“Ready … steady … go.”
That prompt from Hillary Skowronski cued a University of West Florida graduate student and an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to quickly grab whatever creatures pop out of a PVC pipe that’s been strategically hung on a tree at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
“It’s like a piñata,” joked Skowronski, also a UWF graduate student, as she tapped the pipe against her shoe to pry the frogs that were taking shelter in there loose. “Mother Nature’s piñata.”
The trio deftly, yet carefully, scooped up a pair of pine woods tree frogs that were jarred from the pipe, snapped photographs of the amphibians, documented them and put them back exactly where they found them.
This whirlwind of activity is part of a partnership between UWF and the National Park Service, through which each month students survey the amphibian and reptile populations in the Naval Live Oaks region of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The partnership, led by Dr. Jeff Eble, a UWF professor who is the research coordinator for the Gulf Islands Research and Education Center, formed about two years ago.
“The National Park Service has been monitoring vulnerable reptile and amphibian populations at eight Gulf Coast parks, and they were looking for partners to assist them with the work,” Eble said. “We took them up on the offer because it provides a great opportunity for UWF students to gain the hands-on research experience they need to succeed after graduation.”
The Park Service doesn’t always have the resources needed to conduct long-term monitoring because of other responsibilities that include facilities maintenance, conducting public programs and outreach and overseeing land management issues, said Billy Finney, a biological technician with the Gulf Coast Monitoring and Inventory Network.
“And so this is just a great opportunity, that partnership already being formed,” Finney said. “We found a really great partner in Jeff Eble and his students. So they supply us with the data and we take it from there.”
The information gathered during the monthly monitoring sessions shows park natural resource managers whether native species are thriving or in decline, and also help detect and monitor invasive species.
In addition to using the PVC pipes attached to trees, the UWF monitoring team deploys metal and wooden cover boards throughout Naval Live Oaks to provide a consistent sample of the forest floor. Often found taking shelter under the boards are lizards, such as the native green anole, as well as an introduced – or what some call an invasive – species the greenhouse frog.
“Last month, (the greenhouse frogs) were under, like, every single board. There were more than ever,” said Sarabeth Uriz, an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Uriz assists with the survey when she isn’t working.
Native to Cuba and the Caribbean, the greenhouse frog has been showing up in the samples taken from Gulf Islands National Seashore since 2012, Eble said. The species were likely introduced to Florida as stowaways in shipments of potted plants or flower pots.
“The greenhouse frog is like a lot of frogs, particularly tree frogs, in that they are really good at colonizing new areas,” Eble said. “They will often shelter on potted plants and lay their eggs in potting soil or attached to planters … If it happens to be a nursery that they’re in, that nursery may be shipping plants all over the world and inadvertently introducing new species to Hawaii, Puerto Rico or Pensacola.”
Finney said there’s no evidence to show that the greenhouse frog is displacing native frog species, though it’s too early to say that definitively.
“The expectation is that they will be competing for food sources with other terrestrial vertebrates like ground skinks, or narrow mouth toads, which they seem to inhabit the exact same locations,” he said.
An invasive species that has not been spotted yet at Gulf Islands National Seashore during the monthly monitoring sessions is the invasive Cuban tree frog. However, the aggressive species, which often feeds on native frogs, already has been discovered as close as Panama City and New Orleans. So they could show up at any time.
An automated acoustic “frog logger,” a digital recorder, has been attached to one of the trees in Naval Live Oaks to detect the distinct call of the Cuban tree frog if and when it does arrive.
“It’s expected,” Finney said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The UWF monitoring team also uses minnow traps that are deployed 24 hours at a time to monitor aquatic amphibians at the site, namely tadpoles.
UWF graduates aren’t only gaining valuable experience by participating in the monitoring effort.
“In this case, we’re actually able, thanks to the National Park Service, to pay these students for the training they need to secure jobs get once they graduate,” Eble said.
Uriz, a UWF graduate, was able to get a job with the Department of Environmental Protection in part because of her experience working on the monitoring project, Eble said.
“I have a passion for reptiles,” Uriz said.
Eble said there will be more opportunities for the UWF students and faculty to help the Park Service in the future under the umbrella of the Gulf Islands Research and Education Center.
“What’s great about this project is it gives UWF students who have been working hard in the classroom the opportunity to get in the field and learn more about what they have been studying and the research methods that they might be applying to some of their jobs,” he said. “Particularly students that may be really interested in a career in natural resource management.”
This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.