Mark Twain’s famous tale of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County lays out the story of gambler Joe Smiley and his frog Dan’l Webster. The popular 1865 short story, which spurred the Calaveras County Jumping Frog Jubilee in Angels Camp, Calif., is not only a cautionary tale about gambling, but points to the jumping skills of the California red-legged frog, which is now a threatened species.
The California red-legged frog is endemic to California, with a few appearances in Baja, Mexico, and most commonly found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The frog has faced many adversities in its storied history — and of far more peril than a jumping match made famous by Mark Twain.
The species was gobbled up as a main food source of gold seekers in the late 19th century. The gold miners chowed down on the protein-packed frog legs and almost ate the species out of existence — roughly 80,000 frogs per year, according to state legislation enacted to protect the frog. Due to the number of gold miners in the Sierra Nevada, the population of red-legged frogs in the area took a visible decline.
Frog legs soon shifted from gold miners’ backcountry dinners to the menus of high-end San Francisco restaurants during this time period, according to the Wild Equity Institute. This new cuisine led to the introduction of non-native bullfrogs into California by government and private efforts because the red-legged frog population was depleted. According to nonprofit Save the Frogs!, entrepreneurs in the 1890’s tried to capitalize on the introduction of the big, juicy bullfrogs without realizing the consequences to the red-legged frogs, which were almost on their last leg.
The “bull” in bullfrogs is not a coincidence; this bully of a species is highly invasive. After introduction, they took over the West in droves, as a species native to the East Coast, according to Eat The Invaders, an organization that is focused on finding delicious ways to eat invasive species to control them. Bullfrogs compete for food sources with native species, they carry a fungus that has driven many amphibian species to extinction, and they eat anything they can stuff down their throats, including California red-legged frogs. The smaller native frog stopped fearing the gold miner’s fork but started fearing its new neighbor.
Because there were many problems facing the species, the California red-legged frog has been on the endangered species list since 1996, but in June 2014 — due to efforts from Save The Frogs! and students from Sea View Elementary School in Salton, Calif. — a law was enacted to name the red-legged frog as the California state amphibian. The red-legged amphibian is also one of the 52 species designated as an indicator species for the Sierra Nevada, which is used to gauge the biodiversity and health of the region, according to Sierra Forest Legacy.
The species once made famous by Mark Twain’s stories and gold miners hungry habits has finally received recognition from the state, making residents more likely to proactively protect this native frog. Bullfrogs also reside in South Lake’s Tahoe Keys, where an effort is underway to control aquatic invasive weeds. Read Eyes on the Keys, here.