Hyla versicolorGray Treefrog

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Geographic Range

Both gray treefrog species, Hyla versicolor and Hyla chrysoscelis, inhabit a wide range from southern Ontario and Maine, westward to central Texas, northwest to Manitoba, and northern Florida. An isolated colony is also noted in New Brunswick. The two species appear physically identical, and consequently more studies are necessary to delineate where the species overlap. (Collins and Conant, 1998)

Generally, the eastern gray treefrog (H. versicolor) is mostly found to the north and northeast of the range. However, the gray treefrog species are extremely variable in their distribution pattern. For instance, the eastern gray treefrog is common in the eastern Great Lakes region, including southern Michigan; however, both species: H. versicolor and H. chrysoscelis share the same breeding ponds in Wisconsin and northern Michigan. (Harding, 1997)

Habitat

Eastern gray Treefrogs inhabit all elevations of wooded areas near temporary and permanent waters in such diverse surroundings such as swamps, ponds, lakes, old fields, thickly wooded suburban neighborhoods, farm woodlots, and mixed or deciduous forests. During the summer months, they are most often found in damp rotten logs or hollow trees. In winter, gray treefrogs hibernate on land under woody debris such as logs, roots and leaf litter. (Harding, 1997)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • temporary pools

Physical Description

The eastern gray treefrog measures 1.25 to 2 inches (3-5cm) in length. The record length is 2.25 in. (6 cm). There is no sexual dimorphism. The dorsal surface of the gray treefrog species is rough and lightly sprinkled with warts,more than most frogs but less than the average toad. The large toepads produce mucous to adhere to smooth bark or man-made structures near light sources, and are characteristic of the family Hylidae. The colors of a gray treefrog vary with the colors of its background and environmental factors such as season and humidity, but shades of gray are most common with black blotches on the back. Variations of brown, green, and pearl-gray colors have been noted. Green colors are more prominent during the breeding season and in yearling frogs. Usually, there is a white mark beneath the eye. The ventral skin on the hind legs, in the groin region, may appear orange to golden yellow with black speckles and the belly is white.

If the coloration is in question, place the treefrog in a box, allow it to sit quietly, and later re-examine the specimen. The yearling frogs are about half the size of the older H. versicolor population, but retain the same characteristics. Gray treefrogs continue to grow each year until they achieve the physical limit of the species. (Collins and Conant, 1998; Harding, 1997)

Both gray treefrog species possess the same larval traits, but H. versicolor was used to exemplify the tadpole stage in Conant and Collins' "A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of East Central North America". The tadpoles are small, but colorful, 1.25 in. to 1.5 in. (3.2 cm. to 3.8 cm.) long. The tip of the tail is well-defined with a 5 mm narrow tip. The oral disc is comprised of 2 upper labial tooth rows and 3 lower, serrated jaws, and an overhanging upper jaw. The intestinal coil is also visible. The background color is light green to yellow. The tallest section of the tail fin is the middle and heavy black dots are scattered along the margin on a red or orange background across the tail. (Collins and Conant, 1998; Harding, 1997)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    7.175 g
    0.25 oz
    AnAge
  • Range length
    3 to 5 cm
    1.18 to 1.97 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.00433 W
    AnAge

Development

Tadpoles of the eastern gray treefrogs metamorphosize into froglets in six to eight weeks. The young frogs are approximately 0.6 in. (1.5 cm) snout to vent length. The larval and adult rate of growth is dependent on the availability of food and stress of predators. The sex deterimination of amphibians is genetic. However, if larvae are treated with estrogen, then hormonal sex reveral is possible after metamorphosis. Hyla versicolor follow the XX/XY pattern of heterogamety. (Harding, 1997; Skelly, 1992; Wallace, et al., 1999)

Reproduction

The breeding choruses of gray treefrogs begin in late April to early May after the evening air temperature rises above 15°C, which varies throughout the range. These frogs end their hibernation in the early months of spring, but do not have the energy reserves to call, yet. Warm, cloudy nights, from dusk to midnight, produce the most intense choruses. However, interludes of cold weather may temporarily end the male gray treefrog calls. Generally, the breeding chorus lasts for several weeks. Sometimes, the breeding calls are continued into late June or early July, depending on local temperatures and unusual weather phenomena. (Harding, 1997)

Female choice dominates the mating scheme of gray treefrogs, since the female approaches the male with the most prolonged and frequent calls. If the male detects a nearby female he will also further entice her with a “courtship call” that is longer and more emphatic than the usual advertisement call. Successful calling results in amplexus as the female deposits eggs which are externally fertilized by the male. Almost immediately, the large egg mass breaks into small, loose egg clusters of 10 to 40 eggs attach to plants or other structures within the pond. Depending on the water temperature, the tadpoles hatch in three to seven days. Both gray treefrog sp. do not hybridize due to a mating barrier, the different pulse rate and pitch between the two calls. (Harding, 1997; Hausfater, et al., 1990)

