Citizen Science

Amphibian Monitoring: There’s a Merit Badge for That

July 8, 2014

Western (Boreal) Toad, Anaxyrus boreas. Photo by Flickr user Bryant Olsen through a Creative Commons license.

What is the Rocky Mountain Amphibian Project?

I’ve had my head down scanning marsh vegetation and shallow pond and stream edges for several hours, aided by a dip net to occasionally sweep the water or deep into the grass. Truly, if I were a frog, this looks like the perfect place to make a home. There is plenty of still water to swim in, mud to burrow into, and grass and logs to hide under.

On this crisp summer morning high above TNC’s Red Canyon Ranch Preserve along the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, I’m out with three other TNC scientists studying the vegetation and waters beneath our feet in the hopes of finding some sign of amphibians—either a string of black dots (eggs), a small swimming tadpole, or a camouflaged adult resting on a muddy bank.

This search for amphibians is part of the newly established citizen science program called the Rocky Mountain Amphibian Project. The program was launched by the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database and the Biodiversity Institute.

Through the program, citizen scientists sign up to adopt a catchment and complete an online or in-person training. Each catchment is surveyed twice by a team of two or more people, who systematically search for amphibian sign (eggs, tadpoles, or adults) during the given sampling window.

They carefully catch several individuals (if possible) of each species seen and swab them for chytrid fungus, which is deadly to many amphibians. Training videos show volunteers how to handle amphibians and record observations.

Why is it important?

Wyoming is an arid Western state with about the same number of pronghorn as people. As such, data on wildlife abundance and distribution is much more limited than in other places in the US.

One area that lacks data in particular is amphibians. Even in a seemingly dry state such as Wyoming, there are plenty of wetlands and riparian areas that harbor amphibians such as boreal toad, northern leopard frog, and tiger salamander, but scant information about how abundant they really are. Where there is information, reported declines are cause for concern and a reason to collect additional information.

A TNC volunteer watching for amphibian signs. Photo Courtesy of Holly Copeland.
A TNC volunteer watching for amphibian signs. Photo Courtesy of Holly Copeland.

A recent study on amphibians in nearby Yellowstone National Park observed worrisome declines in four native amphibians (tiger salamander, boreal chorus frog, Columbia spotted frog and boreal toad) over the past 16 years and linked these declines to drying of wetland habitats, possibly linked to climate change (McMenamin et al. 2008).

One of the citizen science volunteer catchments falls on TNC’s Red Canyon Ranch Preserve, which was adopted by TNC. Sadly in our first survey, we found no amphibian sign, although we did find other wildlife that day, starting with a young moose. We also found snakes, mice, wetland birds and a diversity of freshwater invertebrates like mayflies, roundworms (nematodes), and molluscs (snails).

We aren’t sure why there were no signs of amphibians but we’ll conduct a follow-up survey in August and also look for other clues as to why they wouldn’t be present.

How do you get involved?

TNC science staff has also adopted two additional catchments that will be surveyed this summer in the Wind River Mountains. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to check out the website.

If you have kids, bring them along when you volunteer. They will enjoy getting outside and searching for amphibians. The Rocky Mountain Amphibian Project encourages Boy Scout troops to adopt a catchment and earn merit badges while participating.

With the rise in popularity of citizen science, this project aims to add much needed data to our understanding of amphibians in Wyoming. Those interested in participating are encouraged to visit the project website to learn more and sign up.

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1 comment

  1. Thank you Holly for writing about this great opportunity for folks living in Wyoming! For those in other areas, I suggest you look into FrogWatch USA ( or look into starting an amphibian monitoring program in your area (try contacting nearby universities, non-profits, or government scientists for assistance).