HOUSTON (AP) — In the nightly pondside chorus, the Houston toad sings soprano. Its clear, high cry, lasting as long as 14 seconds, trills above the basso profundo grunts of the less gifted. It's a remarkable performance. But to hear it, you'll need to travel as far as Bastrop County.
Bufo houstonensis, the toad with the golden voice, doesn't sing here anymore.
Pummeled by habitat loss and drought, the musical toad vanished from the Houston area about 50 years ago. Threatened with extinction, added to the endangered species list in 1970, it precariously clings to life in a shrunken remnant of its former range three tiers of counties west and northwest of the city.
Now, though, the hometown toad finally has caught a break.
Since 2007, roughly 5,000 baby toads — raised from eggs at a Houston Zoo nursery — have been returned to the wild. An additional 1,000-plus toads are scheduled to be released in Bastrop County with the next good rain. And while Bufo houstonensis is a favorite snack for predators like snakes and raccoons, researchers are heartened by early signs of survival and success.
"The good news is that, in spite of the drought, we're doing better than we thought we would," said Texas State University biology professor Mike Forstner. "We have data. We have a plan. We've got motion. With this momentum, in 10 years we'll no longer be having these discussions about the toad."
The university in San Marcos is a major player in the raise-and-release program, which also involves the zoo, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund and private landowners. In late July, the effort was boosted by a $1.25 million grant for toad work along Bastrop County's Alum Creek.
Even before it was driven from the Houston area, the Houston toad rarely was seen by residents. Reclusive, the heat-sensitive amphibian, whose color ranges from light-brown to purplish-gray with green splotches, spends much of its time buried in the cool sand.
"It never was a garden toad," said Paul Crump, the Houston Zoo's amphibian conservation manager. "It always was relatively rare. It would spend 11? months in the sand, then come out en masse to breed and then disappear. … We don't know what they do outside the breedings."
Toads now spotted in Houston yards most likely are Gulf Coast toads, Bufo valliceps, which established their local dominance when Houston toads moved out.
In fact, about the only place in Houston to find a Houston toad these days is the zoo's nursery,
There, under the watchful eye of senior keeper Chris Bednarski, thousands of the toads are hatched in tanks of reconstituted pond water, then nursed through their tadpole stage and infancy. The nursery temperature is kept at a steady 73 to 75 degrees, and the infants, who fill the rows of glass-sided tanks, are pampered as tenderly as any kitten or pup.
The youngsters' appetites are prodigious — a quarter-sized toad can eat 50 to 100 small crickets a day — and their meals are prepared with a dietician's skill. Before the insects are served for lunch, they're "gut-loaded" with vitamins and dusted in calcium powder, Bednarski said.
Before they are released in the wild, many of the toads are implanted with microchips, smaller versions of what might be used for a family pet, to permit later tracking.
Although researchers still have much to learn about the toad and how to successfully rebuild its populations, Forstner is optimistic that the zoo-based effort is an "insurance policy" for the animal.
In nature, he said, the most robust toad population can be found in Bastrop County, whose "lost pines" region provides deep sand needed by the amphibians. Toads also are found in Austin, Milam, Leon and Robertson counties, he said. The amphibians haven't been found in Harris and Fort Bend counties since the 1960s, and they have been absent from Lee and Lavaca counties for more than a decade.
The drought of 1993 devastated the toad population, Forstner said.
"Things just started to recover by 2005 — and then it stopped raining," he said. "We never have gotten back to those pre-drought levels. That's what's got us worried."
As the summer moves forward, Crump said, toad project workers are on constant alert for rain. When a call comes from a volunteer weather watcher announcing the time's right for releasing toads, crews can be in Bastrop within hours.
"We're constantly in a state of readiness," Crump said. "We can make it happen."