Faculty: Mike Forstner

Texas State herpetologist works to help
Houston toads hop off endangered list

Bufo houstonensis, the Houston toad.

By Billi London-Gray

Blind salamanders. Fountain darters. Texas wild rice grass. The home of the Bobcats is also home to endangered species and environmental advocates. But looking beyond the San Marcos River, a Texas State University biology professor has been working persistently to help restore populations of endangered Houston toads.

Texas State professor Michael Forstner, who holds the Alexander/Stone Chair of Genetics in the Department of Biology and has taught at the university since 1999, is one of the foremost experts on the Houston toad. He has been studying and raising awareness about the species since 1995.

“Effectively all field research on the taxon during the past decade has been completed by Texas State faculty and students in biology,” Forstner says. “My group represents the current lead for science-based recovery efforts, provides data useful to applied and theoretical aspects of small population biology, amphibian recovery, and amphibian population declines.”

The Houston toad, native to the sandy soils of east and central Texas, was classified as an endangered species in 1970. Native populations died off dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of prolonged droughts and habitat loss. Today, less than a few hundred remain in the wild, and they can only be found in a few counties in east central Texas. The largest population of Houston toads exists in Bastrop County.

Mike Forstner

Forstner’s involvement in research to aid the species’ recovery is ongoing. Currently, he is working with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on several studies concerning the management and recovery of the species in the wild. The captive propagation and headstarting efforts are being completed in collaboration with the Houston Zoo in partnership with private landowners.

Texas State researchers are helping to expand the knowledge base about the species, from habitat monitoring to the effects of disease and interspecies competition upon toad populations.

“We have developed the field site network and laboratory methods necessary to understand the ecology of the species, appropriate survey methods, its evolutionary relationships and population genetics, as well as data on the success of various recovery efforts including habitat restoration. Coupled to the efforts of my colleague Dr. Dittmar Hahn, we now include wildlife disease and pathogen research in the all of our efforts,” Forstner says.

From now until Father’s Day, herpetologists and toad lovers of all stripes can give Dad something to croak about while helping endangered toads in Texas.

Through June 19, the Houston Zoo will let you name one of its 2,500 resident Houston toads after your dad when you make a donation of $50 or more to support Houston toad conservation at the zoo.

The Houston Zoo has been working with the university, state and federal agencies, and nongovernmental organizations to return the Houston toad to its historic range. The Houston Zoo, home to more than 800 species, is dedicated to the conservation of endangered wildlife.

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