Houston Toads: New Victims of Climate Change

Climate change isn’t just making the mercury rise; it is causing a lot of other problems, including extreme droughts and wildfires. These accelerating global warming impacts are very troubling for the Houston toad, and with Leap Day upon us the plight of this endangered amphibian has been on my mind.

Houston Toad Photo by: USFWS, Paige Najvar

The Houston toad is an endangered species that lives exclusively in southeast Texas. It is about 3 inches big, varies in color from light brown to gray or purplish gray, and has an alluring croak.  And it secretes chemicals in its skin to protect itself, such as serotonin and alkaloids, which are used as medicines to treat heart and nervous disorders in humans. Take Our Leap Day Frog Quiz!

Harmed by Record Drought

The Houston toad makes its home in loose, deep sands supporting woodland savannah and needs still or flowing waters for breeding. A five-year review of the toad’s status (see p. 12) conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows the need for water makes drought a significant threat to the toad.

As NWF has reported, climate change begets droughtSince September of 2009, severe to exceptional drought has occurred in central Texas right in the heart of the Houston toad’s limited range. And last year was the driest 12-month period for Texas since measurements began according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, who says the Texas drought could continue until 2020.

Even more concerning for the Houston toad may be that climate change exacerbated drought begets wildfires.  Another recent environmental review (see p. 20) has pointed out that the toad’s need for moisture also means that “catastrophic wildlife fires could have devastating effects to Houston toad habitat.”

Devastated by Extreme Wildfires

Unfortunately, on September 4, 2011, a firestorm known as the Bastrop County Complex Fire engulfed Bastrop, Texas and by September 30th had destroyed 1,645 homes, burned over 34,000 acres, and killed two people. This fire is now regarded as the most catastrophic wildfire in Texas history.  The largest population of Houston toads exists in Bastrop County, one of the Houston toad’s few remaining habitats. The fires were so intense they could have wiped out the Houston toad.  A Texas State biologist recently called the Bastrop fire “an extinction level event.”

Read how climate change induced drought and wildfires have also made Monarch butterflies climate victims and impacted the livelihood of one Texas city.

Luckily, while the wildfires had a devastating impact on the Houston toad population, some were found to have survived.  Conservationists in Texas are working to rebuild the population, but the endangered toads will face an uphill battle as the extreme wildfires took away the plants and brush they rely on for cover and safety and the insects the toads eat.

New Carbon Pollution Limits Can Help

We shouldn’t wait any longer for more fire alarms about how the impacts of climate change are harming America’s wildlife heritage.  Climate change-causing carbon pollution is impacting not only the Houston toad but frogs as well.

You can help turn the tide for wildlife–from frogs to polar bears.  Join NWF Action Fund in celebrating the entire Leap Year by supporting new efforts to limit the carbon pollution coming from power plant smokestacks.