Eastern gray treefrogs employ their unique call from the safety of vegetation next to the shallow breeding sites, preferably in tree branches that overhang the water. The males aggressively defend and use their voice to outline their territories with extended calls. Satellite males, often in their first breeding season or otherwise disadvantaged, do not call to save energy. Instead, they lie in wait near a calling male and intercept the female by claiming the caller’s position after he moves away. The female only visits the breeding site to lay her eggs. During the last weeks of the breeding season, occasional calls may still be heard as the males slowly retreat from the shoreline and disappear into the foliage. Rare calls may still be heard in the trees in late summer or fall, yet they are unrelated to mating, and occur more often during rain showers. Calling males are often attacked by predators, and this results in a female-biased population. (Duellman and Trueb, 1986; Harding, 1997; Stebbins and Cohen, 1995)

  • Breeding interval
    Treefrogs breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Late April to May or until the temperature rises above 15°C
  • Range number of offspring
    1,000 to 2,000
  • Range time to hatching
    3 to 7 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    912 days
    AnAge
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 2 years

Female gray treefrogs invest in their offspring by providing yolk to the eggs, and choosing ponds that are relatively free of predators (they especially try to avoid fish). Males do not invest in the offspring, and female investment ends when she lays her eggs. (Harding, 1997; Skelly, 1992)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth

Lifespan/Longevity

One captive gray treefrog lived for over seven years in captivity. Unfotunately, it was not distinguished as H. chrysoscelis or H. versicolor. The potential lifespan in captivity and the wild is unknown. It is likely that few gray treefrogs die of old age, predators, disease and climactic extremes are more likely causes of death. (Harding, 1997)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    7 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    7 years
    AnAge

Behavior

Male eastern gray treefrogs are territorial during the breeding season. During the rest of the year, males and females are tolerant of the presence of conspecifics of similar size. However, they are opportunistic cannibals, and may eat other gray treefrogs if they are small enough to catch and swallow. (Duellman and Trueb, 1986)

As a member of the genus Hyla, eastern gray treefrogs possess advanced toe pads to adhere more strongly to vertical surfaces of glass, metal, and primarily tree bark. A very low angle between the toe pads and substrate with a combination of mucous glands and surface moisture create surface tension to support the body mass. The toe tips are able to be flexible and grip more firmly due to small bone or cartilage between two terminal toe bones that support the toe pad. These specialized adhesion abilities would not exist if a detergent were applied to the pad; however, the adhesion would return with the removal of the detergent. Climbing ability is an important adaptive trait of this species and it is central to their survival. (Stebbins and Cohen, 1995)

When gray treefrogs hibernate, they appear rigid, and have a high freezing tolerance due to glycerol in their blood. During hibernation, 80% of the body freezes and the eye becomes opaque as breathing and heartbeat are temporarily suspended. Their high tolerance for freezing temperatures enabled the gray treefrogs to expand their territory northward and towards higher elevations. (Duellman and Trueb, 1986; Duellman and Trueb, 1986)

Home Range

The home range of the eastern gray treefrog varies widely depending on the suitability of the habitat and the available food supply. Due to their small size, several frogs may inhabit one tree if there is a sufficient food supply. (Harding, 1997)

Communication and Perception

The male's advertisement call is the main trait to distinguish the eastern gray treefrog (H. versicolor) from Cope's gray treefrog (H. chrysoscelis). In general, the sound is comprised of a resonant musical trill. The eastern gray treefrog has a slower trill than Cope’s, which is faster and higher pitched. An increase in air temperature raises the rate of the trill and tape recordings may be necessary for positive identification, especially if only a single species is present. (Collins and Conant, 1998)

In comparison to other frog species in the range, the gray treefrogs calls are shorter, only 0.5 to 3 seconds, yet similar to the call of the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus). (Harding, 1997)

In the larval state, Hyla versicolor uses chemoreception as its primary method of communication and defense against predators. Predatory fish and salamander larvae are detected via chemoreception. Injured tadpoles also release an "alarm substance" to warn their conspecifics. (Duellman and Trueb, 1986)

Adult gray treefrogs are very sensitive to ground vibrations and possess excellent hearing. Yet, during hibernation they are unresponsive to most external stimuli. (Duellman and Trueb, 1986)

Food Habits

As tadpoles, eastern gray treefrogs begin life by grazing on algae and detritus in their pond. (Harding, 1997)

After metamorphosis, H. versicolor prey upon most types of insects and their larvae. Mites, spiders, plant lice, harvestmen, and snails are also eaten. Gray treefrogs mostly hunt insects in the understory of wooded areas in small trees and shrubs, where they may rely upon their camouflage with less risk of predation. However, like most frogs, H. versicolor is opportunitistic and may also eat smaller frogs, including other tree frogs. (Collins and Conant, 1998)

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • algae

Predation

Many assorted species of birds, snakes, other frogs, and small mammals eat gray treefrogs. These frogs are arboreal to avoid predators, and exploit new food resources. They also avoid the attention of predators by calling after dusk and being most active in the evening and night. They use cryptic coloration and rarely leave the trees until the breeding season. Their skin is able to assume most natural colors in which it comes into contact.

