Tag Archive: Amphibians

Fantastic Frog Art!

save the frogs

Amazing frog art from Kara Timmons.

This amazing piece of frog art from Kara Timmons won the Save the Frogs art contest. Depicted on the frogs’ backs are some of the problems that are leading our amphibian friends to crazy levels of extinction including invasive species, climate change, deforestation, harvesting and shipping for school dissections, frogs legs and the pet trade (spreads the chytrid fungus), and pollution and deformities. Find out what you can do to help frogs at savethefrogs.com. Check out more cool frog art here. You can also purchase awesome amphibian art like this in the form of postcards, posters, totes, t-shirts and other goodies at the Save the Frogs gift center.

Another one of my favorite pieces:

Gastric brooding frog

yay! Frog art by Ana-Maria Maximencu.

Of course, I am biased; this is clearly my favorite frog species, the gastric brooding frog, that went extinct in my life time.

Another favorite:

Froggy Lisa

Brayden Brown, age 14, showing a lot of imagination in this piece.

There are many more like this, so check it out! Also, if you are feeling so inclined, Save the Frogs is working hard to get Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco to rescind a veto on legislation that is allowing one of the few remaining wetland areas in California to be a golf course. These wetlands are also home to the endangered red-legged frog and the endangered San Francisco garter snake. You can help Save the Frogs on this important mission by letting Mayor Ed Lee know what you think about his decision to veto this important legislation by calling him at (415) 554-6141 or e-mailing him at mayoredwinlee@sfgov.org. Cheers!

Okay, one more:

frog piper

Fantastic! by Bhavya Dhami


Can animals predict earthquakes?


Image from BBC Nature News.

Interesting observations of amphibians possibly sensing chemical changes in groundwater before an earthquake and anecdotal observations of strange behavior from the animal kingdom pre-earthquake found here.

What’s going on?

Dear Backyard Zoologist readers,

You’ve probably noticed a huge drop off in posts recently and I wanted to let you know what’s going on. In all honesty, I began this blog over a year ago because I enjoy sharing information and pictures of awesome wildlife. I still do, but at the moment I have a lot of cool but time consuming things going on and creating these posts on a regular schedule is starting to become more of a chore than something I do for fun. So, I’ve decided to only write new posts when the spirit moves me instead of on a regular schedule, to eliminate the dreaded deadline of Monday and Friday. Still, I hope you’ll check in periodically to see what’s new or better yet, sign up for e-mail notifications to let you know when I do post something new.

I still have lots to share…for example, did you know that this animal:


A giant green Anemone. Image taken at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve tidepools in California.

is used as a vertebrate heart stimulant? Or that this animal:


A 9 banded armadillo. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

always gives birth to identical quadruplets? And naturally grows the bacteria responsible for leprosy on its feet? Scientists couldn’t cultivate this bacteria in a lab, so they brought in live armadillos to collect the bacteria to work with.

Or that this animal:

tree shrew

A tree shrew. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

Is very smart and has a larger brain size to body mass than humans do?

Or that this animal:


California kingsnake, Kali, my personal companion.

Is called a kingsnake because it eats other snakes, including rattlesnakes and is immune to rattlesnake venom?

Or that these animals:

rock doves

Rock doves, a.k.a. pigeons. Image taken in San Francisco.

are one of the few birds that feed their young a type of milk?

Or that this animal:

marine toad

A marine toad. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

is one of the only toads that will sometimes eat vegetation and dead things? While other frogs and toads want to eat only moving things, this toad is even attracted by dog and cat food left in yards.

Or that this animal:


A lionfish. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

is covered in highly venomous barbs and that dolphins will sometimes grab these fish by their tummies and use them as weapons to catch fish hiding in crevices?

Brandon Ballengée


brandon ballengee

Brandon Ballengée collecting amphibians. Image from greenmuseum.org.

Brandon Ballengée is an artist that has collaborated with scientists to create hybrid environmental art and ecological research projects. Being the frog nut that I am, I particularly appreciated his work with deformed frogs. You can find out about this and more by Brandon here. And of course, as always, you  can find out how to save the frogs here.

