Gopher Frog Recovery: At the Edge of a Precipice

On a hot summer afternoon in the Francis Marion Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area (PARCA), Coastal Plains Program Coordinator Ben Morrison and Assistant Field Project Manager Sydney Sheedy drive down a bumpy dirt road surrounded by longleaf pine trees. They’re heading to Sunset Pond, a not-even-on-the-map ephemeral wetland that represents one of the last healthy few of its kind in the forest, unchoked by invasive species and still reliably filling with water for part of the year. 

It’s one of the last few places Carolina gopher frogs hang on in the PARCA. Morrison and Sheedy carry precious cargo: a cooler holding cups of just-metamorphosed gopher froglets (young frogs), ready for release. This yield of froglets is the fruit of one of ARC’s most exciting projects. 

Gopher frogs come in all shades of green, from sage to olive, with a speckling that keeps them well hidden in the vegetation of the Carolina coastal plain. Besides their camouflage and the fact that they spend much of their time underground, they’re rare—just 10,000 are estimated to remain across their range. 

Plus, they’re hard to detect: They don’t make their snore-like call regularly, as most frogs do. If it’s too cold outside, they’ll just call underwater. All of this makes them a hard-to-study species. 

But, after gathering what audio data we could over the last decade, we realized that the frogs in the Francis Marion PARCA are seriously in trouble. Using historical records to guide us, we tracked down the remaining populations and discovered that only three are hanging on, relying on seven ephemeral wetlands like Sunset Pond. 

There are many reasons for this decline, including a long history of logging longleaf pine trees, coupled with the continuing encroachment of subdivisions fragmenting the habitat and isolating frogs and populations from each other. Plus, changing weather patterns have made it even harder for the frog to breed—we often call them the Goldilocks frog because they have such a particular set of requirements for temperature and rainfall. 

We’ve already lost another amphibian species from the Francis Marion PARCA. Frosted flatwoods salamanders once used these ponds, too, but they’ve disappeared. We don’t want the same thing to happen with gopher frogs. 

Year-round, Morrison and Sheedy are in the field, sometimes knocking back invasive species and restoring habitat, sometimes taking eDNA (environmental DNA) samples to determine if gopher frogs are using a pond, and sometimes by installing pipes into the ground that mimic the burrows of the long-gone gopher tortoises that the frogs evolved to use. 

The most exciting part of our program, called headstarting, started in 2019. Each year, during the late winter into spring, Morrison and Sheedy comb the wetlands for masses of gopher frog eggs and ferry what they find to our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partner on Wadmalaw Island, the Bears Bluff National Fish Hatchery. There, those eggs go into mesocosms (large outdoor tanks), where they eventually hatch. As tadpoles, they feed and grow until they’re ready to move out of the water and emerge as froglets.

Then, Morrison and Sheedy pick them up and take them to Sunset Pond and other locations—raised past the most vulnerable stage of their lives, they have the best chance we can give them to thrive and pass on their genes. Sometimes, they release a hundred froglets. 

Sometimes, like today, there are as few as three; that’s the nature of the work. To release, Morrison and Sheedy place each froglet by hand in its new habitat. With a single hop, the froglets melt into the landscape, their green speckling among the grasses dissolving them from view. 

Over the past four years, ARC has grown this program, and this summer alone, we’ve released nearly 500 froglets into the wild. We plan to ramp up our efforts by hopefully building another hatchery to produce more young frogs and further boost these numbers. 

With frosted flatwoods salamanders, the window to step in and rescue the remaining populations has closed, although we have plans to reestablish them in the future. With gopher frogs, that window is still open, if only just, and we are determined to stand between them and the precipice. 

Each frog represents a lot of effort, time, and money—from peering through the wetland vegetation to find eggs to driving them to the hatchery to feeding them as tadpoles and bringing them back to the ponds. But we believe that each egg, each tadpole, each froglet is worth it and that with enough frogs over time coupled with hard work restoring the habitat, these distinctive little amphibians can come back and thrive once more.