Week 10, Day 5: Frogs

Canyon treefrogs are common on the Pajarito Plateau, but they don’t spend much time in trees! Look for these frogs blending into rocks or near water in places like Acid Canyon. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

Welcome to Take It Outside! This week, we are getting to know our local reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as herptiles — or herps!

Earlier this week, we met one of our rarest amphibian species, the Jemez Mountains salamander. Today, we meet a more common amphibian on the Pajarito Plateau, the canyon treefrog.

Next week, we are taking a break from creating new Take It Outside content. Instead, we’ll be sharing some of the great online content other New Mexico museums and organizations are creating! Tune in to our website or check PEEC’s social media pages to see who we’re featuring.

Be sure to keep an eye out for a survey next week to give your feedback on what you’d like to see from PEEC for future online content. Have a great weekend!

Upcoming Event:

Tonight at 7 PM, to cap off our week about reptiles and amphibians, astrophysicist Rick Wallace examines competing theories about what really killed the dinosaurs in his live-streamed astronomy talk. His presentation brings in paleontology, atmospheric modeling, explosive hydrodynamics, geology, volcanology, biology, and environmental science! Register here to listen to the talk.

Blog Post:

PEEC’s resident herpetologist and board member Jennifer Macke discusses how canyon treefrogs have adapted to live in our dry climate here in New Mexico. Check it out here!


Invite frogs and toads to your yard by building a habitat just for them. Make sure to choose a safe, cool, place, and keep it moist. Then wait and see if any toads or frogs find their new home! Let us know if they do!

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Get outside and pretend to be a canyon treefrog! Hop around your yard or along a nearby trail and search for the following resources that you’ll need to survive as a frog on the Pajarito Plateau:

  • Food: Can you find insects like beetles, flies, or moths to snack on?
  • Water: As we learned in the blog post, frogs absorb moisture through their skin instead of drinking it. Can you find a puddle, stream, pond, or even damp soil?
  • Shelter: During the hot summer months, canyon treefrogs often hang out in cracks and crevices to avoid drying out. They are masters of camouflage and can blend in perfectly with rocks. Can you find some habitat like this to hang out in?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Canyon treefrogs blend in with their surroundings! Their coloring can change depending on where they live. Our Forest Explorers club found this canyon treefrog blending in to a rock in Acid Canyon last fall. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Since frogs and salamanders must blend in well to avoid predation, they are very hard to see. But they are often easier to hear. In our area, most frogs will wait until monsoon season to mate. At that time, you can go to water bodies and hear their calls.

Listen to the calls of the western chorus frog and the canyon treefrog.

Then, as the season progresses, visit ponds such as retention ponds, stock ponds, and canyon bottoms, and listen for these sounds. If you get really interested, you can join the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ citizen science project FrogWatch USA to contribute to amphibian conservation.


Want to Learn More?

  • This week we’ve learned about reptiles and amphibians. Most of the critters at the Los Alamos Nature Center fall into one of these categories! Take our “Which Los Alamos Nature Center Critter Are You?” quiz to find out which of our residents you are most like!
  • Do you know how to tell the difference between a frog and a toad? We have both frogs and toads here in New Mexico and they are both amphibians. Check out this video for some tips for noting the general difference between frogs and toads!
  • Learn more about the different frogs, toads, and salamanders found in New Mexico in this list of amphibians from the New Mexico Herpetological Society.
  • Play this jumping frog game and try to get your frog through traffic, across a river, and to a tasty fly to eat! This game is mostly just for fun, but it does bring up an important obstacle to many amphibian species: habitat fragmentation, where human development interrupts the natural ranges of wildlife. This is an important reason for individuals and communities to include areas hospitable to wildlife within our neighborhoods.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our local reptiles and amphibians this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Amphibians in a Dry Climate: The Canyon Treefrog

The canyon treefrog protects itself with a dry bumpy skin. Their skin conserves moisture and provides camouflage. They tuck their legs under their body to help reduce water loss. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

By Jennifer Macke

How does an amphibian survive in a dry climate like New Mexico’s? It’s a good question! To answer it, let’s use the canyon treefrog as an example of the adaptations that make survival in a dry climate possible for our local amphibians.

