Before the California red-legged frog all but vanished decades ago from the streams and mountains outside Los Angeles, the amphibian and its impressive leaping abilities were immortalized in American literature.
In 1865, a young Mark Twain wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short story about a gambler who gets duped into wagering that his trained pet frog can outjump anyone else’s.
The story is widely credited with launching Twain, then virtually unknown, into literary stardom. It also had the collateral effect of popularizing the California red-legged frog, inspiring annual frog-jumping contests (most famously, the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee), frog-jumping-related research, and eventually paving the way for the red-legged frog to be named official state amphibian.
At the time of Twain’s story, the creatures would have been fairly easy to spot in California’s wetlands. But decades of habitat destruction and overharvesting, along with the introduction of invasive species, decimated the red-legged frog’s numbers, particularly in the southern part of the state.
By the 1920s, they had nearly disappeared from the Santa Monica Mountains, a 150,000-acre tract of park land just northwest of Los Angeles. A single red-legged frog was sighted in the area during the 1970s, according to the Los Angeles Times. It wasn’t until 1999 that a group of about 100 were discovered in the nearby Simi Hills.
Now, after years of careful efforts to replenish the species, scientists have found evidence that red-legged frogs are reproducing in the region.
In a giddy announcement Wednesday, the National Park Service said researchers said they had spotted nine egg masses in streams in the Santa Monica Mountains. They called it the first known evidence in decades that the population was sustaining in the area without the help of humans.
“I was literally crying when the stream team showed me the photos of egg masses,” Katy Delaney, a National Park Service ecologist, said in a statement. “The years of work we’ve put in is showing amazing progress. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but this is a major moment for the project.”
The egg masses were identified on March 14 as teams were surveying a stream in the mountain range, park officials said. For the past four years, park workers have tried to “translocate” the small population of frogs discovered in Simi Hills to the mountains, taking several hundred eggs at a time and placing them in different locations. The hope was that the frogs would eventually develop, mate and reproduce on their own.
Similar restoration efforts are underway elsewhere. Last year, wildlife workers released thousands of tadpoles into streams in Yosemite National Park, where the frogs disappeared more than 40 years ago.
The red-legged frog — called such because of the reddish coloring on the undersides of its legs and abdomen — was the only species missing from the ecosystem of the Santa Monica Mountains, researchers said. Because the frog is so sensitive to its surrounding environment, it serves as a kind of gauge of the ecosystem’s overall health.
Hence the intense focus on saving the creature, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The frog, which grows to about 5 inches, is the largest native frog in the West, according to the National Wildlife Federation. In the past 100 years or so, it has vanished from 70 percent of its habitat on the West Coast and in Mexico, and is now viewed as endemic to California.
Agricultural irrigation is partly to blame for the decline of the species, along with the introduction of invasive animals such as the American bullfrog and crayfish, which feed on the red-legged frog’s eggs, tadpoles and sometimes the frogs themselves.
Researchers said the discovery of the egg masses in the Santa Monica Mountains makes them optimistic that they’ll be able to replicate the breeding efforts elsewhere.
“This could be the start of a comeback,” Delaney, the ecologist, told the Los Angeles Times. “This would’ve never happened naturally.”
More from Morning Mix