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Amazing recovery of Yosemite’s yellow-legged frog

Staff Writer | October 6, 2016
With 7,000 amphibian surveys conducted over 20 years, biologists detail the remarkable recovery of an endangered frog species in Yosemite.
Yosemite frog
Nature   New research from UC Santa Barbara
They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That old adage appears to hold true for the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae), whose remarkable recovery in the face of myriad threats has now been documented in an expansive, data-rich study of the species in Yosemite National Park.

New research from UC Santa Barbara biologist Roland Knapp and colleagues shows that after decades of decline - and despite continued exposure to stressors including non-native fish, disease and pesticides - the frog's abundance across Yosemite has increased seven-fold, and at an annual rate of 11 percent, over the 20-year study period.

Those increases, occurring over a large landscape and across hundreds of populations, Knapp said, provide a rare example of amphibian recovery at an ecologically relevant scale. The findings appear in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We now have a parkwide picture of what's happening in Yosemite, and it shows convincingly that these frog populations are increasing dramatically, " said Knapp, based at UCSB's Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory in Mammoth Lakes.

"These new results show that, given sufficient time and the availability of intact habitat, the frogs can recover despite the human-caused challenges they face."

In this comprehensive new study, Knapp teamed with researchers Gary Fellers and Patrick Kleeman (U.S. Geological Survey), David Miller (Penn State University), Vance Vredenburg (San Francisco State University), Erica Rosenblum (UC Berkeley) and Cheryl Briggs (UCSB). Their study analyzed more than 7,000 frog surveys conducted by the USGS and UCSB researchers at hundreds of sites over more than 20 years.

According to Fellers, who has been visiting Yosemite since the 1950s, the sight of yellow-legged frogs across the park were once a "common sight at many lakes - more the norm than the exception." Since then, the species has disappeared from more than 93 percent of its historical locations.

Fellers and his field crews started surveying for amphibians throughout Yosemite in 1993; Knapp has been working in the region since 2000. Their combined data includes more than 2,000 sites.

"With this unprecedented, robust data set, we could look for patterns in frog population trends, and potential factors that might be influencing frogs in Yosemite," Fellers said.

"Fortunately, and unexpectedly, we found that in spite of a host of potential factors that could be working to depress or eliminate frog populations, the overall pattern has been for a slow, but widespread recovery of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs."