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These Already Threatened Frogs Were Nearly 'Annihilated' By Last Year's Fire And Rain

National Park Service scientists working to replenish the population of California red-legged frogs in the Santa Monica Mountains basically had to start over after last year's Woolsey Fire and heavy rain devastated the threatened species' habitats. (Courtesy National Park Service)
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It's hard out there for a frog.

Seven months after the Woolsey Fire turned the Santa Monica Mountains into a charred moonscape, National Park Service researchers have now reported another devastation: the local California red-legged frog population. The federally threatened species was virtually wiped out in the aftermath of the fire, sending a five-year project to bring them back to the region back to square one.

It wasn't just the fire, though, according to spokeswoman Ana Beatriz Cholo from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, who explained the "double whammy" of a crisis the frogs faced.

"In the weeks prior to the fire, the rare amphibians were flourishing, happily eating insects, and reproducing on their own in two of the four streams spread throughout the mountains," she said in a press release. "Then the fire struck and burned up much of their habitat. This was immediately followed by a season of heavy rainfall, which caused debris flows that filled the streams with silt and mud."

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It's not easy being green (and red-legged) in the Santa Monica Mountains. (Courtesy National Park Service)

NPS scientists later checked their habitats and found that three of the reintroduction streams, home to generations of frogs -- from tadpoles to adults, had been "annihilated," according to Katy Delaney, an NPS ecologist who led the project.

"With three of the four sites, there is no aquatic habitat left and not much vegetation," Delaney said. "I don't even know if they are alive. They were doing great before the fire."

Researchers believe hundreds of the rare frogs died and Delaney said all their breeding pools were lost to debris.

The one bright spot in this amphibian tragedy: another population, located north of the 101 Freeway in the nearby Simi Hills, survived the blaze. Scientists were surprised to find several egg masses there when they were able to check back this February after the record-breaking federal government shutdown this winter.

This frog spot, first discovered in 1999, became the source population researches used to replenish the frogs in those four reintroduction streams in the mountains for the past five years.

Researchers with the National Park Service found several frog egg masses in a surviving habitat in the Simi Hills. They're now being used to replenish two streams in the Santa Monica Mountains. (Courtesy National Park Service)

"Although that location was also burned in the fire, it's located at a lower gradient, which means the canyon is not as steep and the debris flow is minimal in comparison to the sites in the Santa Monica Mountains," Cholo said. "The frogs there seem to have survived relatively unscathed."

But because more storms were rolling through the region and threatening to wash away the fragile eggs, Delaney and her team reached out to the Santa Barbara Zoo for help. The zoo, which is a partner in the NPS study, took 1,000 transplanted eggs to protected tanks, where they hatched into tadpoles.

Those tadpoles were reintroduced into two streams in the Santa Monica Mountains a couple months ago, but it'll take time for Delaney and her team to measure the success of their efforts to relaunch the project.