Monday, January 12, 2015

Red-spotted toad by Rick LoBello

Many of our desert neighbors sleep for months, waiting for warmer days

-Discover your sleepy neighbors, the ones who spend most of their lives underground

-Zoo FrogWatch Workshops Planned for 2015

Most people in El Paso have a pretty good idea on how to survive in our desert climate. When it’s cold like most days and nights in January we turn on the heat. We turn on the air conditioners in our cars and homes when the temperatures start to climb, we go to the refrigerator when we need a cold drink, but for most of our desert neighbors things are very different. Ever wonder why the desert seems so barren with few animals in sight? It is not because they do not exist; after all you can see pictures of desert animals in books and on the TV and Internet. And here at the El Paso Zoo you can see many species native to our Chihuahuan Desert. Believe it or not our Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most biodiverse deserts in the world with thousands of known species of wildlife and plants including reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, invertebrates, cacti and more.

One group of desert animals that you hear very little about is desert toads. If described on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most out of mind, El Pasoans would probably rank desert toads as a 10. A new Frogwatch Chapter forming in El Paso hopes to change all that. The El Paso Zoo is now a FrogWatch USA sponsor and in 2015 we will host two FrogWatch workshops. Make plans now to join us for one of our four hour sessions on Saturday mornings at the Zoo on February 21 and May 23. To register online click the workshop dates on the Zoo’s event calendar at

FrogWatch USATM is a citizen science program dedicated to collecting information about frog and toad populations, raising awareness about amphibians and wetlands, and engaging the public in science. With all the development going on in El Paso frogs in our area need our help more than ever. Once a piece of land is graded most biological organisms and the soil structure is destroyed. No one knows how to recreate what nature has taken thousands of years to create so you can imagine how many living things are affected. That’s where FrogWatch members come in, they help to monitor the frog populations that still exist in hopes that by increasing awareness more frogs and other creatures that share their habitat can be protected.

Here in El Paso we have three very common frogs. The most common is probably the red-spotted toad. They are often seen hopping around neighborhoods as soon as temperatures warm up in the spring and are great climbers. The red spots are very prominent and it’s hard to confuse a red-spotted toad with other species. Like all of our frogs red-spotted toads spend the cooler and dryer parts of the year underground waiting for the rainy season and for temperatures to warm up.

Another common species, the Couch’s spadefoot toad, has little black spade projections on its hind feet to help the toad burrow underground. Right now as you sit at your computer and read this blog there are literally thousands of spadefoot toads waiting beneath the soil surface a foot or so below in a state of estivation. This form of sleep is different from hibernation that occurs with some animals during the winter. Estivation is a state of inactivity and a lowered metabolic rate entered in response to high temperatures and arid conditions during the summer. So when it dries up after our summer rains most of our desert toads estivate. When conditions are right with warmer temperature and heavy rains they all come out of the ground focused on eating and breeding. In some areas it may seem like its raining toads! You can see a great video I took of breeding Couch’s spadefoot toads and red-spotted toads a few years ago here in El Paso on YouTube.

Another toad that we have in El Paso is the biggest one of all, the Woodhouse’s toad reaching a length of 5 inches. On rainy summer days and nights it is often seen on the grounds of the El Paso Zoo near the Franklin Canal. It is very similar to the Texas toad, but does not have a stripe on the back and crests on the head. During the rainy season they sometimes lay their eggs in our animal exhibit moats. Up to 28,000 eggs are deposited in long stringers. This toad was named for naturalist Samuel Washington Woodhouse who explored the Southwest during the mid 18th Century.

Amphibians play an important role in the food chain as predators of insects and as prey for other animals. They also help people by acting as environmental alarms because their thin skins are especially sensitive to environmental changes. We hope that you will learn more about the frogs in our area. Like so many of the animals that we rarely see and are often misunderstood, frogs need friends too.

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