July 20, 2008

Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration in Yosemite National Park

During the past century, trout were introduced to thousands of naturally fishless lakes and streams throughout California's Sierra Nevada to create recreational fisheries. These introductions profoundly changed these aquatic ecosystems, often resulting in the elimination of numerous native species, including amphibians and large-bodied invertebrates. Today there is hardly a single watershed in the Sierra Nevada that still remains in its historic fishless condition.

Reversing some of the impacts caused by nonnative trout is a difficult challenge, and one that Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park began to tackle a couple of years ago with the preparation of a Park-wide aquatic restoration plan. A draft version of this plan is scheduled for release to the public sometime this fall. Now Yosemite National Park is following suit. According to a recent news release, Yosemite will soon be preparing
a "High-Elevation Aquatic Resources Management Plan and Environmental Assessment", the purpose of which will be to "guide management actions by the National Park Service to protect Yosemite's diverse high-elevation aquatic ecosystems and to restore natural composition, structure and function to systems that have been disturbed by past or ongoing human activities".

The document will consider the removal of nonnative fish from selected areas of the Park, but will not include removal of fish populations using chemical methods (e.g., rotenone). This will be an interesting process to watch. Public comments are being accepted until July 25. More information is available at www.nps.gov/yose/parkmgmt/aquatic.htm.

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July 7, 2008

Frog Sex is a Strange Affair

I've been in the field for most of the last month and given that this is frog breeding season I've seen some pretty bizarre things related to this reproductive frenzy. But first, some background on mating in frogs. To mate, a male clasps a female with his powerful front legs that he wraps around the female just behind her front legs. To strengthen that grip, the male has nuptial pads on the thumbs of each hand that make it very difficult for the male to be dislodged when the digits from the front legs are interlocked around the female. This clasping of the female by a male is called "amplexus", and in frogs serves two purposes. First, it allows the male to "guard" the female from other males, thereby ensuring the reproductive success of the amplexing male. Second, it positions the male to allow him to fertilize the eggs as the female releases them.

As the photo above vividly shows, amplexus is not a simple matter of a male gently holding on to a female for several minutes while she looks for a place to lay her eggs. In the photo, a male-female pair is in amplexus and three additional males are doing their darnedest to pull the pair apart. If successful, this would afford one of the other males a chance to amplex the female. These battles can go on for hours, and often result in deep abrasions on the ventrum of amplexed females from the male nuptial pads. In rare cases, during extended battles the female can actually be drowned by all of the competing males.

Wrestling with other males for hours for access to females is only the beginning of what goes on in the frog world during the mating season. On my last backcountry trip, a male I was measuring had new amplexus scars, suggesting that he was recently amplexed by another male and that additional males were battling it out for access to him! My guess is that the original male was so jacked up on hormones that he failed to realize that he had amplexed another male instead of a female, and seeing an amplexing pair the other males piled on. Even more bizarre is the not uncommon observation of males amplexing dead frogs, often frogs that have been dead for weeks or even months.

Just another example of how sex on the brain causes all kinds of bizarre behaviors....

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