California Slender Salamanders

California slender salamander

A California slender salamander. Image taken on campus at San Francisco State University.

California slender salamanders are a great amphibian species to watch and learn from. They are pretty easy to find; they are relatively common and will almost always be found in the same area day after day. Most of the time, you can find these salamanders within 2 meters of the place you first spotted them and in one study, 59% of the time they were even spotted underneath the same piece of covering. That was certainly the case for several salamanders that I was watching between classes at SFSU, including this beautiful salamander shown above. You can find these guys under rotting logs or wood, sometimes under large flat rocks or even just under a thick pile of leaf litter-moist areas. From late spring through the summer, they might be harder to find, because they tend to go underground when things dry up. They are one of the few salamanders that are skinny enough to crawl into termite tunnels and earthworm burrows. They’ll also go underground sometimes to forage-they will eat spiders, mites, insects, earthworms and snails.

If you’re getting to know your local slender salamanders, keep in mind that they are most active at night. Also, if you’d like to handle them, here are a few suggestions:

1. Be gentle. Try putting your hand near them and encouraging them to walk on you rather than picking them up. If they are coiled up, then try scooping them from underneath rather than picking them up from above.

Califronia slender salamander

A California slender salamander climbs aboard my hand. Image taken on campus at SFSU.

This might seem obvious, but it’s especially important with salamanders because if they are adequately disturbed, this might happen:

California slender salamander

A California slender salamander with part of its tail missing. Image taken on campus at SFSU.

Salamanders will “drop” their tail if they are threatened, to help them get away. Their tail will regenerate, but it can take between 1 and 3 years. This salamander is in the process of regrowing its tail (This happened before I found it-it wasn’t me I swear!) and wasn’t doing too well when I last checked on it.

2. Don’t wear any perfume, lotions, bug repellents or sunscreen. Since amphibians have permeable skin, these things can harm them. Also, these particular salamanders don’t have lungs or gills, but breathe through their skin and the membranes in their mouth or throat, so you don’t want to gunk up their skin with lotion.

3. Moisten your hands, but be sure NOT to use regular tap water. If you go to a pet store and purchase a dechlorination liquid (very cheap bottle, used for fish tanks), put a few drops in a spray bottle of water and then spray your hands. This way the salamanders won’t dry out while you hold them. This is true for all amphibians you handle. They will be more comfortable if you do this. You can also rub your hands in whatever moist area you find them in, which will help a little as well.

If you follow these steps, then you can enjoy your salamander friends without stressing them too much or harming them. Also, keep in mind that many amphibians will secrete substances that some people are allergic or are sensitive to.

Speaking of which-one of the cool things I came across while learning about this salamander was an observation by a scientist who was working with these animals in lab conditions. He was trying to learn about anti-predator mechanisms for this species. Of course he came across the usual things-they drop their tails, or these amphibians will flip themselves to push themselves away from the threat and then sit still. But, when one salamander was exposed to a garter snake, it prevented being eaten by looping its tail around the snake’s head, forming a knot. Then the salamander released an adhesive skin secretion that glued the snake’s jaw shut for 48 hours. Salamander win!

And now, here’s one last shot of a beautiful California slender salamander:

California slender salamander

A California slender salamander. Image taken on campus at SFSU.

Newly Discovered: Vampire Flying Frog


vampire frog

A vampire flying frog. Image by Jodi Rowley/Australian Museum.

A new species of frog was discovered in Vietnam by Jodi Rowley of the Australian Museum. The adults have webbed feet, which they use to glide; this helps them to live high up in trees. The tadpoles of this species have black fangs and are the first fanged tadpoles known to science. Find out about this discovery here and here.

