Lithobates capitoGopher Frog

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Geographic Range

Lithobates capito, also known as Lithobates capito, is found mainly in the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. Its range extends from central North Carolina to the east and west coasts of southern Florida. There are isolated populations in central and southeastern Alabama, central Tennessee and southwestern Georgia. (Conant and Collins, 1991; Miller and Campbell, 1996; Palis, et al., 2010)

Habitat

The primary habitat of gopher frogs is native xeric upland habitats, comprised mainly of longleaf pine and sandy substrates. The habitat also contains xeric to mesic hardwoods such as sand pine scrub, longleaf pine flatwoods, and xeric hammocks. These habitats in early successional stages are ideal. Gopher frogs seek shelter in underground refuges, such as the burrows of gopher tortoises, after which they were names, and several species of small mammals, such as rodents, as well as under logs and in stump holes. Gopher frogs also use clumps of grass and leaf litter as refuge during its migration. Refuges protect against adverse weather and predation. Newly metamorphosed gopher frogs are at a high risk of predation and desiccation due to their unfamiliarity with refuge habitat. Fire-maintained habitats with open canopy contain a higher density of gopher tortoise and small mammal burrows. Thus, juvenile gopher frogs avoid closed-canopy habitat and select open-canopy habitat that has been maintained by fire. As a result of fire suppression, habitat loss and degradation, many wildlife species including the gopher frog associated with longleaf pine forests have declined. Gopher frogs breed in temporary or semipermanent (seasonally flooded) ponds but spend the majority of their lives in the burrows of surrounding terrestrial habitat. (Denton and BeeBee, 1993; Gentry and Smith, 1968; Godley, 1992; Lee, 1968; Palis, et al., 2010; Roznik and Johnson, 2009a; Seebacher and Alford, 2002; Thorson, 1955; Wright and Wright, 1949)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • temporary pools

Physical Description

Gopher frogs have robust, stocky bodies with relatively short forelimbs. They have tapered snouts and a single lateral ridge down each side of the back. Their light-colored body is marked with dark brown or black blotches of various sizes and shapes. Adult snout-vent length ranges from 6 to 9 cm and weight ranges from 47 to 151 g. Adult males are smaller than adult females. Skin texture can ranges from rough to smooth and the color ranges from yellow-white to brown or gray. The venter is often white, cream, or yellow and usually mottled with dark spots. Tadpoles range from yellow-green to olive-green or gray with large black spots on the upper body, tail and fin. Tadpoles typically reach a length of 84 mm; however, in North Carolina tadpoles can exceed 90 mm in length. (Conant and Collins, 1991; Palis, 1998; Palis, et al., 2010; Roznik and Johnson, 2009b)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    47 to 151 g
    1.66 to 5.32 oz
  • Range length
    6 to 9 cm
    2.36 to 3.54 in

Development

Little is known of development of gopher frogs. Egg masses are laid in semiperminant ponds just below the surface of the water. Tadpoles metamorphose after 87 to 225 days and disperse into drier upland habitat. (Semlitsch, et al., 1995)

Reproduction

Gopher frogs are polygynous and breed from January to April, immediately after a heavy rain. Males actively call to potential mates during this time. Males occupy breeding ponds for about a month while females stay less than a week. (Palis, 1998; Palis, et al., 2010)

Breeding generally occurs during winter and early spring from January through April. Reproduction can occur as early as September and October following heavy rains. Breeding sites are seasonally flooded isolated ponds free of predatory fish. Males usually occupy breeding ponds for about a month while the females stay less than a week. Females lay cluster containing thousands of eggs. Eggs are gray to gray-black and range in size from 1.67 to 2.7 mm in diameter. Evidence suggests that each female lays one egg mass per breeding season. She deposits the egg mass near the surface of the water on a rigid support (e.g., semi-submerged shrub) in order to keep the eggs at a desired depth. As surface waters warm, development of embryos progresses. Tadpoles metamorphose after a larval period ranging from 87 to 225 days, and disperse into the drier uplands. (Bailey, 1991; Brodman, 1995; Gregoire and Gunzburger, 2008; Jensen, et al., 1995; Palis, 1998; Palis, et al., 2010; Semlitsch, 2008; Semlitsch, et al., 1995; Volpe, 1958; Wright and Wright, 1933)

  • Breeding interval
    Gopher frogs breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Gopher frogs breed from January to April.
  • Range time to hatching
    4 to 5 days
  • Range time to independence
    87 to 225 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1.5 years

