There is some rare good news in the field of endangered species. The Las Vegas Valley leopard frog, which some believe the only US amphibian to have gone extinct, is not extinct.

This frog always intrigued me. As a native Las Vegan, it would be have exciting to find a frog living in the desert named after my home town. However, this species was last seen in 1942. Groundwater pumping dried up up the springs in which it occurred. I always wondered if it lingered on somewhere but never had the expertise or the energy to go look for it. The old creek that flowed from the long dry springs had long been capped, channelized, and tunneled under the downtown area. The tunnels were intriguing but scary (read this book on the homeless living in the storm drains of Vegas (link
“>link)).

Could the frog have survived in the Las Vegas Wash, Corn Creek, or the ponds at Lorenzi park or somewhere else? Someplace weird that hasn’t been looked at? Unlikely.

As I got more involved with amphibian conservation in Utah, Colorado and Nevada, I knew it was a long shot that this species survived and I knew enough that, realistically, I wasn’t going to be the one that found it. This was hard to take as I know the people worked with another frog species, the relict leopard frog, that was rediscovered in Southern Nevada after thought to being extinct. Surely lightning wouldn’t strike twice?

My field guides tantalized me. The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians said “Discovery of a remnant population would be a herpetological event.” My treasured signed copy of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians mentioned the probable extinction in the introduction in a section on conservation but considered the species to actually be a subspecies of the relict leopard frog.

However, in frog conservation meetings a couple years ago, people starting talking about getting genetic samples from old preserved specimens of Vegas Valley leopard frogs. Tests being run. Strange, unexpected results.

The frog isn’t extinct. However, it wasn’t found in a covered up drainage tunnel along the old Las Vegas Creek that runs a few feet from my office building.

In fact, the genetics from a long dead Vegas Valley leopard frog that was collected in 1913 and stored in alcohol show that the species is identical to another species — the Chiricahua leopard frog which still lives in places in Central Arizona down into Mexico.

This is an amazing story. So many things came together to solve this little biological mystery. Someone had the foresight to collect frogs and kept these specimens safe and catalogued in a museum. No one threw them out or lost the paperwork saying where and when they were collected. A team of dedicated scientists (I have the pleasure of having worked with about half the authors of the paper), scrounged some funding together (including a bit from my organization (yay!)), and did these amazingly powerful genetic tests that showed that these frogs are the same as the Arizona frogs.

It’s a great conservation story and a great science story. While it would have been preferable to have never lost the Vegas Valley population of these frogs, a larger piece of our natural heritage was not lost. This finding also tells a piece of the story of the evolution and complex story of biogeography in which species ebb and flow across a landscape influenced by complex interactions with other species, changing climate, and landforms.

One final bit — since the Vegas Valley leopard frog was first described as Rana fisheri in 1893 it has precedence over the Chiricahua leopard frog, R. chiricahuensis which was not described until 1979. Due to the rules of biological nomenclature, all of R. chiricahuensis should be renamed to the earlier name, Rana fisheri. It will be interesting to see if that actually happens.

Link to a New York Times news article here and the scientific paper here (PDF).