GOPHER FROG (Rana capito)

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Family: Ranidae

Order: Anura

STATUS: Species of Special Concern

Relative to most ranid frogs, the gopher frog has a stubby body with short legs, an enormous head and mouth, and prominent eyes that are slightly larger than the tympanums. Distinct dorsolateral folds and tubercles (warts) are present on the dorsum and round, dark spots form irregularly spaced rows along the dorsum and side; the limbs are distinctly barred. Males can be distinguished from females by their smaller size, enlarged thumbs, and paired lateral vocal sacs that inflate to large size.

Most observations of the species are from dry, uplands habitats, particularly xeric oak scrub associations which, not coincidentally, often support the densest populations of gopher tortoises. They also are known from pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and ruderal successional stages of these plant communities. Preferred breeding habitats include seasonally flooded, grassy ponds and cypress heads that lack fish populations. Their range extends from southern Georgia to Florida.

Although the gopher frog is seemingly dependent upon the burrows of the gopher tortoise for shelter and to some extent food, it occasionally occupies a variety of other retreats including the burrows of rodents and crayfish, as well as stump holes and other crevices. The gopher frog is the most frequently observed tortoise burrow commensal, among the other herpetofaunal captures. The gopher frog is generally nocturnal but occasionally emerges to sit near the mouth of its burrow on dark, damp days. Its diet consists mainly of invertebrates and anurans, including toads. Its batrachopophagous (feeding on frogs) tendencies, makes it unique among the anurans of southwest Florida.

Throughout its range, the gopher frog is an explosive breeder, with males typically calling only after heavy rains. The call is a very deep and distinctive snoring sound. Most reproduction occurs from February through April; however, where winter frontal systems are weaker, gopher frogs often breed in summer. Gopher frogs apparently disperse upwards of a mile from breeding ponds, and some individuals may use the same route and intermediate tortoise burrows upon returning. Female gopher frogs lay a mass of 3,000 to 7,000 eggs attached to emergent vegetation. Eggs hatch in two or three days. Tadpoles transform about 100 days after hatching. Gopher frogs become mature by their second year and reach a maximum size of 10 cm in length anywhere from 4 to 6 years of age.

The available evidence suggests that (1) the geographic range of the gopher frog is very restricted, (2) even within suitable upland habitats, gopher frogs often are absent because adequate breeding sites are lacking, and (3) at sites where both upland and wetland life requisites are met, fewer gopher frogs are observed. Given the complex life cycle of the gopher frog, the documented causes of decline of the gopher tortoise, and the commensal relationship between the two species, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission classified the gopher frog as a "species of special concern" in 1979.

The gopher tortoise is crucial to the survival of a number of other listed species in Collier County because its burrows provide important refuges for a much larger wildlife community (Speake 1981, Franz 1986). As gopher tortoise habitat decreases, so do many of the species that utilize their burrows. The eastern indigo snake and gopher frog are all listed species that occur within Collier County and prefer xeric habitat with gopher tortoise burrows.

The preservation strategy for the above listed species is to follow the management guidelines outlined for gopher tortoises with the following modifications to address the additional habitat needs; a viable population is 25-30 which translates to 75-90 active and inactive burrows, with 25 or more acres depending on the suitability of habitat size, shape, type and adjacent environs and maintaining habitat area with a canopy cover <25%. Management for gopher tortoise habitat should consider and/or maintain: (1) the presence of well-drained, sandy soils which allow easy burrowing, (2) an abundance of herbaceous ground cover, and (3) an open canopy (<25%) with sparse shrub cover to allow sunlight to reach the ground layer.

Any action or research that benefits the survivorship and management potential of the gopher tortoise ultimately will enhance populations of the gopher frog. When planning relocation efforts for the gopher tortoise, more attention should be devoted to commensal species such as the gopher frog. From a conservation perspective, key research needs include (1) better defining the temporal and spatial relationship between upland habitat use and breeding ponds, (2) evaluating breeding pond requirements, and (3) determining the relative abundance of gopher frogs within gopher tortoise colonies using documentation provided by the gopher tortoise relocation projects.

Godley, J.S. 1992. Gopher frog. Pp. 15-19. In P.E. Moler (ed.), Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Amphibians and Reptiles. University Presses of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Jackson, D.R. and E.G. Milstrey. 1989. The fauna of gopher tortoise burrows. Pages 86-98 in Diemer, J., D. Jackson, J. Landers, J. Layne and D. Wood (eds.). Proceedings: Gopher tortoise relocation symposium. Nongame Wildlife Program Technical Report No. 5. Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Tallahassee, FL.

Content updated Date March 4, 2005