Green mantella

The green mantella. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Once again, this is a post that is highlighting animals that are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN red list. You can find part one of this group here. In the first part, I wrote about the purpose of these posts and I’d like to reiterate that:

“This post was not meant to be so sad, but to be a chance to learn more about animal species that aren’t doing so well and to see and appreciate them while we still can. There have been many species that were endangered, but thanks to strong conservation efforts, are surviving or even thriving again (buffalo, bald eagles, brown pelicans, American alligators, peregrine falcons, Canada geese, gray wolves, gray whales-to name a few). In fact, these species are the face of conservation and can really bring about the best in people. We just have to continue to fight.”

Now to begin with the first endangered animal, pictured above. The green mantella is a small frog found mostly in northern Madagascar. Although they are very similar to poison dart frogs, in that they have toxic skin and are brightly colored, they are not closely related. Like much of the wildlife on this island, this frog is IUCN red listed as endangered mostly due to habitat loss, but also because of international trade from before the 90s, when they became protected. Although there are many problems facing wildlife in Madagascar, amphibians in general are facing major declines across the globe, not just on this one isolated island. To find out more about how and why we can and should stop amphibian decline, please check out save the frogs. If you’ve been following this blog for a while now, you have seen this name many times already. Save the Frogs has been working to tackle the amphibian decline problem from many fronts-by education, research, legislation and market pressure. They have accomplished a lot with relatively little. Their site has tons of helpful information on what you can do to save the frogs.

Visayan warty pigs

Visayan warty pigs, a critically endangered species. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

These sweet pigs are found only on a few islands in the Philippines. They are listed as critically endangered because their numbers are dropping rapidly due to habitat loss, hunting and interbreeding with domestic pigs. The few zoos that are housing these pigs are participating in an emergency breeding program to save these pigs from extinction. The Oregon Zoo’s website has some wonderful pictures of these pigs, including a male that has its breeding mane, which is a giant spiky poof of hair and quite an amusing sight, and it has a video of 3 unbearably adorable piglets born at the zoo as well as more information on the tragically named warty pigs.


A coelacanth specimen. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

The coelacanth is an interesting fish. It’s thought to have existed over 400 million years ago and was believed to have gone extinct 70 million years ago, since all we’d ever found was fossils. But, in 1938, a fisherman hooked one. Now more have been discovered. We still have a lot to learn about this critically endangered fish and scientists are eager to find out the secrets to its survival.

Sea otter

This sea otter is one of many from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter research and conservation program.

Sea otters have been facing all sorts of problems, both natural and human caused. Natural problems include predation and disease (although human pollution may also be partly responsible if it hinders their immune systems.) Of the current human caused problems, the worst is oil spills, which is particularly bad for them because unlike most marine mammals, otters don’t have a thick layer of blubber for insulation, but incredibly dense fur, which doesn’t work when it’s covered in oil. Being captured in nets and being hit by boats also pose problems. Still, there have been many protection efforts in place, including international agreements. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter and conservation program is just one example of these efforts. They raise and release stranded pups, treat and release injured otters, take care of otters that can’t return to the wild and conduct scientific research. (You can support this program here.) Otters are major predators of marine invertebrates and one of the problems we’ve seen because of their decline is an increase in sea urchins. Since sea urchins eat the holdfasts of kelp (the part that keeps them anchored down), they are tearing through kelp forests, which is also a hiding place and food source for a lot of other wildlife.

radiated tortoise

A young boy watches a critically endangered radiated tortoise. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Radiated tortoises are critically endangered tortoises from Madagascar. This picture, with the little boy watching the tortoise moving about its exhibit, stood out to me when I read about the projections for this species. Without additional protection, these tortoises will become extinct in the little boy’s lifetime. In fact, at the current rate of decline, they’ll probably be extinct by the time he has grandchildren. Destruction of habitat is one of the problems facing this tortoise. So is collection, both for the pet trade and for their livers (why livers? I don’t know). But one of the biggest problems is from local people using the tortoises, mostly for food. This hasn’t been a problem in the past, because the Mahafaly and the Antandroy have a taboo against touching or eating the tortoises and their land covers the range of the radiated tortoises. But more people have moved to this region that will eat the tortoises, as well as Malagasy people who are just passing through. As far as future protection goes, Madagascar has been expanding its protected areas. Providing education and alternatives for local people is considered essential and so is careful monitoring of markets, traders, restaurants and the international pet trade. Perhaps with a lot of work, we can stop this species from going extinct.


