It’s small, round, lumpy, and very charming. It’s native to Wyoming and was once abundant in the Laramie Plains, but is now an endangered species. This is the Wyoming toad, and this is its road to recovery.
TOADally cool facts about the Wyoming toad
- Discovered in 1946 by a professor at the University of Wyoming, Dr. George T. Baxter
- Known only to inhabit Albany County, Wyoming
- This small chunker of a toad grows to be a little over 2 inches long
- Usually brown, gray, or dark green in color and covered in warts
- Lifespan of up to 8 years
- Relies on detecting movements to catch prey
- Eats small invertebrates such as ants, beetles, and insect larvae
- Secretes poison from glands behind their eyes to evade predators
- Males give females a hug while breeding
- Males vibrate when picked up and will sometimes chirp
When the Wyoming toad ran wild
The Wyoming toad was once an abundant species commonly seen hopping around the Laramie Plains in Albany County, Wyoming. These adorable little lumps could be found in the floodplains of the Big and Little Laramie rivers and in ponds throughout the Laramie Basin.
In the 1970s, the Wyoming toad population suffered a serious decline, nearly wiping out the species by the early 80s. The toads often fell victim to pesticides and habitat alteration and fragmentation — but mostly to Chytridiomycosis, an infectious disease found in amphibians, caused by chytrid fungi (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). This can easily infect the toads due to their sensitive skin. In order to rid themselves of disease, toads will induce fever by basking in the sun; however, this doesn’t always work.
In 1984, the Wyoming toad was listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, and was shortly thereafter considered to be extinct in the wild. Three years later, in 1987, a very small population was discovered at Mortenson Lake in southern Wyoming. As a result of this discovery, the lake and the area surrounding it is now part of Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge. In 1993, the few remaining wild toads were collected and moved into a captive breeding and reintroduction program in hopes to recover the species. Since then, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been working tirelessly with many partners to save the Wyoming toad.
Road to recovery
Every year, USFWS works alongside partners such as federal and state agencies, universities, zoos, and volunteers to find new ways to achieve self-sustaining wild populations of the Wyoming toad. Their efforts include a captive breeding program that centers around releasing captive-raised toads into suitable habitat in Albany County, and then monitoring their survival in the wild. In the past, tadpoles and toadlets were released into the wild with the expectation that they would grow and breed. However, this process was not, by itself, effective at reestablishing wild populations, because the tadpoles and toadlets often struggled to make it to adulthood. Now, in addition to tadpoles and toadlets, adult toads are released in the hopes that they will be more resilient and likely to successfully breed.
Wyoming toads are raised at a number of facilities, including the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery in Wyoming and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. Fun fact: all of these toads are descendants of the last wild toads recovered in the early nineties! The toads are raised under the watchful eye of their tender-loving caretakers, reaching adulthood after just about a year in captivity — in the wild, it takes toads two to three years to mature! Once enough toads reach adulthood (several hundred is the target), caretakers enlist the help of nearly 100 volunteers to introduce the toads into the wild as part of a joint effort across multiple locations. Some toads are introduced in protected outdoor enclosures where they can acclimate to their new environment for a few days before being fully released. This is called a “soft release.” Others are immediately released into their new habitat where they are free to explore. This is called a “hard release.”
This year (2019), a little over 60 toads were released wearing tracking belts. Sporting a large antenna and transmitter, the belts enable researchers to track and monitor the toads in the wild. In a way, the belts look like tiny corsets that were inspired by old-timey prison uniforms, but — as fashionable as they may (not) be — they at least don’t restrict the toads like their Victorian-era doppelgängers.
Biologists take great care in making sure the belts fit snugly, but not so tight that it bothers the toads. Remember, their skin is extremely sensitive! If there is any sign that a belt is rubbing or irritating a toad’s skin, biologists will bathe them in vitamin E (which promotes healing and acts as a lubricant) before they are released (as seen to the left), and again any time they see the toads. The belts were also designed to minimize impact on the toads’ movement and reduce the chance of the antenna getting caught in vegetation.
The data collected from the belts allows biologists to learn about the habitat choices of the toads, their behavior, survival rates, health status, causes of death, and more. Rachel Arrick, PhD student at the University of Wyoming studying wildlife conservation ecology, is helping conduct this tracking study in the hopes that the data collected can provide a better understanding of what the toads need and how the species can be recovered. With the help of biology technicians and her advisers, Melanie Murphy (University of Wyoming) and Doug Keinath (USFWS), Rachel tracks the toads to study their behavior and movements. By monitoring their locations, Rachel can determine the most favorable habitats for the toads. This then informs the most suitable introduction locations for next year’s toad release. Tracking the toads also makes it possible to discover eggs and tadpoles that were the result of wild breeding. In fact, wild tadpoles were discovered this year at Garber Lake, which was one of the release locations last year! Every year, this tracking study will provide new information which will hopefully inform management decisions that will lead to higher survival rates.
Private landowners have played a key role in the efforts to recover the Wyoming toad. Back in the 80s, Mortenson Lake — where the last remaining wild toads were found — was owned by a local rancher. When the toads were discovered, the rancher sold the land to The Nature Conservancy, who then donated the land to USFWS for Wyoming toad conservation. That land then became Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge and is one of several protected habitats for the Wyoming toad. Now, toads are released each year on select private and public lands across Albany County — a large-scale effort made possible by generous landowners who maintain their agricultural heritage while also providing habitat for this rare species.
Hopping into hope
While the recovery of the Wyoming toad will take many more years of dedication and tedious, hard work, we are on the way to achieving self-sustaining, wild populations. Every year, innovative ideas and processes are being implemented to bring us even closer to conservation success. The survival of the Wyoming toad (and all amphibians) is imperative for the health of the environment. Not only do they help control insect populations, but they are an important part of the food web, provide nutrients to the environment, and are indicators of the health of the habitat that is shared by countless species. Thanks to the work of many passionate and driven USFWS employees and caring partners, there is hope that the Wyoming toad will once again be abundant and living its best life in the Laramie Plains of Wyoming.