There’s no hyperbole here; the work being done at The Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation Conservation Center is equally as remarkable as it is inspiring.

Their work head-starting egg masses and developing and improving husbandry techniques for the federally threatened Chiricahua leopard frog illustrates that assertion perfectly.

The Zoo works closely with the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on local, regional and international efforts to save and protect numerous wildlife species. Because of high mortality rates in the wild of Chiricahua leopard frog eggs and small tadpoles, head-starting provides a greater chance of survival for late-stage tadpoles and small frogs.

In the wild, approximately five percent or less of the eggs in a mass survives to metamorphosis.  With head-starting, as much as 90 percent of an egg mass survives to be released as froglets or late-stage tadpoles. Releasing a large number of animals back into a site greatly increases chances that more will survive to adulthood and reproduce, preserving valuable genes.

Each year, the Zoo works with AGFD biologists to prepare Chiricahua leopard frogs head-started at the Johnson Center for release to the wild.

But this year’s group is especially important.

“This year, things are a little different,” said Stuart Wells, Director of Conservation and Science at the Zoo. “This group represents a new population being established in Arizona that has gone extinct locally. The group comes from New Mexico, but the lineage used to live in a particular area in Arizona.”

Staff from the AGFD and the Zoo recently worked to “process” just under 400 metamorphs (frogs whose legs have just developed). In order to track their progress and to make sure they are thriving in the wild, they need an identifying marker. A tiny clip of their toe (which is mostly cartilage at that point) is the only way to do so. This technique is commonly used in amphibian monitoring and related research. When the marked frogs are recaptured in a little over one year, biologists will know for certain they were part of the group released in September of 2017, thus, confirming the reintroduction was a success – something the Zoo is very familiar with.

“Head-starting leopard frogs at the Zoo dates back to 1995,” Wells added. “We work with the AGFD to collect egg masses in the wild, head-start them in our lab and raise them to metamorphs (juvenile frogs). Since 1995, we’ve reintroduced nearly 25,000 frogs back into the wild – almost 18,000 since 2008, the year we moved the head-starting program into the Johnson Center.”

For the most recent release, AGFD biologists collected and marked the metamorphs, packed them into containers of no more than 8-10 frogs for comfort and placed them in a cooler. Next, they’ll make the journey to a confidential site and reintroduce them into the wild after they are certain the frogs are acclimated.

“This is what it’s all about,” said Wells. “Saving species.”