Critical Habitat Designated for Threatened Chiricahua Leopard Frog
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated approximately 10,346 acres as critical habitat for the Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis) in Arizona and New Mexico to help protect the species from ongoing threats and serve as refugia for its recovery. The agency also affirmed the frog’s threatened status following recent reclassification of the species. The critical habitat designation is made in response to a settlement agreement between the agency and WildEarth Guardians in May 2009.
“Critical habitat is essential to species recovery, and will be especially important for the leopard frog,” said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Facing recurrent drought, an onslaught of threats to its habitat, devastating chytrid fungus, and non-native predators, this frog needs all the help it can get.”
The Chiricahua leopard frog historically occurred in cienegas, lakes, ponds and riparian zones at elevations between 3,281 to 8,890 feet in central and southeastern Arizona, west-central and southwestern New Mexico, and the sky islands and Sierra Madre Occidental of northeastern Sonora and western Chihuahua, Mexico. It has been eliminated from its namesake, the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, and has disappeared from more than 80 percent of its former range in Arizona and New Mexico.
The final rule, to be published in the Federal Register on March 20, designates 39 sites as critical habitat within the frog’s range in Apache, Cochise, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Pima, Santa Cruz, and Yavapai Counties in Arizona; and Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, Sierra, and Socorro Counties, New Mexico. All but one of the sites are currently occupied by leopard frogs. The 39 units are on federal (6,958 acres), state (348 acres) and private (3,040 acres) land.
Myriad land uses threaten the Chiricahua leopard frog and its habitat include mining, livestock grazing, water diversion, groundwater pumping, development, and altered fire regimes. Drought, exacerbated by climate change, also affects the species. However, the most important threats to the frog are the deadly chytrid fungus and predation by non-native animals. Chytrid fungus is contributing to amphibian population declines worldwide and has caused major die-offs in the Chiricahua leopard frog. A host of non-native predators also prey on the Chiricahua leopard frog, including bullfrogs, crayfish, fish and salamanders. For instance, sites where the leopard frog has been eliminated are 2.6 times more likely to have introduced crayfish than control sites. Also, despite prohibitions, the Service has documented continued releases by anglers of non-native salamanders (used as bait) infected with chytrid into the leopard frog’s habitat.
Critical habitat designation applies differently to federal and non-federal lands. On federal lands, critical habitat designation requires federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service prior to permitting activities within designated areas to ensure they do not adversely affect the listed species. The same restrictions do not apply to land use and development in critical habitat on non-federal lands, unless they require federal permitting or expenditures, in which case the Service would assess the proposed activity for its potential to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat, and may require some modifications, before approving further federal involvement.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>