Larger frogs, such as the bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) and green frog (Lithobates clamitans clamitans, have been observed to consume gray treefrogs by stalking calling males. In the water, giant waterbugs (Belostomatidae) also attack Cope's gray treefrog. (Collins and Conant, 1998; Harding, 1997)

In the larval state, gray treefrogs are subject to predation by fish and larger amphibian larvae, such as the tiger salamander (Ambystomma tigrinum). When aquatic predators are abundant, gray treefrog tadpoles reduce their activity and feeding. They grow more slowly, and metamorphose at a smaller size. (Skelly, 1992)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Eastern gray treefrogs can play a critical role in the foodweb of their ecosystems. As tadpoles they may graze enough algae to change the community of algal species in their ponds. Later, local pest populations of mosquito, gnats, and flies are reduced in the territory of a single gray treefrog. In turn, Cope's gray treefrogs are the prey of larger frogs, carnivorous birds, and small mammals. H. versicolor are a significant link to support the survival of other animals in the ecosystem. (Harding, 1997)

Like just about all animals, this species is host to parasitic species. Among others, Polytoma nearcticum is a flatworm that lives in the gills of tadpoles and the bladder of adults. Nematodes in the genus Strongyloides are found in the digestive systems of these frogs.

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Gastrointestinal nematode (Strongyloides)
  • a monogenean flatworm, Polytoma nearcticum

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

People benefit from the substantial amount of insect pests that are eaten by H. versicolor. The spring breeding chorus also provides evening entertainment to re-affirm our connection with nature. We also use the presence of eastern gray treefrogs as a scientific tool to indicate the overall biodiversity and the level of contaminants in a region. Overall, the eastern gray treefrog plays an important role in the ecological balance of wooded farmlands and residential areas and contributes to our own well-being. (Harding, 1997)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Hyla versicolor on humans. (Harding, 1997)

Conservation Status

Hyla versicolor is not currently classified as endangered or of special concern. However, habitat destruction and human pollutants are contributing to the overall decline of amphibians, including frog and toad species. Public support of habitat areas in state parks, nature reserves, and private property continues to promote the survival of amphibian species. Ongoing scientific research also improves our understanding of this dynamic species. (Harding, 1997)

Other Comments

Cope's gray treefrog (H. chrysoscelis) and the Eastern gray treefrog (H. versicolor) are a unique example of speciation in action. The two species have very similar genes, and appear identical; however, the eastern gray treefrog possesses a second chromosome set, twice the number of chromosomes as Cope's gray treefrog. Cope's (H. chrysoscelis) is called a diploid, and the eastern (H. versicolor) is called a tetraploid. The only reliable ways to distinguish between the species are by the calls of the males or by microscopic examination of their chromosomes. (Collins and Conant, 1998)

H. versicolor is thought to have evolved from H. chrysoscelis when an extra chromosomal set was passed to several surviving egg masses sometime early in the Pleistocene epoch, commonly known as the "Ice Age." At this time, populations of H. chrysoscelis were isolated by intervening areas of extreme low tempoeratures. By the time the climate warmed and the glaciers retreated, the two populations had evolved in different directions, and though they now occur together, they no longer interbreed and are different species. (Gerhardt, et al., 1994; Harding, 1997)

The western fox snake (Pantherophis vulpinus) and eastern fox snake (Pantherophis gloydi) of the Great Lakes Basin in North America are another example of this pattern of speciation. The habitats and prey vary greatly between these two species, yet except for minimal variation of their scale patterns they almost appear identical. (Harding, 1997)

Contributors

George Hammond (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Lee A. Mueller (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor, instructor), Michigan State University.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

arboreal

Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

choruses

to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

detritus

particles of organic material from dead and decomposing organisms. Detritus is the result of the activity of decomposers (organisms that decompose organic material).

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

metamorphosis

A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Collins, J., R. Conant. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of East Central North America. 3rd edition, expanded. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Duellman, W., L. Trueb. 1986. Biology of Amphibians. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Gerhardt, H., M. Ptacek, R. Sage. 1994. Speciation By Polypoidy in Treefrogs: Multiple Origins of the Tetraploid, Hyla versicolor. Evolution, 48: 898-908.

Harding, . 1997. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Hausfater, G., C. Gerhardt, G. Klump. 1990. Parasites and mate choice in gray treefrogs, Hyla versicolor. American Zoology, 30: 299-331.

Skelly, D. 1992. Field Evidence for a Cost of Behavioral Antipredator Response in a Larval Amphibian. Ecology, 73/2: 704-708.

Stebbins, R., N. Cohen. 1995. A Natural History of Amphibians. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wallace, H., B. Badaway, B. Wallace. 1999. Amphibian sex determination and sex reversal. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 55/6-7: 901-909.