Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Future for Utah's Toads

Like the canary in the coal mine, there are certain species that can tell you a lot about the health of an area. These species are called “keystone species,” and scientists look at them to determine how an ecosystem is faring. The Boreal Toad, a keystone species native to Utah's higher elevations, is not doing so well. As recently as 10 years ago, they were plentiful. Recently, populations have begun to decline, and experts are not sure why. Possible reasons include habitat degradation; poor water quality; climate change, forcing them to higher and higher elevations until they have nowhere to go; or chytrid, a certain type of fungus which some scientists suspect is responsible for amphibian declines on several continents.

Boreal toads in their enclosure at The Living Planet

Whatever the reasons for their disappearance, organizations such as The Living Planet Aquarium are stepping up to help. Under the direction of the Colorado Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), efforts are underway to breed boreal toads and repopulate the species. As part of these efforts, boreal toads were carefully collected from the wild and distributed to zoos, aquariums, and DWR facilities. Karl Lye, a herpetologist and member of the husbandry staff at The Living Planet, headed up the care of the aquarium's toads and was assisted by other members of the husbandry team. Over the last five years, they have raised their toads from a semi-tadpole stage into adults.

A few of the boreal toads being raised at the aquarium

At this point, the process becomes a little trickier. Boreal toads will not breed unless they go through a process called brumation. Brumation is a hibernation-like state and is how the toads would survive the cold of winter in the wild. In order to simulate winter conditions and induce brumation, Karl converted a small fridge into a brumation chamber for the toads. Using a thermostat and remote sensing equipment, the chamber was designed so that the weather inside could remain stable at a balmy 34-42 degrees Fahrenheit with as little intrusion as possible. Extensive records are kept of the temperature and humidity, as monitored from the remote sensor. Every two weeks, staff check on the toads and rinse their substrate to keep them clean and healthy.

Brumation chamber,
created using a small fridge
Brumation chamber open,
revealing boreal toad enclosure

During brumation, the toads do not eat and are mostly inactive, conserving their energy. This process can be hard on them, and in the wild, some do not survive. Because of this, only the healthiest of the aquarium's toads were chosen for the brumation chamber: two males and two females. The toads went into the chamber in February and just recently came back out. They spent a couple of days adjusting to the new warmer temperatures before being introduced into their breeding tank. With any luck, the aquarium will soon be proud caretakers of brand new baby toads (eggs at first and then tadpoles)! Any offspring will be given to the Colorado DWR, who will reintroduce them into the wild, being careful to chose locations where they are naturally occurring and likely to thrive.

Boreal toads in a state of brumation

How you can help:
All of us play an important role in keeping Utah's ecosystems healthy. Here are a few ways that you can help the toads and other critters that inhabit our local landscape.
  • Be careful what you put down the drain or into the gutters; it can all end up downstream in a boreal toad's habitat.
  • If you see a boreal toad (or any wildlife, for that matter) please leave it be; take pictures, but leave the critter and its habitat as you found it.
  • In some places, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has put up signs asking people to report any boreal toads they see. Reporting sightings can help further boreal toad research and efforts to understand more about what is happening to them and help stop their disappearance.


  1. Cute little toads. Who knew they lived so nearby?

  2. I used to raise frogs when I was a kid back in Ohio, and to this day, I love frogs and toads. I hope that I would get to see a boreal toad. I love this blog.