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The Most Secretive Frog in
North America

by Nate Engbrecht

Crawfish Frogs (Lithobates areolatus) are large, reclusive frogs that spend most of their adult life in crayfish burrows. In Indiana, Crawfish Frogs are listed as State Endangered, and their declining status across much of their range has caused broad concern about their conservation. Dr. Michael Lannoo and his lab at the Indiana University School of Medicine-Terre Haute have taken on the task of studying these secretive and imperiled amphibians. Beginning in 2009, Dr. Lannoo and his team began studying populations of Crawfish Frogs at Hillenbrand Fish and Wildlife Area in Greene County, Indiana. Hillenbrand, formerly an open pit coal mine, has been restored by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and now contains one of Indiana’s most dense Crawfish Frog populations. Using radio telemetry and other scientific techniques, Dr. Lannoo’s team has learned that, despite spending most of their lives in burrows, Crawfish Frogs actually need a lot of space. During the spring breeding season, adult Crawfish Frogs will migrate over a kilometer from their burrows to breeding wetlands, and when finished breeding, typically return to the exact same burrow they left. The burrows themselves provide protection from predators, where frogs in burrows were 12 times less likely to be preyed upon than frogs that were migrating or ranging from their burrows. Because of their close tie to burrows, Crawfish Frogs are particularly vulnerable to destruction of their upland habitat. Their occurrence at Hillenbrand, however, is a testimony to their resiliency, and shows that when the right habitat is available, Crawfish Frog populations can be restored.

This documentary highlights emerging research on the biology of these most secretive frogs, and comes at a time when scientists are finally gaining a better understanding of the conservation needs of the species. In an era where megafauna such as polar bears and gorillas receive much attention (and rightfully so), “The Most Secretive Frog in North America” serves as an informative platform, even an advocate, for a species that has remained somewhat of a puzzle for over a century.