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Draper Journal

Aquarium accomplishes toad-ally awesome release of Boreal toads in southwestern Utah

Aug 11, 2021 11:44AM ● By Katherine Weinstein

Aquarium freshwater aquarist Becky Penrod holds one of the Boreal toads she helped to raise before releasing it into the wild. (Photo courtesy Loveland Living Planet Aquarium)

By Katherine Weinstein | [email protected]

Boreal toads are perhaps not the flashiest creatures at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, but they are important to the ecosystem of southwestern Utah. “They are one of the only amphibians that can live in high elevations,” said Becky Penrod, a freshwater aquarist at the Aquarium. The toads help decrease insect populations and in turn provide a food source for other animals such as trout and some birds of prey. The Boreal toad is currently designated as a species of concern in Utah.  

The Aquarium recently announced the successful breeding and release of several Boreal toads into the wild last month. The project was the result of years of painstaking work in partnership with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR).

In a press release, Aquarium freshwater curator Anthony Siegle stated, “This is exciting for us because it’s our first time releasing animals into the wild. We hope these healthy toads will thrive and help expand the Boreal toad population in an area where Chytrid Fungus is not a threat.”

Chytrid Fungus has been implicated as a cause of the species population decline in Utah. “Boreal toads basically absorb water through their skin,” Penrod explained. The fungus causes their skin to thicken and prevents them from getting the water and oxygen that they need to survive.

The Aquarium worked with UDWR to find a safe place for the toads to be released in Utah where Chytrid Fungus has not been found. It was determined that an area called Paunsaugunt Plateau near Bryce Canyon National Park was ideal. The plateau is landscaped by bristlecone pine forests, alpine meadows, lakes and streams—just the right environment for Boreal toads. Seven of the Aquarium-bred toads were released there on July 8.

Creating the perfect conditions for the toads to produce healthy offspring at the Aquarium took years of trial and error. Everything from the temperature of their habitat as well as their food had to be just right.

Siegle and Penrod supervised all aspects of breeding the toads. Within their indoor controlled environment, the Aquarium sought to replicate natural hibernation cycles in the toads to help induce procreation in the spring. Like other amphibians, Boreal toads enter a dormant state in cold temperatures called brumation.

Last March, “We had to pull the parents out of brumation,” Penrod explained. The toads’ habitat had to be gradually warmed up to awaken them. She added that the toads were given hormones to put them “in the mood.”

On April 1, the aquarists found eggs in the toads’ aquarium and tadpoles emerged on April 7. By early May, the tadpoles had sprouted legs and they began to look more like toads. “We gave them grass to help them walk out of the water when they got to that stage,” Penrod added.

The toads were fed a high-calcium diet including brine shrimp and worms. In the wild, Boreal toads eat all kinds of insects—“anything small enough to fit in their mouths,” she said.

Caring for the Boreal toads was all-consuming, but also a labor of love for Penrod. “I love them,” she said. “They are so little and cute!”

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium plans to continue their participation in the Boreal toad breeding and release project next year. Along with other collaborations such as coral rescue and sea turtle conservation, the Boreal toad project is part of the Aquarium’s central mission of promoting species conservation and overall stewardship of the planet.