|Geographic range of the wood frog in North America (in blue)|
The wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus or Rana sylvatica) has a broad distribution over North America, extending from the boreal forest of the north to the southern Appalachians, with several notable disjunct populations including lowland eastern North Carolina. The wood frog has garnered attention by biologists over the last century because of its freeze tolerance, relatively great degree of terrestrialism (for a ranid), interesting habitat associations (peat bogs, vernal pools, uplands), and relatively long-range movements.
The ecology and conservation of the wood frog has attracted research attention in recent years because they are often considered "obligate" breeders in ephemeral wetlands (sometimes called "vernal pools") that are themselves more imperiled than the species that breed in them. The wood frog has been proposed to be the official state amphibian of New York.
Wood frogs range from 51 to 70 mm (2.0 to 2.8 in) in length. Females are larger than males. Adult wood frogs are usually brown, tan, or rust-colored, and usually have a dark eye mask. Individual frogs are capable of varying their color; Conant (1958) depicts one individual when light brown and dark brown at different times. The underparts of wood frogs are pale with a yellow or green cast.
A small brown frog with a dark eye mask in the woods is likely to be a wood frog. No other species has a similar appearance to the wood frog in North America. The first evasive leap is fast and long. Close observation will often glimpse a second short dive under the leaf litter, making the frog seem to disappear.
The contiguous wood frog range is from northern Georgia and northeastern Canada in the east to Alaska and southern British Columbia in the west. It is the most widely distributed frog in Alaska. It is also found in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Wood frogs are forest-dwelling organisms that breed primarily in ephemeral, freshwater wetlands: woodland vernal pools. Long-distance migration plays an important role in their life history. Individual wood frogs range widely (hundreds of meters) among their breeding pools and neighboring freshwater swamps, cool-moist ravines, and/or upland habitats. Genetic neighborhoods of individual pool breeding populations extend more than a kilometer away from the breeding site. Thus, conservation of this species requires a landscape (multiple habitats at appropriate spatial scales) perspective.
Adult wood frogs spend summer months in moist woodlands, forested swamps, ravines, or bogs. During the fall, they leave summer habitats and migrate to neighboring uplands to overwinter. Some may remain in moist areas to overwinter. Hibernacula tend to be in the upper organic layers of the soil, under leaf litter. By overwintering in uplands adjacent to breeding pools, adults ensure a short migration to thawed pools in early spring. Wood frogs are mostly diurnal and are rarely seen at night, except maybe in breeding choruses. They are one of the first amphibians to emerge for breeding right when the snow melts, along with spring peepers.
Wood frogs eat a variety of small, forest-floor invertebrates. Omnivorous, the tadpoles feed on plant detritus and algae, and also attack and eat eggs and larvae of amphibians, including those of wood frogs.
The feeding pattern of the wood frog, basically similar to that of other ranids, is triggered by prey movement and consists of a bodily lunge that terminates with the mouth opening and an extension of the tongue onto the prey. The ranid tongue is attached to the floor of the mouth near the tip of the jaw, and when the mouth is closed, the tongue lies flat, extended posteriorly from its point of attachment.
In the feeding strike, the tongue is swung forward as though on a hinge, so some portion of the normally dorsal and posterior tongue surface makes contact with the prey. At this point in the feeding strike, the wood frog differs markedly from more aquatic Lithobates species, such as the green frog, leopard frog, and bullfrog. The wood frog makes contact with the prey with just the tip of its tongue, much like a toad. A more extensive amount of tongue surface is applied in the feeding strikes of these other frog species, with the result that usually the prey is engulfed by the fleshy tongue and considerable tongue surface contacts the surrounding substrate.
Similar to other northern frogs that enter dormancy close to the surface in soil and/or leaf litter, wood frogs can tolerate the freezing of their blood and other tissues. Urea is accumulated in tissues in preparation for overwintering, and liver glycogen is converted in large quantities to glucose in response to internal ice formation. Both urea and glucose act as cryoprotectants to limit the amount of ice that forms and to reduce osmotic shrinkage of cells.
Frogs can survive many freeze/thaw events during winter if no more than about 65% of the total body water freezes. Wood frogs have a series of seven amino acid substitutions in the sarco/endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+-ATPase 1 (SERCA 1) enzyme ATP binding site that allows this pump to function at lower temperatures relative to less cold-tolerant species (e.g. Lithobates clamitans).
L. sylvaticus primarily breeds in ephemeral pools rather than permanent water bodies such as ponds or lakes. This is believed to provide some protection of the adult frogs and their offspring (eggs and tadpoles) from predation by fish and other predators of permanent water bodies. Adult wood frogs emerge from hibernation in early spring and migrate to nearby pools. There, males chorus, emitting duck-like quacking sounds.
A male approaches a female and clasps her behind her forearms before hooking his thumbs together around her in a hold called "amplexus" which is continued until the female deposits the eggs. Females deposit eggs attached to submerged substrate, typically vegetation or downed branches. Most commonly, females deposit eggs adjacent to other egg masses, creating large aggregations of masses.
Some advantage is conferred to pairs first to breed, as clutches closer to the center of the raft absorb heat and develop faster than those on the periphery, and have more protection from predators. If pools dry before tadpoles metamorphose into froglets, they die. This constitutes the risk counterbalancing the antipredator protection of ephemeral pools. By breeding in early spring, however, wood frogs increase their offspring's chances of metamorphosing before pools dry.
The larvae undergo two stages of development: fertilization to free-living tadpoles, and free-living tadpoles to juvenile frogs. During the first stage, the larvae are adapted for rapid development, and their growth depends on the temperature of the water and has a higher mortality rate. The second stage of development features rapid development and growth, and depends on environmental factors including food availability, temperature, and population density.
Following metamorphosis, a small percentage (less than 20%) of juveniles will disperse, permanently leaving the vicinity of their natal pools. The majority of offspring are philopatric, returning to their natal pool to breed. Most frogs breed only once in their lives, although some will breed two or three times, generally with differences according to age. The success of the larvae and tadpoles is important in populations of wood frogs because they affect the gene flow and genetic variation of the following generations.
Although the wood frog is not endangered or threatened, in many parts of its range urbanization is fragmenting populations. Several studies have shown, under certain thresholds of forest cover loss or over certain thresholds of road density, wood frogs and other common amphibians begin to "drop out" of formerly occupied habitats. Another conservation concern is that wood frogs are primarily dependent on smaller, "geographically isolated" wetlands for breeding. At least in the United States, these wetlands are largely unprotected by federal law, leaving it up to states to tackle the problem of conserving pool-breeding amphibians.
The wood frog has a complex lifecycle that depends on multiple habitats, damp lowlands, and adjacent woodlands. Their habitat conservation is, therefore, complex, requiring integrated, landscape-scale preservation.
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