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Facing the Cuban tree frog invasion

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POSTED: July 6, 2013 4:00 p.m.

We have a small ornamental pond, with a small waterfall, by our front door. The splash of the water is soothing, and we like the water plants.  
We used to have goldfish in it but either the neighborhood cats or egrets got them. Frogs like the pond and aquatic plants, too. We know when it starts to rain when the frogs start croaking. When we walk up to the front door, they stop singing; once we go in, they start up again.
Now, I have to start looking at them and start learning the species instead of just enjoying them. There is a new frog in town. It is bigger, hungrier and eats the native population out of existence by not only eating the food of my native frogs, but by eating my native frogs themselves. And the lizards.  And whatever else it can get into its mouth.
The Cuban tree frog is just like our native tree frogs, but much larger and more varied in its appearance. It is the largest tree frog in North America, getting up to 5 inches long. Its pollywogs out-compete native species of frogs in the same pool, and they eat those they do not starve out.  
My native frogs are an inch long but can get up to an 1 ½ inches long. They have a stable coloration pattern that makes them easy to identify. If they jump on you or you touch them, your skin will not break out in a rash. The Cuban tree frog is highly variable in its coloration and markings. Its skin emits an irritating chemical that probably makes it less tasty to predators, which of course would give it yet another survival advantage.
Yes, it is another invasive species threatening to push out the natives.  
International trade is a good thing. Voluntary trade allows trading partners to produce more goods and wealth through trade than either of them could produce separately without trade. Both sides win, especially when everybody plays fairly. The ports of Savannah and Brunswick are pivotal to the economic wealth not just of those cities but the whole state of Georgia. But there are some prices that come with trade.  
Oceans that were once barriers to the spread of animals, insects and diseases are breached by shipping. Eleven years ago, the insect and fungus that causes laurel wilt came in to Savannah on shipping pallets from Asia. The native population of red bay trees has since been decimated, and now we are watching to see how red bay reproduction and the disease interact.  The fungus that causes laurel wilt is from the same genus that causes Dutch elm disease, which wiped out the American elm in cities across the country and gave rise to the discipline of urban forestry.  
But not all of these newly introduced organisms work so quickly. The Cuban tree frog hitchhiked its way into the Florida Keys in the 1920s and has slowly spread up the Florida peninsula. The first recorded capture of the frog in Georgia occurred in 2009 in the Savannah area.  Now two Cuban tree frogs have been captured on Jekyll Island. This one cannot be blamed on the ports.  They even pre-date Ernest Hemingway on Key West.
Is it likely that these are the only places along the Georgia Coast where these frogs exist? No, they probably are throughout the Georgia coast. Nobody has spent the time or energy to look, but now it is time to start looking.
One good way to start is to get involved with the Coastal Georgia Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area. CISMA organizations are throughout Florida, but Eamonn Leonard with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has started the first one in the state. It is a forum and clearinghouse for invasive-species information and a pool of interested activists who might help organize to herbicide the popcorn trees invading the barrier islands of Georgia, watch along roadsides for cogongrass blooming in May, or maybe go frog gigging. You can contact Leonard at  Eamonn.Leonard@DNR.STATE.GA.US.  
You won’t have to go far to start looking for Cuban tree frogs. They like ponds, puddles, ditches and drainage ways and swimming pools outside the home and commodes inside the home.
Correct identification should be your first priority, so you don’t kill good frogs by mistake. Yes, you read that correctly — kill them. Leaving a known Cuban tree frog alive allows it to continue to kill our native Georgia frogs.  For those of you squeamish about dispatching pests, there is a humane way suggested for euthanizing Cuban tree frogs. It involves spreading benzocaine on the frog’s back to anesthetize it and then putting it in a plastic bag and putting it in the freezer overnight. In the morning, toss the bagged corpse in the trash.  
I do wonder about handling a frog with poisonous skin, though.  I’m not really sure my lovely wife would welcome frogs in her freezer.

Gardner lives in Keller and is the UGA extension agent for Glynn County serving South Bryan.

 

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