Amphibians and Water

One of the hallmarks of amphibians is their dependence on water. Their skin is moist and permeable, and an amphibian will quickly die if it loses water from its body. Most amphibians require water to lay their eggs, and their offspring (tadpoles or larvae) usually grow up in water.

Amphibians don’t drink. You will never see an amphibian put its head in the water and take a gulp. Instead, they obtain the moisture they need by absorbing it through their skin. For many frogs, the skin on the underside of their hind legs is specially adapted to absorb water. In some cases, they soak their body in water in order to “drink.” In other cases, they are able to absorb enough water simply by sitting on slightly damp soil, no standing water needed.

Canyon Treefrogs

Wet canyon bottoms provide prime habitat for canyon treefrogs. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

One of the most common amphibians on the Pajarito Plateau is the canyon treefrog (Hyla arenicolor). Don’t let the name “treefrog” mislead you. It is called a treefrog because of its close genetic relationship with other treefrogs, including rainforest species. But our “treefrog” doesn’t live in trees, and in fact, it looks more like a toad than a frog!


Observation Tip: The canyon treefrog is small, up to about 2.5 inches in length. They vary widely in color, from dark gray to cream color, with gray markings. Because of their bumpy skin, they are often mistaken for toads.


The canyon treefrog utilizes several strategies to survive a dry climate. First, the tough outer skin on their back limits water loss. Like most frogs, the skin on their underside is adapted to absorb water, so it is soft and moist. When they are sheltering during dry weather, they keep their soft underside carefully tucked down against a non-porous surface to limit water loss.

As another adaptation to a dry climate, canyon treefrogs tend to live near places that have standing water during at least part of the year. These areas are most often in canyon bottoms, or along streambeds that have flowing water, even if it is only wet there occasionally.

The canyon treefrog also limits water loss by remaining inactive and sheltered during dry times of the year. They usually shelter in deep cracks and crevices in rock, where some moisture remains even in dry periods. They also tend to cluster together in groups, which helps to further reduce their water loss, as they keep each other moist.


Canyon treefrog tadpoles in a temporary pool at the rim of White Rock Canyon. (Photo by Josip Loncaric)

Tadpole Sightings

If you find tadpoles on the Pajarito Plateau, it’s likely that they are canyon treefrogs. They breed during monsoon season, utilizing small pools of temporary water all over the Plateau. During the monsoons, you will hear the adult males calling, and you may find eggs or tadpoles in almost any small pool of water.

Observation Tip: Listen for the “ba-a-a-a” call of the male canyon treefrog during monsoon season. The nature center has a recorded call that you can play in the Canyons area of our exhibits when we reopen, or listen to the call at the California Herps website.

During the monsoon season, treefrogs are able to move around freely in search of mates and water. Almost any new body of water will be “found” and become their new breeding ground. When PEEC built its pond in the wildlife observation area at the nature center, canyon treefrogs were using it as a breeding site within a couple of years. The water retention pond behind Smith’s has also been colonized by canyon treefrogs. They are clearly able to move around enough to find and exploit small bodies of water anywhere that water occurs.

Observation Tip: There are many sites on the Pajarito Plateau where you can find tadpoles during monsoon season. If you find such a place, you can go back every few days to watch the progress of the tadpoles as they grow up.

Other Frogs and Toads in Our Area

Some of the other native frogs and toads in our area are the Woodhouse’s toad, chorus frog, and New Mexico spadefoot toad. Each has its own set of adaptations to survive. The non-native and invasive American bullfrog is also very abundant along the Rio Grande. For more information on the reptiles and amphibians in Northern New Mexico, view our online Reptile and Amphibian Nature Guide.

Week 10, Day 2: Jemez Mountains Salamander

The Jemez Mountains salamander only lives in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. It has been found in parts of Los Alamos, Sandoval, and Rio Arriba counties. (Photo by Mark Watson)

Welcome to Take It Outside! This week, we are getting to know our local reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as herptiles — or herps!

