IUCN threat status:

Near Threatened (NT)

Brief Summary

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The gopher frog, Lithobates capito, is a ranid frog native to the southeastern United States coastal plain from southern North Carolina through central Alabama.  It inhabits a variety of dry sandy upland environments including turkey-oak sandhills, sand pine scrub, longleaf pine flat woods and oak hammocks.

A large, plump frog, Lithobates capito is 2-4.5 inches (5.1 - 11.4 cm) long.  Its back is covered with prominent bumps and varies in color from brown to dark gray, with black, brown or red markings.  Male Florida gopher frogs sometimes have various yellow markings.  

Two gopher frog subspecies are currently recognized.  The Carolina gopher frog (L. c. capito), lives on the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas and is slightly smaller than the Florida gopher frog (subspecies L. c. aesopus), which occurs in Florida and southern Georgia.  The critically endangered dusky gopher frog Rana sevosa, found in Mississippi, was considered a third subspecies (L. c. sevosa) until 2001, when genetic evidence elevated it to species level (Young and Crother 2001). 

The gopher frog is a secretive animal, and difficult to find.  Nocturnal, it hides much of the day near by but away from water sources.  Especially in Florida, it lives mostly in the burrows of gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus).  Indeed, its common name derives from this commensal relationship with gopher tortoises.  Gopher frogs will also sometimes seek shelter in rodent warrens, crayfish burrows, in crevices and under logs.  At night, gopher frogs sit at the edge of their gopher tortoise burrow to forage on insects, other invertebrates and even small frogs and toads that come within range.  This edge of their burrow becomes worn into a characteristic smoothed “pad” where they consistently hunt at the same spot each night, wearing away any vegetation.

During the winter rainy season, rains trigger congregations of adults around temporary water holes and seasonally flooded grassy ponds to breed.  After migrating to breeding sites, males set up territories and start calling, a sound described as a “deep roaring snore.”  After mating, females deposit large egg masses on submerged vegetation.  Especially in northern locations (L. c. capito), breeding seasons are explosive, lasting just a few days.  Larvae hatch and develop into adults quickly, within 3.5 months.  Further south along the Florida panhandle (L. c. aesopus), breeding season can last for several months and larvae develop over the course of up to seven months.

Listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN, this frog is vulnerable to a diversity of environmental effects due to human activity.  The main issue is habitat degradation.  It does not do well in degraded habitats, and is threatened by timber industry management of forests promoting monocultures and control of seasonal wildfires.  Research shows larger numbers in breeding pools where fires were not suppressed and savannah-like conditions prevailed, than in uplands where fire suppression allowed hardwood trees to invade.  Introduced predatory fish in their breeding areas has also taken a toll on gopher frog eggs and tadpoles.  Construction, increased sedimentation, agricultural grazing, and off road vehicles have caused destruction of wetlands and necessary wetland vegetation required for gopher frog breeding. Furthermore, because gopher turtle populations are also in decline, gopher frogs face a crisis in finding shelter. 

Eglin Air Force Base (Florida), Conecuh National Forest (Alabama), and Fort Benning (Georgia) provide protected habitat for the gopher frog.  Gopher frogs are listed as a species of special concern in Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and are protected in Alabama.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is currently evaluating recommendations for possible federal listing of Lithobates capito as a threatened species.

Note: some consider Lithobates a subgenus name, and use the generic name Rana for this species.

(Doubledee 2003; Richter and Jensen 2005; Franz 1988; Georgia Wildlife Web 2000; Hammerson and Jensen 2004; Palis 1998; Wikipedia 2016; Young and Crother 2001)


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© Dana Campbell

Supplier: Dana Campbell

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