Amphibians

Welcome to the amphibian section of ABMI's Biodiversity Browser. Scroll down the page to learn more about amphibians and why they are important to monitor. Or click the button below to find out more about individual amphibian species in Alberta.

Photo Credit: Forest Service Northern Region

Introduction

Amphibians are unique organisms that go through both aquatic and terrestrial life stages. They are typically found near wetlands, and are highly sensitive to pollutants in an ecosystem. Ten amphibian species can be found in Alberta: eight species of frogs and toads, and two salamander species.

Facts About Amphibians

image Photo Credit: Brad Carlson

Wood Frogs spend the winter frozen under leaf litter in forests in Alberta

  • Amphibians have skin that is permeable to both oxygen and water. This makes them highly sensitive to chemicals in their surrounding environment, and even the sunscreen on your hands. 
  • Because amphibians are sensitive to moisture loss through their skin, they are associated with moist environments and habitat elements that provide cover—such as leaf litter, fallen logs, and burrows in the ground.
  • Most amphibians need to hibernate during the winter in order to survive the cold. The exception is Wood Frogs which are able to partially freeze. They are able to create a natural antifreeze-like substance, helping them get through even the coldest of winters.
  • Though many think of toads and frogs as synonymous, they are quite different. Frogs have the classic sticky tongue that is used to catch insects. Toads on the other hand have to walk right up to their prey.

Monitoring Amphibians in Alberta

image Photo Credit: Jillian Zsolt

ARU set up at a wetland

There are eight species of vocalizing frogs and toads in Alberta that call during the breeding season to attract mates. The ABMI monitors these species by recording their calls using autonomous recording units (ARUs) set up at wetlands throughout the province.

Why Monitor Amphibians

  • Owing to their ability to absorb chemicals through their skin, amphibians are extremely sensitive to pollutants that have been added into an ecosystem. 
  • Amphibians are sensitive to human activities that affect both their aquatic breeding habitat and surrounding terrestrial habitats.
  • Juvenile dispersal (movement) from wetlands where they hatch to new wetlands is important to maintain populations of amphibian species within a landscape. Mortality risk of this critical life stage increases when there are barriers to movement in terrestrial habitats, such as roads and loss of vegetation cover[1].
  • The breeding period for amphibians is based partially on temperature. A shift in this breeding period across years, or among latitudes, can reveal the unique climatic characteristics of an area.
  • Amphibians have been experiencing global declines since the 1980s[2]. We know that these declines are due to multiple factors (e.g., pollution, habitat loss, fungal disease), so it is essential that we monitor this at-risk group.
image Photo Credit: ABMI

While wetlands are important for breeding, adult Boreal Toads spend much of their time out of water in terrestrial habitats. They need habitat cover in these terrestrial environments as protection against desiccation and predation. 

Research Spotlight

Applying and Testing a New Method for Monitoring Amphibians

PURPOSE: In this study, we examined the effectiveness of environmental DNA (eDNA ) technology for detecting amphibians, including salamanders, in wetland habitats.

image Photo Credit: TBD

Tiger salamanders were detected using eDNA technology. Tiger salamanders are found in southern Alberta, often close to wetlands.

Background

While audio recorders are used to monitor calling frogs and toads, salamanders cannot be detected using this method. Therefore, we conducted a pilot project with Innotech Alberta to explore the effectiveness of environmental DNA (eDNA) technology for monitoring amphibians—including salamanders—in wetland habitats. The objectives of the project were to:

  • develop field protocols to collect amphibian DNA in open water wetlands;
  • develop and test primers for target amphibian species. Primers are organism-specific DNA fragments that are used to detect them from the environmental sample (which contains DNA from many species, not just amphibians); and
  • compare the detection ability of eDNA to the current monitoring methods employed by ARUs (Autonomous Recording Units) which are used to monitor calling frogs and toads.
Key Findings:

The project revealed that eDNA is a valuable tool in the monitoring tool box. Results indicated that both monitoring methods (eDNA and ARUs) had advantages depending on the target species. For example, non-calling Tiger Salamanders were only detected by the eDNA method while ARUs detected a single western toad at one site that was not detected by eDNA. We are continuing to work with Innotech to improve eDNA sampling methodologies for amphibians and are exploring DNA monitoring methods for macroinvertebrates and vascular plants.

Meet ABMI's Ecologists

Brandon Allen

Applied Ecologist

Brandon joined the ABMI in 2016. He currently leads the development of multiple landscape-scale biodiversity indicators but has become passionate about amphibians.

Jenet Dooley

Wetland Ecologist

Jenet has been the Wetland Ecologist at ABMI since February 2019. She leads varied wetland analysis and monitoring initiatives involving many wetland taxa, including amphibians.

If you have questions about ABMI's amphibian or wetland monitoring program, please get in touch: ballen@ualberta.ca (amphibians) | dooley@ualberta.ca (wetlands)

Additional Resources and Publications

How do we monitor amphibians?

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2019. Terrestrial ABMI Autonomous Recording Unit (ARU) and Remote Camera Trap Protocols 2019-12-21. Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Alberta, Canada. Report available at: https://www.wildtrax.ca/home/resources/method-protocol.html


How do we identify amphibians?

Bayne, E. M. Knaggs, and P. Sólymos. How to Most Effectively Use Autonomous Recording Units When Data are Processed by Human Listeners. Bioacoustic Unit, Alberta, Canada. Report available at: https://www.wildtrax.ca/home/resources/method-protocol.html


More Information:

Dooley, J. and B. Eaton. e-DNA - A Powerful technology for Wetland Ecology. Podcast available here

Lamb, A. and R. Bremness. 2021. Elusive tiger salamanders live in Edmonton-area wetlands—and environmental DNA proves it. Article available here

 

References

1.

Cushman, S.A. 2006. Effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on amphibians: A review and prospectus. Biological Conservation 128:231-240.

2.

Pounds, J. 2001. Climate and amphibian declines. Nature 410:639–640.