We have our very own endemic species of salamander in the Jemez Mountains: the Jemez Mountains salamander. This species is found nowhere else in the world! Learn about this elusive and endangered creature in today’s post.

Blog Post:

Los Alamos National Laboratory wildlife biologist Chuck Hathcock gives us a look into the life of the Jemez Mountains salamander, and discusses some of the threats facing this small amphibian. Read his blog post here.


The Jemez Mountains salamander is a lungless salamander that breathes through its very thin, permeable skin. It’s crucial for this salamander to maintain moist skin, clear of chemicals and pollutants. Try this experiment demonstrating how pollutants can enter the skin of an amphibian. It uses hard-boiled eggs to model amphibians’ permeable skin.

Think about how environmental conditions can impact the survival of this endangered species.


Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Terrestrial amphibians like the Jemez Mountains salamander require moist soil to survive. Moist soil isn’t easy to come by here on the Pajarito Plateau! Go outside and see if you can find moist soil. Is it easier to find at the tops of hills or mesas, or at the bottoms of canyons and dips? Do you have to dig? How far down can you find moisture? Can you find it at all?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Titus is one of the two tiger salamanders that live at the Los Alamos Nature Center. Like Jemez Mountains salamanders, their skin needs to stay moist at all times. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

The Jemez Mountains Salamander is very rare and endangered, but there is another native salamander that is quite common in our area: the tiger salamander. Tiger salamanders have both aquatic and terrestrial life stages, and can be found in and around wetlands and small ponds throughout Northern New Mexico. The Los Alamos Reservoir is an example of a place where you can reliably see tiger salamanders during the aquatic part of their life cycle.

See if you can spot a tiger salamander! Send us a picture if you find one!


Want to Learn More?

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our local reptiles and amphibians this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore some of our local lizards!

Our Local Salamander

The Jemez Mountains salamander is endemic to the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. This creature is listed as an endangered species. (Photo by Chuck Hathcock)

By Chuck Hathcock, Wildlife Biologist at LANL

The Jemez Mountains are home to one of the nation’s most unique salamanders. Only here, and nowhere else in the world, exists the Jemez Mountains salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus). This endemic species is very secretive and not many people have ever seen one. They are thin, about as wide as a pencil, and only large adults are as long as a pencil. They are dark brown above, sometimes with a fine gold stippling of color.

Tam and Titus are the tiger salamanders at the Los Alamos Nature Center. These salamanders are much more common than the Jemez Mountains salamander. (Photo by Ashleigh Lusher)

The only other salamander that lives in the area is the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) which is very common. They are large and black with distinct yellow stripes or spots. Their aquatic form can be often seen at the Los Alamos Reservoir overflow.

Jemez Mountains salamanders are lungless salamanders, so they “breathe” from gas exchange through their inner mouth linings and their skin. The skin and mouth linings must be moist for gas exchange to occur, so they need a moist environment that does not dry out. That really limits where they can live. They cannot survive in White Rock Canyon, for example.

You may be thinking that the Rio Grande is suitable, but another unusual trait about these salamanders is that they are terrestrial their whole lives, from hatching to adult. They do not have an aquatic larval phase like most other amphibians and when placed in water, the Jemez Mountains salamander will not survive. Because of these limitations, they are only found in certain parts of the Jemez Mountains, usually between 2,200 and 2,900 meters (about 7,200 – 9,500 feet) in elevation. There are known populations within Los Alamos County, even within the Laboratory and townsite boundaries. These lower elevation populations live in small habitat niches that are still moist.

Jemez Mountains salamanders spend the majority of their lives underground. They cannot dig on their own, so they move through the underground world following existing interstitial spaces between fractured rocks or spaces along roots. During the wet and warm monsoon season, they come to the surface and live in rotten logs or under rocks where they can maintain their moist skin. It’s no wonder why they are so hard to find! There are a lot of unknowns about this salamander and the scientific community has many knowledge gaps to fill. How deep underground do they live? What does a nest look like? What drives their underground habitat needs? These and many other questions need to be answered.

