Rainy weather brings out rare bootheel frogs

Thursday, April 4, 2002

EAST PRAIRIE - Wet weather has created conditions that are just right for one of Missouri's most unusual frogs, the Eastern spadefoot.

The spadefoot spends most of its time burrowing through sandy soil and only emerges after heavy rainstorms that produce more than three inches of precipitation. "The recent storms, with heavy rain have been ideal for Eastern spadefoot," said natural history biologist Janeen Laatsch,

"This amphibian may spend years underground without emerging to breed if the conditions are not just right."

Laatsch works for the Missouri Department of Conservation and is interested in the spadefoot because she knows how special they are on Missouri's landscape. Residents can do just what Laatsch does by listening during warm rainy nights.

A spadefoot call can be difficult to describe, but is very distinctive. Spadefoots emit a series of short, nasal "Baaa" sounding grunts. Some people have the opinion that the call sounds similar to a young crow calling.

Males sing to attract females for a brief courtship. Breeding pools are short lived on sandy soils, so egg hatching and metamorphosis is faster than with other frogs. After breeding, the spadefoot will begin to burrow back into the soil with their hind legs. A unique spade-like blade on their hind feet assists with the digging - hence their name.

They will descend backwards until they reach a desired depth. A spadefoot can be buried in less time than it takes to describe the event, and will not re-emerge until appropriate conditions reoccur.

Sometimes this is the very next year, or it may be several years down the line.

During a wet spring residents of Mississippi, Dunklin, Pemiscot, Scott, Stoddard and New Madrid County may be able to hear the frogs in ditches, or wet spots in loose sandy soils. The best place in Missouri to hear these frogs is around the East Prairie and Bertrand area. People that are fortunate enough to hear spadefoots singing are encouraged to report the location to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Burrowing behavior makes it difficult to know where spadefoots are located.

Unless someone hears them calling we cannot form a good idea of population locations. Recording more locations can give MDC an opportunity to find out what conditions the amphibians prefer, and how widely they are distributed.

According to MDC herpetologist Jeff Briggler, "landowners wishing to help the spadefoot should maintain low wet spots on their property for egg laying." Briggler adds that, "pools do not need to be more than two feet deep and should go dry during a normal summer." A wet spring, like this one, will flood yards; which can be valuable to the spadefoot.

Spadefoots are even calling in yards within the city limits of East Prairie.

Another helpful action is careful pesticide use. Although the frogs burrow deep below crop fields, they are able to find and eat insects.

Pesticides intended to kill pests end up harming the frogs when they eat poisoned bugs. It is possible that the spadefoot eats harmful crop pests such as cotton weevils.

Locating populations may someday help us better understand what function the spadefoot plays in the ecosystem.

If you want to hear a recording of a spadefoot call as reference, you can visit wwknapp.home.mindspring.com/Docs/eastern.spadefoot.toad.html.

Also MDC sells a tape with all of Missouri's frog and toad calls for $5.00. To request a copy, you may call toll free 877-521-8632 or visit www.mdcnatureshop.com. to order.

Anyone wanting to report or confirm a location for calling Eastern spadefoots should contact Janeen Laatsch at 573/290-5730 ext 249 or laatsj@mail.conservation.state.mo.us.

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