Arizona Amphibians

Arizona, known for being incredibly hot and dry, not the kind of place you expect to find amphibians. However, during our trip we saw several species (not as many as the trip last year as we did not experience a flood!), so I thought that I would share my two favorite amphibians from Arizona.

Couch’s spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii) – Now, you just can’t help but love these little creatures, while I greatly dislike the word ‘cute’ it is difficult to describe them any other way. These were, by far, the most common amphibian species that we saw, and no one was complaining about that! With their awesome little faces, huge eyes and a cheeky grin they quickly became one of my favorite animals. S. couchii are not particularly large, growing to around 3-3.5 inches, and have smooth skin. They spend the majority of the year (8-10 months) buried in the soil and only emerge for the summer monsoons. It had been fairly wet in Arizona prior to our arrival, which is likely to be one of he reasons that we saw so many, these summer rains provide temporary pools for them to breed in.
Spadefoots get their name from the keratinous “spade” that is found at the base of each of their hind feet, which is used to bury themselves in the soil to avoid the high temperatures and prevent desiccation. This little adaptation allows them to be very successful in hot, arid conditions. As far as diet is concerned, these little amphibians will eat anything that they are able to get in their mouth, typically including grasshoppers, beetles, ants and spiders. While they are commonly called Couch’s spadefoot toads, they are not “true toads” as they do not belong to the family Bufonidae, so it is better to refer to them simply as Couch’s spadefoots. We encountered them most commonly on our nightly road cruises where they could be seen at the side of the road looking for food and mates.
These charismatic, comical amphibians were an awesome sight and always a delight to find.

This funny little amphibian was found sitting on the road during a nightly cruise.
This funny little amphibian was found sitting on the road during a nightly cruise.  
Another spadefoot from a road cruise but this one was found in the vegetation.
Another spadefoot from a road cruise but this one was found in the vegetation.

Chiricahua leopard frog (Rana chiricahuensis) – A fairly large, very attractive frog that I feel privileged to have seen. They display a variety of colours with some being a dark-brownish grey and others being bright green, they all have a striking spot pattern (hence the name leopard frog). They have huge back legs with large, webbed feet that are used for propelling themselves through water. These awesome amphibians are not easy to see anymore, and have become quite rare. Their decline is due to a number of factors such as predation (often from introduced species), drought and mainly habitat disturbance. Unlike the spadefoot, leopard frogs are not adapted to the dry, arid desert but rather they require permanent (or at least semi-permanent) pools for breeding. As with all amphibians they are very susceptible to chemical changes in the water, and so the addition of any pesticides or herbicides to the local area that run off into the ponds can have drastic effects on the populations and breeding. Because of the changes to their habitats they have become a rare and protected species that are found only in isolated populations. I was lucky enough that one of these populations is located where we stayed.
While I often talk a lot about my love of arachnids, snakes, and all things venomous, I do love amphibians and particularly the Anurans (frogs and toads). They tend to be full of character and I find them incredibly interesting to observe. The Chiricahua leopard frogs were an incredible sight and I spent a fair amount of time sitting around the pools trying to photograph them and just enjoying watching them swim beneath the crystal clear water. The pools contained a large number of individuals which weren’t hard to spot and they were often seen jumping into the water with a satisfying plop as I approached. Now that the decline has been recognized, there are numerous conservation projects that are trying to help them make a comeback and hopefully they’ll be successful.

Chiricahua leopard frog

The Couch’s spadefoot and Chiricahua leopard frog were my two favorite amphibians of the trip, due to the charismatic, comical appearance of the spadefoot and the striking looks and rarity of the leopard frog, although we did also see a beautiful green toad and a massive sonoran desert toad.
I hope you enjoyed this amphibian post, I will continue uploading entries about the awesome animals of Arizona but will also  write about anything interesting that I find here in Bangor.

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