Everyone deserves a chance at love.
This is especially true if you are a Houston toad. The Texas native is at risk of being eliminated. It’s been on the endangered species list since 1970, but employees at the Fort Worth Zoo are giving this brown, squatting frog a fighting chance by playing a matchmaker.
“They seem to have faces only a mother can love,” said Diane Barber, curator of ectotherms at the zoo, which refers to cold-blooded animals such as reptiles and amphibians. But the frog’s wrinkled brow doesn’t stop her team from helping this tiny amphibian shoot it.
“Right now, we have about 200 toads,” Barber said. “Males and females are kept separate in groups until we begin to breed them.”
Since 2010, she and her team have raised frogs in Houston as part of a highly successful conservation program with partners across the state.
“With the Houston Zoo, we lay over a million eggs and tadpoles every year,” she said. “That’s an incredible number of animals to be placed in the landscape.”
The frogs are located at the Texas Native Amphibian Center on the outskirts of the zoo. Transparent containers stacked in neat rows each contain a few creatures, each waiting their turn to form a love affair.
Alison Julian, a postdoctoral researcher at the zoo, steps in whenever the frogs need a little encouragement.
This could be as simple as injecting animals with hormones to stimulate reproductive behavior. And when does that do the trick?
“We’re actually doing in vitro fertilization or IVF,” Julian said.
A stud book clerk keeps track of all eligible bachelors and bachelors. Each frog is assigned a number, which is placed in the book of horses. Barber then runs all of the frog’s information through a program that helps each frog find a match.
“So we’ll get what’s called a Mate RX. It’s this giant table that shows you what the right pairs are to put together,” she said.
In other words, Barber wants to avoid mating between frogs that may be siblings or cousins.
“I should also look at the size of the frogs because the males can’t be any bigger than the females because they might drown them out,” she said.
This year, the Fort Worth Zoo has produced more than 430,000 eggs. They look like little black beans covered in clear jelly. Once the eggs are counted, they are sent to the launch site near Bastrop in central Texas.
The hope, Barber says, is that these breeding efforts will boost dwindling populations in the wild.
“Unfortunately, most of her habitat is gone,” she said. “Now you don’t really see a lot of tallleaf pines in Texas, do you? That was just because the habitat changed for farming, in the first place.”
The Fort Worth Zoo and its partners have received a federal grant to further their efforts. It is set to triple its reproductive capacity next year.
“It’s a huge milestone to show that we’re having some good success,” she said. “Those frogs that returned to the breeding pond were genetically analyzed, and we know that at least 32 percent of them came from the captive program in Houston and Fort Worth.”
However, even these tadpoles need wide open spaces to breed again. There is plenty of privately owned land that could be made for Houston Todd, Barber said.
“One of our biggest priorities is to try out some of these historic counties to get additional landowners on board and sign safe harbor agreements,” she said.
These are voluntary pledges that private land owners can make to conserve important habitats on their land. Meanwhile, Barber and her team are already preparing for another round of amphibious romance next spring.