The gopher frog Lithobates capito is one of the most terrestrial frogs in the southeastern U.S. and often inhabits gopher tortoise burrows Gopherus polyphemus outside of the breeding season. Gopher frog populations have declined, and the species is under review for listing as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Much of our knowledge on the status of gopher frogs is based on detections of larvae at breeding wetlands, which can be challenging due to environmental variability and provides no information on the terrestrial life stages of the species. Therefore, an alternative method is called for. We recorded observations of gopher frogs during gopher tortoise surveys at four conservation lands in Florida and used line transect distance sampling to estimate frog abundance. We also recorded burrow size, incidence of frog co-occupancy with tortoises, and distance from frog-occupied burrows to breeding wetlands. We observed 274 gopher frogs in 1,097 tortoise burrows at the four sites. The proportion of burrows occupied by gopher frogs among sites ranged from 0.17 to 0.25. Gopher frog abundance in tortoise burrows was 742 (512–1,076 95% CL) at Etoniah Creek State Forest, 465 (352–615) at Ft. White Wildlife Environmental Area, 411(283–595) at Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, and 134 (97–186) at Watermelon Pond Wildlife Environmental Area. We observed up to four frogs in a single burrow. The proportion of frogs detected in burrows occupied by a gopher tortoise ranged from 0.46 to 0.79 among sites, and overall, gopher frogs preferred burrows occupied by tortoises over unoccupied burrows (χ 2 = 15.875, df=3, p = 0.001). Gopher frogs used burrows from 7 to 43 cm in width; mean width of frog-occupied burrows did not differ from that of unoccupied burrows ( F 1,3 = 0.0492, p = 0.8245). Distance from frog-occupied tortoise burrows to the nearest breeding wetland ranged from 141 to 3,402 m. Our data on gopher frogs collected in conjunction with gopher tortoise monitoring efforts using line transect distance sampling and burrow cameras provided novel information on frog abundance in their terrestrial habitat and required no additional effort. However, the extent to which frogs use tortoise burrows relative to other available refuges (small mammal burrows, stumps, or other structures) is unknown, thus our estimates should be considered conservative. We suggest that terrestrial abundance estimates for gopher frogs can complement efforts to monitor breeding activity to provide a more comprehensive means of monitoring population trends in this cryptic species.
Added Value: Gopher Tortoise Surveys Provide Estimates of Gopher Frog Abundance in Tortoise Burrows
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Lora L Smith, Jennifer M. Howze, Jennifer S. Staiger, Eric R. Sievers, Deborah Burr, Kevin M. Enge; Added Value: Gopher Tortoise Surveys Provide Estimates of Gopher Frog Abundance in Tortoise Burrows. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 2020; doi: https://doi.org/10.3996/JFWM-20-030
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