A rough-skinned newt pauses from his squirmy escape attempts. Image taken at Angelo Reserve, California.

The year was 1979, on a night filled with fun and games and of course tons and tons of alcohol. The excitement of the evening died down when all in company started noticing that something was wrong with one of their companions. He was a man, 29 years old, drunk off whiskey who was becoming numb and weak. He told them he thought he was going to die. Still, he refused to go to the hospital. He was left alone. In 15 minutes, his heart gave out.

Flashback, to right before the problems began. In their drunken madness, someone thought it would be funny if our victim ate a rough-skinned newt. He dared him to do it. Who can resist the temptation of a dare? He swallowed a newt and it was his fatal mistake.

He’s not the only one to succumb to this temptation. A 36 year old man, also inebriated, consumed 5 rough-skinned newts on a dare. He could just barely walk. He was dizzy and was vomiting. He had trouble coordinating his muscles. He went to the hospital and was treated and he survived. He was very fortunate.

It’s hard to believe that this inoffensive adorable little newt could cause these problems, but in fact, in terms of sheer potency, you are arguably looking at the deadliest animal in our country-worse than rattlesnakes or black widow spiders. This little newt is the only land animal to  contain tetrodotoxin, an incredibly potent neurotoxin, that is also found in the deadly puffer fishes (I recall a Simpson’s episode where Homer eats improperly cut puffer fish sushi and believes he only has 24 hours to live) and the blue-ringed octopus. The octopus gets its toxin from another organism living inside of it, however there is some evidence that this newt can produce its own toxin.


Full body view of a rough-skinned newt. Despite its neurotoxin, I can hold it in my hand as long as I avoid touching my face and wash my hands afterward. The toxin is only a problem when consumed. Image taken at Milagra Ridge in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Fortunately, this neurotoxin is only a problem if the newt is consumed. It doesn’t leach into its environment, which also means it doesn’t have any effect on our drinking water (yay!). For the most part, as long as we can avoid eating these animals, they’ll have few negative effects on us. (Apparently, this is easier said than done. I really just mentioned a couple of cases of grown men eating these guys, but there has also been instances of small children trying to stick these amphibians in their mouths and getting sick. For the record, my new state, Oregon, has the record for death by newt.)

The same can be said for other animals that might prey on the newt. If predators just choose a different meal, then they won’t be poisoned. So, how do they know to avoid this newt? Well, the newt gives them a warning. It’s called the unken reflex, where they arch their back in such a way that their head and their tail move toward each other. This exposes their bright belly.


The bright belly of a rough-skinned newt. Also, notice the vent on this animal is cone shaped, which indicates to us that this is a female. Image taken at Milagra Ridge in the San Francisco Bay Area.



The bright warning color of this newt covers its entire underside. Image taken at Milagra Ridge in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What’s interesting is that research has shown that its the position as well as the coloration that deters predators. The color alone is not as effective. The behavior is also important. I couldn’t tell you with certainty why.

So, predators are given a warning and they now know not to eat this newt. But every animal has to have a nemesis. In the case of the rough-skinned newt, that is the common garter snake. The newt and the garter snake seem to be co-evolving.  The garter snakes have developed a resistance to the newt toxin. In fact, after consuming a newt, the snakes become poisonous, storing the toxin in their liver for up to seven weeks. Three weeks after eating just one newt, the garter snake still has enough toxin in its liver to kill a bird predator.

The strength of a rough-skinned newt’s toxin varies in intensity geographically. Some populations have a stronger toxin than others. It seems that in some areas, the garter snakes tend to leave the newts alone, so it doesn’t benefit the newt to have a more potent toxin and the loss of energy from making a more potent toxin could be detrimental to its survival or reproduction. In other areas, the snakes prey heavily on newts, causing selection for higher toxicity. But there is still a limit to how toxic a newt can get and still benefit. If a newt has the right level of toxin, garter snakes are known to throw them up. Sometimes up to 85 minutes after a newt has been eaten, it will be vomited up ALIVE! However, if their poison is too strong, the snake can be paralyzed before the newt is regurgitated, selecting against  an even more potent newt.

