Recently discovered toad species already face threats

Meet three new toads that make a home in parts of the West’s harshest desert.

 

Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, have named three new toad species: the Dixie Valley toad, the Railroad Valley toad and the Hot Creek toad. This is an especially exciting feat because it’s rare to find new species of any amphibians, the class of animals that includes toads, frogs, newts, salamanders and caecilians. The most recent toad discovery north of Mexico, the Wyoming toad, was found almost half a century ago in 1968, and it has since gone extinct in the wild.

And while it’s rare to find new amphibians anywhere, these toads are particularly intriguing because they live in the Great Basin region of northern Nevada, which is one of the driest parts of the country, averaging slightly more than 13 inches of rain per year. The toads thrive in tiny, naturally occurring oases such as small springs, wetlands or seeps, where thick vegetation makes them hard to spot during the day, according to a statement by researchers. In fact, researchers estimate that these cryptic species, which are relatively new to science, have actually existed in small habitats in isolation from other amphibian populations for some 650,000 years. 

dixie_valley_toad-jpg
Dixie Valley toads inhabit just four square miles in Nevada’s Great Basin, an area where geothermal development threatens the species’ survival.
Patrick Donnelly / Center for Biological Diversity

Already, though, the smallest of the new species — the Dixie Valley toad — faces extinction due to proposed alternative energy projects in its habitat. Growing to just two and half inches long, the toad is olive with golden flecks. Although researchers don’t yet know how many Dixie Valley toads exist, they do know that their range is quite small: the entire species inhabits a spring-fed marsh of less than four square miles, approximately 100 miles east of Reno. This suggests that there aren’t many Dixie Valley toads.

It’s not easy being green — or olive — in the Dixie Valley. It’s the hottest and most geothermally active system in the Basin and Range Province and already is home to the largest geothermal energy plant in Nevada, which has been in operation for more than 20 years. The energy company Ormat has proposed developing new geothermal projects in the valley, which researchers predict would have “devastating” consequences on the toad’s breeding habitat.

A view of Dixie Valley, where marshland hides the entire existing population of Dixie Valley toads.
Patrick Donnelly / Center for Biological Diversity

Because of its small population size, the Dixie Valley toad is especially vulnerable to a suite of risks beyond ongoing and proposed energy development. It faces the threat of deadly chytrid fungus infections, which have been found in nearby bullfrogs, habitat loss, and other localized threats — many of the same causes that led to the total disappearance in the wild of the Wyoming toad.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News.

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