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Head Starting Gopher Frogs in the Croatan National Forest

I’m walking through a national forest, carrying an endangered species, and I am lost. Off the trail. What do I do? We’ll come back to this later.

In the Spring semester of 2021, I studied at the coast at one of NC State’s extension campuses in Morehead City, North Carolina. At this program, all of the students get to choose a research topic and work with a professor on that topic. I have been working with my mentor at the Center for Marine and Sciences Technology through NC State on a project that works to headstart gopher frogs, which is an endangered species in North Carolina. I am also working with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, NC Zoos, and the NC Aquariums. Throughout this project, I have been able to visit the Croatan forest several times to survey for gopher frog egg masses, collect egg masses, collect maidencane, which is a native plant gopher frogs use as habitat, and survey for adult gopher frogs. Beginning this experience, I was very nervous to be networking with so many professionals because I was not familiar or as comfortable with this field of work. However, throughout this process I’ve learned that it is ok to ask questions and ask to participate in additional activities.

To begin this project, I had to prepare for the arrival of the coming gopher frog egg masses. Me, and a couple of other students from CMAST, drove to the Croatan National forest, and walked to a pond to collect maidencane to put in five large mesocosm tanks for the frogs to live in once they become functioning tadpoles. This grass is used by the tadpoles as habitat, and it assists in keeping the water pH low so the environment is habitable. After the tanks were moved, arranged, and cleaned, the maiden cane was dried out, and I weighed about 650 grams out to be placed in each tank.

The tank assembly and arrangement had a couple roadblocks along the way associated with leaking, so there were a lot of adjustments and constructing to occur for these to function properly. However, I learned a lot using tools and measurements from my mentor to get these pieces working correctly. In addition, I had to learn patience because these tanks had to be visited and worked on several times.

One week in February, I joined two individuals and my mentor for an initial survey of three ponds in the Croatan National Forest for gopher frog egg masses. Gopher frogs have a very short and quick breeding season, so we had to be really particular for when we went out, so we did not miss any eggs. Unfortunately, our first venture did not bring back any egg masses. But one of the individuals from the Wildlife Commission, Kabryn, had an excellent idea of going out at night to listen for gopher frog calls to determine which ponds might have the most eggs. I was so excited. We all showed up to the park around 6 pm, with our boots and head lamps on ready to go look for frogs. I loved sitting and listening at each pond to learn all of the different frog calls. I was there for about three hours and unfortunately had to leave because I had an exam the next day. I know, very disappointing. But we heard a lot of gopher frog calls at three ponds. Kabryn and Jeff stayed for about two more hours and found two additional ponds with gopher frog calls. So the next week was a go for gopher frog egg surveying!

I showed up to egg mass surveying late because I had an early morning class that I could not miss, which made me nervous because I was scared that I wasn’t going to be able to find everyone in this giant forest. But luckily Kathlyn, an individual from the Wildlife Commission, was nice enough to come pick me up. The first thing she said to me was “We are going to be good friends because you have on a Boston Red Sox hat!”, which I thought was funny. We surveyed four ponds, and one of them had no egg masses. But in all we found twenty eight egg masses. I was in the forest for about four hours that day which was amazing. I got to help with the process of pinching off clusters from the egg masses, bagging them, getting genetic eggs for genetic samples, and placing them in the truck. After we had all of the egg masses, we had to drive them to the CMAST facility, and put them in plastic shoe box totes. It ended up being about a six-hour day of fieldwork, and I thought it was the coolest experience ever. I was actually looking at and holding an endangered species!

In the next two weeks, I had to acclimate the eggs and hatching tadpoles to the mesocosm water, so I did daily water exchanges starting at 10% volume to 25%. When I did this alone, it took about 4-5 hours. When the tadpoles started hatching, I got to feed them algae wafers. They grow really fast, so I decided to take a picture of one tote every day and watch as they developed.

After about two weeks, because we had over 2,000 tadpoles, it was time to get them ready to 1. Put in the mesocosm, 2. Get the numbers ready to send to a facility in Wilmington, and 3. Release the leftover tadpoles back in their natal ponds. This was a lot of counting and shuffling, but for the first release it was really cool to watch them swim in their natal ponds as tadpoles. When we had leftover numbers after the Wilmington individuals took their tadpoles, my mentor let me take the leftovers back into the forest for release by myself, and this is where I got lost. I tried to take a shortcut, which ended up being very long and off the trail, while I was carrying two ten-pound buckets filled with a total of about 300 tadpoles. Eventually I found my way around some ponds in the forest and made it to the desired pond for release! Right now, I am taking care of my tadpoles in the mesocosms and watching them grow into metamorphs until they turn into frogs!

I did not know how much I would love this project and get so attached to these frogs as I am now. While it has been hard work, I have thoroughly enjoyed taking care of them and trying to headstart this population! Working on this project has definitely changed the way that I perceived my future and what I want to pursue. I knew that I wanted to do something involved at the coast, but I always assumed that would be working with the typical marine animals such as dolphins or sea turtles. However, this has completely opened up my eyes to the importance of the coastal plains and what species are living there and are that endangered. I have never had research or field work experience before, but now I know that I love field work. I love learning new skillsets and being outside to study what I am passionate about, and that is what I want to look for in a future career.

Written by: Maggie Hart