Similar to most amphibians, once eggs are laid and fertilized, adult gopher frogs abandon the eggs. Young are completely independent upon hatching. (Palis, 1998; Palis, et al., 2010)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement

Lifespan/Longevity

Gopher frogs can live for up to 6 years in the wild and 7 years in captivity. (Bailey, 1991)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    0 to 6 years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    0 to 7 years

Behavior

Gopher frogs live in hot, dry areas; as a result, desiccation is a major concern. Thus, gopher frogs spend considerable time underground to prevent drying as well as for protection from predation and adverse weather. Evidence suggests that if gopher frogs find refuge within their first 8 days of life, risk of mortality is only 4% for the first few weeks of life. Gopher frogs travel up to 691 m from its natal pond and travel up to 2 km to breeding ponds to find open habitat. Since this distance is substantial for an animal of its size, it commonly takes temporary refuge in tortoise burrows along the way. Movement normally coincides with high amounts of rain during breeding season. Gopher frogs are nocturnal, and although they may leave the burrow to forage, they often remain near the burrow entrance to quickly jump back into the burrow if threatened. (Bailey, 1991; Franz, et al., 1998; Gregoire and Gunzburger, 2008; Jensen, et al., 2003; Palis, et al., 2010; Roznik and Johnson, 2009a)

Home Range

There is no information available about the home range of gopher frogs.

Communication and Perception

The call of gopher frogs is often described as a deep, throaty “snore”, which can last up to two seconds and can be heard nearly 0.4 km away. They have also been documented calling while submerged. Their calls can be heard throughout the year, especially after heavy rains, but are much more abundant during breeding season. (Jensen, et al., 1995; Palis, et al., 2010; Wright and Wright, 1933)

Food Habits

Gopher frogs are carnivorous and are known to consume a variety of invertebrates, including earthworms, cockroaches, spiders, grasshoppers, beetles as well as other toads and frogs. They travel significant distance at night to forage. Tadpoles eat microscopic algae, organic debris, bacteria and protozoans found on underwater vegetation or along the pond bottom. Water quality and lack of canopy cover have a significant impact on prey abundance. (Palis, et al., 2010; Wright and Wright, 1949)

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • other marine invertebrates

Predation

Caddisfly larvae are significant predator on gopher frog egg masses, however, dragonfly nymphs, diving beetles and turtles also prey on egg masses. Occasionally, snakes have been documented at breeding sites. Gopher frogs breed in seasonally flooded ponds absent of predatory fish. Transitioning from aquatic habitat as tadpoles to the terrestrial habitat as juveniles results in high mortality. Juveniles are unfamiliar with their new habitat and the location of burrows, making them easy targets for predation. Approximately 5% of fertilized eggs develop into juveniles. Gopher frogs use burrows to escape potential predators and their camouflaged coloration likely helps reduce predation risk. (Gregoire and Gunzburger, 2008; Palis, et al., 2010; Richter, 2000; Roznik and Johnson, 2009a)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Both as larvae and adults, gopher frogs are preyed upon by a number of vertebrate and invertebrate predators. In general, amphibians are often used as biological indicators of habitat quality. (Richter, 2000)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Gopher frogs, and amphibians in general, are often used as biological indicators of habitat quality. Biological indicators are species that are sensitive to environmental change such as pollution or climate change. Because of their permeable skin they are susceptible to environmental stress in both aquatic and terrestrial environments and serve as an early warning to conservationists of poor aquatic habitat conditions.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There no known adverse effects of gopher frogs on humans.

Conservation Status

Because of declining populations, Lithobates capito is listed as “near threatened” on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. Mississippi gopher frogs, a subspecies of Lithobates capito, is listed as endangered on the U.S. Federal List. Major threats include fire suppression, habitat loss and fragmentation from roads and construction, agriculture and off-road vehicles. Gopher tortoise populations are also declining, leaving fewer burrows for L. capito to use. In general, the area occupied by this species is rather small and is very specific, leaving L. capito highly vulnerable to habitat change. Although precise numbers are difficult to estimate, recent population estimates suggest that less 10,000 individuals remain in the wild, which is significantly reduced from historical numbers. (Palis, et al., 2010)

Other Comments

In recent years, there has been a taxonomic reassignment of genus Rana to Lithobates. There is still ongoing research to determine if the reassignment is correct. As a result, Lithobates capito is also known as Lithobates capito.

Contributors

Rachel Sines (author), Northern Michigan University, Mary Martin (editor), Northern Michigan University, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

phytoplankton

photosynthetic or plant constituent of plankton; mainly unicellular algae. (Compare to zooplankton.)

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

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.

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.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

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