Aside from the research done involving this newt’s toxin and co-evolution with garter snakes, other interesting studies have been conducted as well. While these newts have pretty stable populations right now and are surviving pretty well (considering the overall amphibian decline), there was some interesting finds involving them and exposure to UV radiation. It was hypothesized that UV, combined with many other factors (including the chytrid fungus), was partly behind the world wide amphibian decline. Research indicated that for these newts, exposure to UV radiation altered their anti-predator behavior and also enhanced the toxicity of PAHs, contaminant found in ponds and streams that often comes from runoff or industrial discharge. This study was conducted involving other amphibian species as well, and it turns out that some amphibians have more resistance to damage or problems from UV radiation than others.

Anyway, if you want to catch a glance of these amphibians, now’s a good time. As is gets colder and wetter, these animals start to look for places to overwinter on land, so you can see lots of them out and about. Just be sure to drive carefully, as many get squashed on roads at this time of year as well.

Last but not least, here is one last picture of my little friend, right before she got her wish and was released back into her pond.



A rough-skinned newt. Image taken at Milagra Ridge in the San Francisco Bay Area.


mummified kitten

The face of a mummified kitten. Image taken near Wolf Creek, Oregon.

Well, I couldn’t start off this special Halloween post without the Canterbury Kitten! Read about the Canterbury kitten from one of my previous posts here. One last photo of this kitten:

Mummified kitten

The side view of a mummified kitten. Image taken near Wolf Creek, Oregon.

Next up, deer skulls:


Deer skulls stick together
Two deer skulls, antlers entwined. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

These two deer were battling when their antlers became intertwined and they were stuck. Struggling to get free, they eventually died, still stuck together. This is not uncommon in the deer world and is one of the hazards of competing.

Now, for the skull of a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake:


Western Diamondback

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake skull. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Only one set of fangs will be attached to a venom gland. Note how all of the teeth point inward, so a prey item can slide in easily, but not out.

Here’s the full skeleton of a gray whale:

Gray whale skeleton

A gray whale skeleton hangs from the ceiling at the California Academy of Sciences.

And a hominid skeleton:

Hominid skeleton

A hominid skeleton. Image taken at Museo Arqueologico in La Serena, Chile.

On Halloween last year, the California Academy of Sciences had a “coolest dead thing” contest for its employees. This mummified raccoon took the prize:

Mummified Raccoon

A mummified raccoon won the Prize at the California Academy of Sciences' "coolest dead thing" contest.

This was a really cool second place:

Stained frog specimen

A stained frog specimen. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

And last but not least, here is another stained specimen, a fish:

Stained fish specimen

A back-lit stained fish specimen at the California Academy of Sciences.

And there you have it! Some mummies, skulls and skeletons for a Happy Halloween!

Those in Need: Endangered Species Part 1

golden frog

A Panamanian golden frog, a.k.a a golden arrow poison frog, a critically endangered species. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

This post is going to highlight some animals that have been red listed by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) as endangered or critically endangered.

The Panamanian golden frog (shown above) has become the icon for the amphibian decline movement. This frog has been part of legend and myth in Panama and is a symbol for good luck. There’s even pictures of this frog on their lottery tickets! However, due to habitat loss, chemicals and now a horrible outbreak of the chytrid fungus, these animals are so near extinction that zoos, government agencies and universities both in the United States and in Panama have joined together to protect it, while simultaneously increasing awareness about global amphibian declines. Project Golden Frog is focused on education, research, habitat preservation and captive breeding programs, such as the one at the Oakland Zoo, where this picture was taken. Have I mentioned Save the Frogs?


