Disclaimer: Written before lockdown.
If you’re a frog in the desert, your number’s already up.
That’s before your home gets sucked dry, the bullfrogs move in, and the hotels and mushroom-clouds spring up everywhere.
So the Las Vegas leopard frog, or Vegas Valley leopard frog, had worse problems than a gambling addiction.
Instead, it went extinct. Or did it?
Before the bright lights of Las Vegas, there were springs, bulrushes and woodland running along the Las Vegas Creek, and plenty of marshland. This made the ideal home for our froggy friend, and judging by the froglets hopping about in April and May, it may have had an extended youth, overwintering as a larva rather than shooting for adulthood right away.
While the females were slightly larger and spottier, the bright green males sported impressive thumbs. Unfortunately, both were equally hopeless at avoiding predators. When collected by researchers, their genius escape plan was to jump into water and nothing else. So they were quickly and easily captured.
Who else was betting against it?
Its habitat seemed fairly stable until the 1930s, by which point the city of Las Vegas was booming. Springs were drained or covered up, the water table lowered by pumping, and at some point the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) fancied itself a piece of the area too.
By 1942, the land had changed so much that Wright and Wright, one of whom had examined the frogs back in 1929, took an entire day just to find the original springs and study area. Even then, they failed to turn up a single Las Vegas leopard frog, and in 1996 it was declared extinct. But nine years later, something interesting happened.
What are the chances?
In 2005, Hillis and Wilcox tapped their chin and spotted that Chiricahua leopard frogs (Lithobates/Rana chiricahuensis) from the Mogollon Rim, some 370km (230 miles) away in Arizona, seemed mighty similar to the Las Vegas leopard frogs that had lived in southern Nevada.
A bit of a departure to be sure, but their suspicions were confirmed in 2011, when Hekkala et al. poked the genes of the Chiricahua bunch and some of the Las Vegas leopard lot that had been stored in jars way back in 1913.
Essentially, they found the Chiricahua has two distinct lineages – and one of these was the Las Vegas leopard frog. The Mogollon Rim Chiricahua population was then tossed into the Las Vegas leopard frog bucket, and so the species lives on.
It just goes to show even a tiny frog will try its luck in Vegas.
Latin: Lithobates / Rana fisheri
What? Small speckled Las Vegas frog that went locally extinct, but survives via family connections in Arizona and New Mexico.
Where? Originally in northern areas of Las Vegas Valley, Nevada, USA. Now found in the Mogollon Rim area of Arizona and the edge of New Mexico.
How big? Females are larger at 64-74 mm / 2.5-2.9 inches SUL (technically from snout to “tail”, or urostyle), males 44-64 mm / 1.7-2.5 inches SUL.
Probable motto: I’m not the first to be unlucky in Vegas.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
Unfortunately it’s still plagued by habitat loss, but if you want to help its froggy family, you could do worse than check out the Amphibian Survival Alliance and its various conservation projects.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
American Museum of Natural History. No date. “Lithobates fisheri (Stejneger, 1893)“. Amphibian Species of the World 6.0, an Online Reference.
AmphibiaWeb. 2020. “Rana fisheri“. University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
Dodd, Jr. Kenneth. 2013. “Frogs of the United States and Canada“. JHU Press.
“‘Extinct’ frog was under our noses all the time“. 2011. New Scientist.
History.com Editors. 2009. “Las Vegas“. History.com.
Jennings, Randy, and Hammerson, Geoffrey. 2004. “Lithobates fisheri . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2004: e.T19148A8842858.
Lannoo, Michael. 2005. “Amphibian declines: the conservation status of United States species”. University of California Press.
S, Bryce. No date. “Paraphyletic Group: Definition & Overview“. Study.com.
Santos-Barrera, Georgina et al. 2004. “Lithobates chiricahuensis . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2004: e.T58575A11805575
US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2011. “Chiricahua leopard frog – 5 year review“. US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Featured image credit: “Chiricahua leopard frog”, by Jim Rorabaugh/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Flickr. Taken at Sycamore Canyon, Arizona.