All of the things that make the Jemez Mountains salamander so unique and interesting, also make it vulnerable to many threats. One of their biggest threats is stand-replacing wildfires. When a forest is removed by a large wildfire, the ground becomes desiccated. The increased erosion after a wildfire fills all of the spaces in the earth with sediment. Jemez Mountains salamanders in these areas will die off and cannot be replaced.

Because of the many large wildfires in the Jemez Mountains over the last twenty years, the salamander was listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act in 2013. This salamander is at high risk of going extinct and researchers and land managers are doing what they can to avoid their extinction.

If you ever are lucky enough to see a Jemez Mountains salamander, please don’t touch it, but do take a photo and send the photo and location to someone at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. The data can be passed along to the land managers and federal regulators to help conserve this most unique species that is found nowhere else in the world.

Week 3, Day 5: Native Reptiles & Amphibians

The collared lizard is one of the larger lizards found on the Pajarito Plateau. They can be quite colorful! (Photo by Jonathan Creel)

Today we are exploring some of Northern New Mexico’s native reptiles and amphibians. Thanks for joining us for another week of Take It Outside! Next week, we’ll explore outdoor adventures.

We hope you continue to get outside this weekend! Check out PEEC’s tips on getting outdoors and using our trails during COVID-19.

Blog Post:

Our local lizards are starting to emerge from their winter homes! Biologist and PEEC board member Jennifer Macke shares some tips on how you can become an instant expert on our lizard populations today on the blog. Check out her post here.


Build a lizard lounge for your yard! If you enjoy seeing lizards roaming your yard and garden, consider adding some features that will help attract them to your yard.

Find a quiet, but sunny spot in your yard for your lizard lounge and start collecting materials! Try to gather the following:

  • Large rocks that lizards can sun themselves on.
  • Sticks or rocks of different sizes to build a pile with. Lizards love to hide in small nooks and crannies.
  • Mulch, such as leaf litter or bark, that skinks can hide beneath. This will also attract insects — a lizard’s favorite food!
  • A hidden water bowl that your lizard friends can drink from.

Get creative with your lizard lounge and make a sign for it, if you’d like! We’d love to see what you come up with! Share your pictures with us by emailing them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or tagging us on Facebook or Instagram. You can also use the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Find more ideas here. We also love this guide for a lizard friendly garden from New Zealand. The lizards and plants mentioned may not exist here, but the basic ideas are still the same!

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

One of our educators found this juvenile many-lined skink during a hike on a PEEC field trip! (Photo by Jessica Miller)

Lizards are ectotherms, or cold-blooded animals. This means that they need to get heat from their surroundings. Use your hand to feel rocks and other surfaces in different outdoor areas. Can you feel which areas are warmest? If you were a lizard, these would be areas you would use to bask to warm up your body. Spend a few minutes basking in the sun like a lizard!

Did you know that the Spanish name for lizard, lagartija, also means a pushup, as in the exercise? Lizards do pushups to show off their strength, possibly to attract mates or scare off rivals. Do a few lagartijas yourself to show your strength!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Look for lizards today! For best luck, look on south-facing rocks on mesa tops or in sunny areas in the Rio Grande Valley. Lizards are often well camouflaged, so you’ll have to look closely.

Fence lizards are the most abundant lizard in our area, and the one you’re most likely to see in early spring. They can have a variety of colors and patterns, depending on the lizard’s age and genetic variations. How many different patterns of fence lizards can you spot today? Bring your nature journal and some pencils and sketch the patterns of a lizard you see!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our four-footed friends this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Next week’s content will be all about outdoor adventures! We’ll be back on Monday, April 6. Have a good weekend!

Tiger Salamanders and Mammals: Underground Companions?

Expanded version of the article printed in Nature Notes No. 4, 2017

By Dr. Ellen A.G. Chernoff and Jennifer Macke

Tiger salamanders are common on the Pajarito Plateau and throughout northern New Mexico. Because they live underground, we rarely see them. The underground parts of our world are one of our “final frontiers”; we know very little about what goes on down there! Read more Tiger Salamanders and Mammals: Underground Companions?