For eight hours, Ruston Hartdegen drove. Through the flatlands of East Texas, then the red clay of northern Louisiana, and finally into the thick pine forests of Mississippi.
The Dallas Zoo’s curator of Herpetology was on a mission years in the making – a tadpole rescue mission.
His journey ended deep in the DeSoto National Forest, an hour north of Gulf Coast, where he gathered 188 dusky gopher frog tadpoles to bring back to the Dallas Zoo – not for exhibit, but to save them from extinction.
In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) named Rana (Lithobates) sevosa one of the top 100 endangered species in the world, with only 100 to 200 adults remaining.
The longleaf pine forest habitats that dusky gopher frogs call home are disappearing as paper companies harvest the trees and replace them with faster-growing loblolly and slash pine. Today, the dusky gopher frog has only a few homes in the wild remaining, including the geographically isolated Glen’s Pond.
The Dallas Zoo and more than a dozen other institutions are participating in a Species Survival Plan to breed and raise these 3-inch-long, dark-spotted victims of deforestation. The plan is a kind of zoo-backed insurance policy to help the species survive: Should wild populations continue to decline, the frogs raised at Dallas, Detroit, Memphis and other participating zoos could be released to bolster numbers.
“Amphibian decline is a global phenomenon,” said Hartdegen. “One out of every three species of amphibians is under serious threat. Our involvement with the gopher frog SSP allows us the opportunity make a significant difference for a critical endangered species in our backyards.”
The Dallas Zoo was invited to participate because of the unique, biosecure facility available in ZooNorth’s herpetarium.
The tadpoles, which began as eggs at Glen’s Pond, were transferred to holding tanks at Harrison Experimental Forest Station before being collected by Hartdegen. After a long drive home, they are now in an isolated quarantine space at the Dallas Zoo, being cared for by the herpetology staff.
But the efforts don’t stop there.
“Protection of habitat is crucial to saving a species,” said Matt Vaughan, the Dallas Zoo’s assistant supervisor of Herpetology.
Hoping to keep dusky gopher frogs from disappearing from the earth, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated nearly 6,500 acres of land in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi as critical habitats for them. Longleaf pine restoration efforts also are under way.
The partnership between governmental agencies and non-profit zoos will give these struggling little creatures a chance to beat the odds, and the Dallas Zoo herpetology team is proud to be on the front lines in this crucial conservation effort.
Matt Vaughan and Anna Campitelli contributed to this story.