The Fort Worth Zoo is helping this Texas toad get lucky — and it could save the species

The Fort Worth Zoo is helping this Texas toad get lucky — and it could save the species

Everyone deserves a chance at love.

That’s especially true if you’re a Houston Toad. The Texas native is threatened with extinction. It’s been on the Endangered Species List since 1970, but the staff at the Fort Worth Zoo are giving this squat, brown toad a chance by playing matchmaker.

“They seem to have faces that only a mother could love,” said Diane Barber, the zoo’s curator of ectotherms, which refers to cold-blooded animals like reptiles and amphibians. But the toad’s frown doesn’t stop her team from helping this little amphibian shoot.

“Right now we’re close to 200 bucks,” Barber said. “Males and females are kept separately in groups until we start breeding.”

Newly hatched eggs and tadpoles are housed in a separate room where Barber and her team can closely monitor their development.

Since 2010, she and her team have been raising toads as part of a highly successful conservation program with partners across the state of Houston.

“With the Houston Zoo, we release over a million eggs and tadpoles every year,” she said. “That’s an incredible amount of animals to release into the landscape.”

The toads are housed at the Texas Native Amphibian Center on the outskirts of the zoo. Clear containers stacked in neat rows each contain a couple of creatures, each waiting their turn to form a love bond.

Allison Julien, a postdoctoral researcher at the zoo, steps in whenever the toads need a little encouragement.

This can be as simple as injecting the animals with hormones to stimulate their breeding behavior. And if that’s not enough?

“We actually do in vitro fertilization, or artificial insemination,” Julien said.

A stud accountant keeps track of all eligible bachelors and bachelors. Each toad is assigned a number that is entered in the stud book. Barber then runs all of the toad’s information through a software program that helps each toad find a match.

“So then we get what we call a Mate RX. It’s this gigantic table that shows you what suitable pairings you could put together,” she said.

In other words, Barber wants to avoid mating toads that might be siblings or first cousins.

“I also have to pay attention to the size of the toads because the males can’t be bigger than the females because they could potentially drown them,” she said.

That year, the Fort Worth Zoo produced more than 430,000 eggs. They look like tiny, black beans covered in clear jelly. Once the eggs are booked, it’s off to a release site near Bastrop in central Texas.

A remote pond in Bastrop, central Texas serves as a release site for fresh Houston toad eggs and newly hatched tadpoles.

A remote pond in Bastrop, central Texas serves as a release site for fresh Houston toad eggs and newly hatched tadpoles.

Barber says the hope is that these breeding efforts will boost dwindling populations in the wild.

“Unfortunately, most of their habitat has disappeared,” she said. “Now you don’t really see many longleaf pines in the state of Texas, do you? That was mainly due to habitat modification for farming.”

The Fort Worth Zoo and its partners have received a federal grant to increase their efforts. The breeding capacity is to be tripled next year.

“It’s a big milestone to show that we have some good achievements,” she said. “The toads that returned to the breeding pond were also genetically analyzed, and we know that at least 32 percent of them came from the captive programs in Houston and Fort Worth.”

But even these tiny toads need large areas to breed again. Barber said there is plenty of privately owned land that could benefit the Houston Toad.

“One of our big priorities is trying to get into some of these historic counties to onboard more landowners and sign safe harbor agreements,” she said.

These are voluntary commitments that private landowners can make to conserve important habitats on their land. Meanwhile, Barber and her team are preparing for another round of amphibious romance next spring.

Houston toads grow to about 2 to 3 inches long.  They can be identified by a crest that forms around the back of the toad's eyes.

Houston toads grow to about 2 to 3 inches long. They can be identified by a crest that forms around the back of the toad’s eyes.

Do you have a tip? Email Miguel Perez at mperez@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @quillindie.

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