Caring for our cold blooded neighbours

Ever seen a Yukon frog? In a bog? Perhaps on a log? The government has recently released a management plan for the territory's amphibians.

Ever seen a Yukon frog? In a bog? Perhaps on a log?

The government has recently released a management plan for the territory’s amphibians.

Some might wonder how amphibians, which are cold-blooded, could even survive the harsh Yukon winters.

But one frog species does a pretty good job. The range of the wood frog covers 87 per cent of the Yukon, as far north as Ney Khwi Vun (Frog Lake) in the Old Crow Flats, according to government documents.

Although no comprehensive population survey has been completed, best estimates suggest that more than 10,000 wood frogs live in the Yukon.

Northern frogs hibernate to survive through the winter.

While most amphibians would die if their body temperature dropped below zero degrees Celsius, the wood frog has a special adaptation that allows it to live down to 12 degrees below freezing.

The frog produces glucose which acts as an antifreeze, preventing cells from busting even as the body appears to be frozen solid. In the spring they thaw and emerge, alive.

The wood frog is not the only amphibian to brave the Yukon cold.

The western toad, the Columbia spotted frog and the boreal chorus frog each have limited ranges in southern parts of the territory.

Because of that, small impacts can cause huge ripple effects on the creatures, said Todd Powell, the manager of biodiversity programs for Environment Yukon.

“We run the risk of reducing, possibly losing them from the Yukon, which we definitely don’t want to do.”

Yukon’s only toad, the western toad, is a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act.

“Worldwide, amphibians are in trouble, by and large,” he said.

One in three amphibian species globally are threatened by habitat loss, and seven per cent of those are on the brink of extinction, according to the management plan document.

Amphibians are particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction, contamination and climate change, said Powell.

“They breathe through their skin, so they’re pretty sensitive to it. They are veritable canaries in the coal mine.”

Yukon’s amphibians do not currently face the same level of threat that they do further south, and the goal of the management plan is to keep it that way, said Powell.

Losing species from an ecosystem can have dramatic and unpredictable effects on an environment.

“Everything matters, everything is linked in our food web,” said Powell.

“We care a lot about the diversity of the species in the territory, it makes our lives richer.”

The threatened western toad can be spotted in southwest Yukon, in the Liard River basin.

The toads survive the winter by burrowing communally more than a metre underground, under cover of deep snow.

In the North they are likely to be found near where hot springs provide additional warmth.

Because of threats to the toad’s habitat, the federal government has directed British Columbia, Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Yukon to develop management plans for the western toad.

And because all of Yukon’s amphibians face similar management concerns, the government opted to create one document for the four species, said Powell.

The management plan recommends collecting better information about the where the frogs and toads are, and how many there are.

Most of the information that the government has about Yukon’s amphibians comes from reported accidental sightings by researchers or members of the public, not comprehensive surveying.

Information is currently collected and managed through the Conservation Data Centre.

The plan recommends continuing to record those sightings, and considering a more exhaustive monitoring program.

That will help identify sensitive amphibian habitat and allow those areas to be better protected from development and environmental contamination.

Amateur biologists are encouraged to help out be reporting amphibian sightings in the territory.

Environment Yukon produces a pamphlet on amphibians that includes an identification chart and instructions for reporting sightings. It also includes codes that you can scan with your smart phone to hear what the croaks of the different species sound like.

Keep your eyes out for unexpected surprises: with a warming climate, more amphibians could be moving into the Yukon.

The next immigrant to the territory’s amphibious family could be a sneaky salamander.

The pamphlet notes that while no salamanders have been spotted in the Yukon, three species exist in northern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska.

Educating the public about amphibians and opportunities for seeing them in the wild is another part of the management plan.

The public is encouraged to look, but not touch, as bacteria and viruses can be easy transferred through the skin.

Boots should be washed after a hike through wetlands to decrease the risk of carrying disease between different populations of amphibians.

Many Yukon schools are close to ponds where frogs can be found, and student trips to check them out should be encouraged, according to the management plan document.

“What better than taking kids to ponds to look at frogs?” asked Powell. “It’s one of those age-old pastimes.”

More information about Yukon’s amphibians can be found on the Environment Yukon website.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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