Jul 19

Saving the Wyoming Toad

“They were just little brown toads no one cared about… until we realized they were almost all gone,” says Jessi Krebs, curator of reptiles and amphibians at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

He’s referring to the Wyoming toad, which was once abundant on the prairies of Southeastern Wyoming, but is now considered extinct in the wild – at one point, there were fewer than ten left. Krebs says the problem is a manmade one. Sometime around the 1970s, the land the toads inhabit was overtaken by cattle breeding grounds; the natural pools in which they bred and hatched tadpoles filled with pesticides and bacteria, leaving them vulnerable to chytrid and other diseases.

“These animals had evolved to adapt to their environment perfectly, but when that environment was altered, it threw the whole thing out of whack,” Krebs says. In 1992, the Omaha Zoo was asked to join the toad’s species survival plan as part of our amphibian conservation efforts. “Without the involvement of zoos and government intervention, Wyoming toads would have been extinct 20 years ago,”

In addition to research, the zoo’s primary role is feeding and caring for the toads as they cycle through the breeding process and, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ship the tadpoles back to their habitat in the Laramie Basin. But the challenges are myriad. Farmers and ranchers are not keen to have a federally protected species on their property, so the living space for the toads is only a fraction of what it once was. Also, because researchers can’t exactly track the toads (ever try putting an ankle bracelet on a tadpole?), there is no way to collect data on them once they’ve been released.

Still, Krebs and his team are hopeful. He estimates there are now about 1,500 Wyoming toads in the wild. “There are more of these little guys on the planet now than there have been in 40 years,” Krebs says. “They’re all products of frogs that started out in glass tanks at zoos and fish hatcheries, and then transferred to the wild.”

This summer an additional 3,000 tadpoles from the Omaha Zoo were shipped to the protected area, and Krebs looks forward to the day when hundreds of egg masses start appearing. “If we can go to the freakin’ moon, we can save this little brown toad.”