A Collaborative Quest to Save an Endangered Toad from Extinction
The boreal toad is Colorado’s only alpine species of toad; this high-altitude amphibian lives at 7,000 to 12,000 feet of elevation in mountain ponds and lakes. They used to thrive, but are now facing a severely declining population.
This indicator species has been tracked to hop over 5 miles through rugged mountain terrain to find healthy habitats. The boreal toad is found living all over the US and Canada (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alberta, and Alaska). Each adult toad is unique and identified by spots and markings on their bellies (just like our fingerprints) — spots that as you can see from the photos, start at the tadpole phase. While they have no vocal sac and hibernate for half their lives, they do have hundreds of people loudly fighting for their survival.
These amphibians used to thrive in numbers to the point in which they were seen in towns and on roads, but now their severely declining population has the species listed as state endangered in Colorado and New Mexico and protected in Wyoming.
Currently, there is a shockingly low estimation of around 800 adult toads living in Colorado. The major threats: habitat loss, climate change, and a deadly fungus called chytrid that is wiping out amphibian populations globally.
In 2008, the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources started an assurance colony at the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Since then, collaborators from around the U.S. joined the effort to save the species. Eggs were collected from the wild to be hatched and raised for rerelease at the following facilities: Utah’s Hogle Zoo, the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, Denver Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Division’s Wahweap Warmwater Fish Hatchery.
Currently, 145 toads from 15 sibling lots are being maintained at these institutions.
In 2019, Denver Zoo was the first to successfully breed boreal toads, using hormone injections for laying eggs, which led to the release of 613 newly metamorphosed toads (toadlets) that were taken on a “toad trip” from Colorado to Utah and released. Since then, their model has been used by the other partner facilities, and over 6,276 tadpoles, metamorphs, and one-year-old toads have been released back into the wild in the state of Utah alone (that isn’t including the numbers from releases that have happened in the state of Colorado and New Mexico).
The photos here follow a release of tadpoles in Colorado, then the latest release of newly metamorphosed toadlets back to the Paunsaugunt Plateau (August 2022), bringing the story full circle on what has been a journey that started in 2008 at the same plateau and now has thousands of toads that have been successfully set free to keep this species alive.
Facilities are not only helping breed and release the boreal toad, but there are community science groups that survey high-altitude mountain wetlands for boreal toad populations and check for chytrid fungus.
From zoos, state agencies, and community scientists joining forces, this story speaks to the importance of collaboration, technology, and passion to protect species. It is a beautiful success story to try and protect this high-altitude amphibian, the only mountain toad in Colorado.
The Importance of Photography in this Project
Tadpoles are a huge part of this story, so as a photographer, I knew I had to get a great shot of one. I will admit, I failed a lot. I had to go back and reshoot over and over. But one of the things that I love about the photo industry is how helpful and amazing photographers can be.
Each time I failed, I showed the pictures to other photographers (Joey Terrill, Dave Black, Brooke McDonough, Kirsten Lewis, Ilana Natasha, and Forest Gustaveson), my friends over at LookingGlass photo, and a couple of people over at Nikon (Paul Van Allen and Michael Dionne). I literally had around 10 people help me figure out how to photograph a tadpole. It melts my heart that so many people came together to photograph this tiny little being.
When I got my setup right, it included a small studio-style set up with two Astera PixelBricks for lighting, a small aquarium box (Marina CUBUS Glass Betta Kit), some black cardboard, my Nikon Z9, and my Nikkor Z MC 50mm f/2.8 (with a rubber lens hood).
I will always remember looking through my camera and seeing the heart of a tadpole: I was in tears. It was something so beautiful that I could have never seen with my own eyes.
In a story with hundreds of people fighting for the survival of this amazing mountain toad, I could see a heartbeat in this tiny creature. A journey in which so many talented photographers came together to help me photograph a tadpole.
Not only was I amazing with the tadpole, but the camera gear definitely dropped my jaw: animal eye tracking worked on my Nikon Z9 on the eye of the tadpole and I used it along with AF-C on wide-area autofocus.
I do want to point out that no tadpole was harmed in the making of these photos. I worked with the Assistant Curator of Ectotherms at Denver Zoo to help move the tadpoles to my studio and make sure that no tadpole was harmed. It is important that we do not harm wildlife for the purpose of a photo.
About the Author: Kristi Odom is an internationally awarded photographer, a Nikon Ambassador, an associate fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and a motivational speaker. A photographer and filmmaker, her work focuses on connecting people emotionally to animals and celebrating those who have a connection to the natural world. When she is not at home in Longmont Colorado, she travels the world photographing and teaching. Kristi teaches photographers to improve their work through advanced camera skills and how to create more impact and emotions in photography.
Her accolades include over 60 international photography awards including 2 Nature’s Best Photography awards, which exhibited her images at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. She also was included in National Geographic’s 2021 collection for Best Animal Photos. Her work has appeared either online and/or in print for the following clients: National Geographic, Nikon, Forbes, Rollingstone, Microsoft and Outside Mag. To find out more about Kristi and her workshops visit kristiodom.com or her Instagram @kristiodom