protect our environment and frogs. Find out more about SMARXT DISPOSAL here.

Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Notes from the Field: Finding the Limosa harlequin frog

Jenyva Turner, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo animal keeper

Jenyva shows off an Atelopus limosus the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team captured during the February expedition. (Photo courtesy of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

Wanted: Adventurous expedition members to hike into the jungles of Panama looking for the rare Atelopus limosus. Must be willing to hike long hours in rugged, muddy terrain and in thigh-deep water, and ready to be wet, hungry, tired, and not afraid of spiders, snakes, scorpions, and lots of insects.


How could I pass up an opportunity to hike, explore, and camp in the jungle, all while helping save a species? This February was my first trip to Panama, however I followed the blog posts from other Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team members during previous expeditions to Panama, so I felt like I had already been there. I knew it was going to be a challenging trip, both physically and mentally. Would we find frogs? That was my biggest concern. As we all know, the chytrid fungus is taking its toll on frog populations around the world and the rare Atelopus limosus is not immune to chytrid’s deadly sting.

Atelopus limosus was our target species since the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project only had one female and four males in captivity. The future of the species appeared to depend on our findings. It was the “dry season” in Panama (although, being from Colorado, rain every day does not seem very “dry”!) and therefore, was the best time to find females, as they would be coming down to the streambeds to lay their eggs. The males would be there waiting.

We hiked along the stream and carefully searched the moss-covered rocks for the small, highly camouflaged black and green frogs. It was tough to be quiet and sneak up on our target as we sloshed around streambeds, stepped over branches, and slipped on rocks. We paid especially close attention to areas of the stream where the water moved a little faster. Atelopus limosus lay their eggs in faster-moving water to reduce competition from other frog species and reduce predation. The tadpoles are specially designed with little suction cup disks on their bellies to help them hold onto the rocks and keep them from being washed away. Pretty cool!

Our team found just four Atelopus limosus during our time in the field, but we were able to give hope to the species as one of those caught was a young female. We handed off our precious cargo to the capable staff at the Summit Zoo, who take their job and role in frog conservation very seriously. They are working hard to care for and propagate many other amphibian species besides Atelopus limosus to ensure the sounds of frogs continue to be heard in the jungles of Panama.

Here’s a video of Antonia Chastain, a member of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team, finding out first-hand how difficult it is to catch an Atelopus limosus during the February trip:

Jenyva Turner, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo animal keeper (and first-time frog finder!)

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Mantellas on the Move

Black-eared Mantella froglets bred at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

An adult blue-legged Mantella. (Photo credit: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

A hop, skip, and a jump from Panama (well, a little farther than that), the Mantellas are fighting their own battle with potential extinction on an island off the coast of Africa. Madagascar is home to 16 species of the frogs, which are endemic to the country, but collection for pet trade and deforestation are threatening their survival.

We first told you about Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Mantella captive breeding program last fall. It was animal keeper Jeff Baughman’s goal to establish a breeding program for the frogs within the zoo community, and over the past year, he did just that. In a matter of weeks, Baughman’s first batch of 70 captive-bred blue-legged and black-eared Mantellas will be on the move to AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) zoos around the country.

People are drawn to the bright colors of the Mantella, colors that rival those of the more familiar poison dart frogs in Central and South America. However, only a handful of zoos in the U.S. have the endangered blue-legged and critically endangered black-eared species. Baughman started by bringing a collection from a trusted captive breeding source to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s off-exhibit Amphibian Conservation Center. He then created an environment similar to Madagascar’s less humid winter months, followed by increased humidity and daylight to simulate the rainy season. The females laid their eggs in March, and the end result is about 35 blue-legged and 35 black-eared Mantellas.

Chytrid has not yet spread to Madagascar, but if it does, the effect would be devastating. Because Mantella populations are so fragmented, they could easily be wiped out by the fungus. That’s why the Wildlife Conservation Society and other experts are looking at creating a facility in Madagascar, similar to the one in Panama.

What can you do to save frogs? If you’re buying them as pets, it’s important to find out where they came from. Make sure you get your frogs from a trusted captive breeding source and avoid buying frogs caught in the wild.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo guests are helping frogs, too. In 2008 – 2009, the zoo’s Quarters for Conservation program supported a conservation and research organization in helping protect Mantella frogs in Madagascar. With every visit this year, zoo guests can vote to provide funding to the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Della Garelle: Giant Frog Sited in Colorado Springs

Giant Golden frog Colorado Springs June 18th, 2009:  The rumor has been confirmed and in fact a giant Panamanian Golden Frog has taken up residence on the Chase Bank building located on the corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon – check it out! The frog will be up for three months.

We had a great media event earlier today, so watch for us on the news and in the paper. The event included the unveiling of the new Josh & John’s ice cream flavor, Panamanian Golden Fudge. They will rotate the flavor on their menu and 50% of the proceeds of this ice cream will be donated to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo!

Sean Anglum: Leaping to the Rescue!

That’s the name of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s new frog rescue exhibit, now open in the Zoo’s Aquatics building. The exhibit highlights our role in combatting global amphibian declines including the Zoo’s partnership in the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.  Exhibit  highlights include African clawed frogs, Leopard frogs and Giant African bullfrogs and also features the zoo’s other amphibian conservation efforts including:

releasing wyoming toad tadpoles at bufordThe Wyoming Toad Project – Wyoming toads are the only North American amphibians listed as extinct in the wild. Found only in the 50 sq.mi. area of the Laramie Basin in Wyoming, these toads began a rapid decline in the 1970’s due to pollution, pesticide runoff, habitat destruction and fungal disease. In 1988, a few toads were caught and a captive breeding program started to protect against extinction. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo cares for a collection of these critically endangered toads in our off-exhibit Amphibian Conservation Center. In 2008 our toads produced over 3,000 tadpoles! 2,500 of those were released back into the wild. We are currently releasing tadpoles into the Laramie Basin and participating in survey studies to determine their population in the wild.

The Boreal Toad Project – Boreal toads are Colorado’s only Alpine toad and live above 8,000 feet. The populations located in the southern Rocky Mountains have experienced dramatic population declines over the past two decades from infection by the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo holds a captive population of Boreal toads in our Amphibian Conservation Center for scientific research. We have participated in a throat pattern identification study and are planning to conduct a health evaluation regarding diet and water quality, and the effect it has on spinal related deformities. Both of these studies help field biologists with boreal toads in the wild.

golden mantella frogConserving Mantella Frogs – There are five critically endangered Mantella frogs, native only to Madagascar, that are being over-collected for the pet trade. Habitat loss and disease also threaten the survival of those still in the wild. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has obtained a collection of Mantella frogs from a trusted captive breeding source and is now captive breeding mantilla frogs to support other AZA institutions and help avoid the collection of wild mantilla frogs in the future. In 2008-2009, the Zoo’s Quarter’s for Conservation program also supported Madagasikara Voakajy, a conservation and research program in Madagascar, which aims to protect Mantella frogs and their habitat through local community education. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staff also developed a flash card game to help schools in Madagascar teach about their local frogs and the challenges they face in the wild. Through our support they will further their efforts in field research and community education.