Frogs, toads, newts and salamanders are all amphibians that you might find in your garden. If you are lucky.
Of course, luck has very little to do with creating a healthy environment. It takes fact based knowledge and a little effort. With just a few slight modifications to your garden, you can create a habitat that attracts these beneficial creatures and encourages them to stay. But why would you want to?
Benefits provided by amphibians
Newts (a type of salamander) are one of the few animals that love to eat slugs. For that reason alone, I am happy to create an amphibian-friendly habitat. Most amphibians are insectivores, which means they will reduce the number of snails, beetles, worms, millipedes, and whatever else they can catch and swallow. While still in their aquatic stage, amphibians will also eat mosquito larvae, along with other insect eggs, water snails, and even small fish.
What are amphibians?
Amphibians are cold-blooded, and many of them start out in water before moving to land. In fact, the word ‘amphibian’ comes to us from the Ancient Greek amphibious, which means ‘both kinds of life’. Amphibians evolved from fish approximately 370 million years ago.
Most of us are familiar with the way frog eggs hatch in water and are called tadpoles. Those tadpoles then lose their gills and tails to become adult frogs and toads. Baby salamanders and many other amphibians also start out in water. At this early stage, they are called larvae. Then, they generally go through some sort of metamorphosis to reach their adult size and shape, and to start breathe using lungs. [Did you know that amphibians also breathe through their skin? For some species, skin breathing is their only form of respiration.] Amphibians often have glands in their skin that release toxins, as a defense mechanism. For this reason, it is a good idea to not handle your garden amphibians - they probably wouldn’t like it anyway.
There are approximately 7,000 species and 3 orders of amphibians in the world: frogs and toads (Anura), salamanders (Urodela), and blindworms, or caecilians (Apoda).
Each region has its own native amphibian population. The first step to improving the biodiversity of your garden is to learn which amphibians are native to your area. Here in the Bay Area, we have a wide variety of amphibians, just looking for a home:
Frogs and toads
Salamanders and newts
How to attract amphibians
Most amphibians start out in or near water, so a pond or similar water feature is the best way to attract amphibians to your landscape. The water should be at least 20 inches deep, and provide both sunny and shady areas, with sloping edges. You will also want to incorporate floating, submerged, and plants that grow from the bottom of your pond to above its surface. The ideal ratio of plants to open water is 1:1. Unlike your swimming pool, you will want algae to grow in your pond, as it is an important food source and it generates oxygen for tadpoles and larvae.
If a pond is completely out of the question, you can still maintain a moist area that includes rotting logs and leaf litter. Brush and rock piles, a stone wall, and basking areas will also help lure these beneficial creatures to your landscape.
Incorporating native plants will attract other natives, providing both food and family for your amphibians. Under no circumstances should you release a nonnative amphibian into your garden. This is how ecological disasters often start.
Other ways you can help your local amphibians include allowing your lawn to grow a little taller, to provide safe travel corridors, reduce or eliminate your use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and snail pellets, keep your cat indoors, and monitor your dog. Also, be on the lookout for hidden amphibians when using a lawnmower or weedwacker.
Amphibians are very sensitive to toxins in the environment. This is why they are considered an indicator species. If you have amphibians in your garden, then you know you have created a healthy place. Similar to the recent decline in insect populations, amphibians are currently facing a mass extinction.
Recent studies tell us that, before the 1500s, the expected rate of amphibian extinction would be 1 to 11 species lost over a 500-year period. Since the 1500s, 35 to 130 species of amphibian have become extinct. Since 1980, 9 to 122 more amphibian species have become extinct, with an additional 1,896 species in “imminent danger of extinction”. [The numbers are ranges because it is very difficult to prove that a species is finally and irrevocably gone.]
While most mass extinctions span a couple of million years, the current mass extinctions can be measured in centuries and are caused, both directly and indirectly, by us. The current amphibian population crash is attributed to disease, habitat loss, introduced species, pollution, climate change, and pesticide use, though it is not completely understood. Nor do we understand the long term ramifications of this mass extinction.
The food web and network of life here on Earth is very complex. The loss of amphibians is bound to have serious implications for all of us. Please, do your part to make life possible for amphibians in your garden.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!