African Penguin

Ocio, an African penguin. This species was just recently IUCN red listed as endangered. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

The African penguin has just this year been listed as endangered. The IUCN spent over a year examining the data and finally concluded that this species should be listed due to rapid population declines. There are many reasons why the number of African penguins is dropping, but one of the major ones is lack of food. They are competing with commercial fisheries and there has been an eastward shift of the current that carries their prime fish supply. Have I mentioned Seafood Watch, to prevent similar problems from happening to North American birds?


Spider tortoise

A spider tortoise, critically endangered. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This very tiny tortoise (I’m holding him in one hand while I take this picture) is from Madagascar. It was just listed as critically endangered in 2008. These animals are very habitat specific and they have lost and are losing habitat at an incredible rate. This species qualifies as critically endangered because it has lost (or will lose, if current rates continue) 90% of its habitat in only 3 generations. To make matters worse, what habitat they do have is severely fragmented. Also, radiated tortoises (another critically endangered species we’ll see in a future post) have suffered major population declines and people who previously sought radiated tortoises for food are now switching to the spider tortoise, so increased “hunting” pressure is also causing a population drop. This species is projected to be completely extinct in 60-80 years without protection and if current trends persist.

Black Rhino

Elly, a black rhino who has contributed immensely to conservation programs. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This rhino is my home girl. I adore Elly. She was one of the first animals to really have me wondering about and researching conservation efforts-my first real connection to an endangered animal. She let me feed her son- her baby rhino number 13, Moja Doga.

Elly is part of a black rhino breeding program at the San Francisco Zoo. She has the world record for having the most calves in captivity-and she is a very good mommy. She’s retired now and is not going to have any more young. But her babies have gone out into the world to  help protect rhinos.

You might be wondering-how does captive breeding help protect the black rhinos as a species? The answer comes in 3 parts. The first is education and making that connection, like the one I mentioned above. While it is incredibly important that we protect ecosystems and not just individual animals, making that first connection will draw people into the world of conservation action. I know. As a city girl, I had never really thought about rhinos until I got to know one. The second is research. Raising animals in captivity means that we can learn more about their reproduction, behavior, genetics, dung (very interesting stuff going on there) and more without disturbing animals in the wild. The third is breed and release programs. In programs like these, animals are raised in captivity and then released, increasing the wild population and genetic diversity.  Release programs have just begun in 2008 in Kenya, with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of London. Before any release program begins, the problems facing the animals should be addressed (as much as possible) and a protocol for releasing the animals established, to ensure that the animals are able to survive once released.  The animals are also tagged, so they can be monitored and to allow scientists to conduct studies. All of this continues to take place as we speak. I’m happy to report that despite a bad 2009, black rhino numbers are on the rise. But their numbers are still low and much more work needs to be done. These animals are still listed as critically endangered, due to an over 90% population decline in ~60 years.

Scalloped hammerhead shark

A scalloped hammerhead shark, listed as endangered. Image taken at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The scalloped hammerhead shark is one of many shark species that is not doing too well in the wild. They are often easy targets for shark finners because they tend to live in large schools. Their fins are also highly prized because they have a lot of fin rays. Shark finning is a problem for many species of shark, usually to make shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy to some. It is however really high in mercury (often above FDA suggested daily limits) and I’m told it’s tough and tasteless. Still, it is believed that if you eat shark fin, you won’t get cancer. This is simply not true. In fact, the excess of mercury can adversely effect your health. Anyway, when shark finners catch sharks, they cut off their fins and then dump the rest of the shark-often still alive-back into the water to die. It is brutal and disgusting. The other serious problem facing these sharks is that they are frequently caught as by-catch. These two things combined has lead to some population decreases of 50-90% in the last 32 years. Have I mentioned Seafood Watch, which lets you know which fisheries use methods that minimize by-catch?

This post was not meant to be so sad, but to be a chance to learn more about animal species that aren’t doing so well and to see and appreciate them while we still can. There have been many species that were endangered, but thanks to strong conservation efforts, are surviving or even thriving again (buffalo, bald eagles, brown pelicans, American alligators, peregrine falcons, Canada geese, gray wolves, gray whales-to name a few). In fact, these species are the face of conservation and can really bring about the best in people. We just have to continue to fight.