Wanted, dead or alive: Frogs riding north on Christmas trees

James Halpin

Pacific chorus frogs have shown up in the Anchorage area, hitchhiking their way in on imported Christmas trees, and state wildlife officials want them turned in -- dead or alive.

While fish and game officials say the critters may not be a threat in and of themselves, there's a danger of diseases they could be carrying.

Reports of the amphibious invaders began surfacing in the past two weeks, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is urging residents to check their trees for "amphibious hitchhikers they may be unaware they purchased."

"These 'live ornaments' may seem like a bonus purchase, but they are outside their native range," said Tammy Davis, Invasive Species Program project leader for Fish and Game. "While we don't suspect they will become invasive, a greater concern is the risk to our native amphibians if they are carrying pathogens of concern."

Residents were urged to kill or surrender the stowaways when found. The recommended method of taking out a tiny croaker? A dose of toothache anesthetic to the head.

"The way to humanely euthanize them is to use an overdose of Orajel, and I think it just knocks them out," Davis said. "The other thing we were asking people to do is stick it in their freezer. I know that there are people who are not going to want to do that, but I'm sure people probably aren't going to go out and buy Orajel just so that they can humanely get rid of the frog that they didn't even really want."

Officials have thus far gotten two reports of frogs in Christmas trees, at least one of them purchased at Bell's Nurseries. A message for the nursery owner was not returned Thursday.

Davis said the shipment of trees at that retailer came from Orting, Wash., and reportedly had an inspection stamp on it. It wasn't known how large the shipment was, but the retailer told officials there were only a few left.

Pacific Chorus frogs are between three-quarters of an inch to 2 inches with a rounded snout and a conspicuous dark mask, according to the University of Alaska Anchorage. The frogs have been introduced to Revillagigedo Island in Southeast but are otherwise not found in Alaska. They get their name from the "kreck-ek" chorus -- led by a dominant male called a "chorus master" -- produced during spawning season, according to UAA.

One disease wildlife officials are concerned they could be carrying is the chytrid fungus, a major threat to amphibians that has caused amphibian deaths and population declines in several continents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials don't yet know if the frogs here are infected, Davis said.

"That exactly why we're asking people to bring them to us, so that they can be sampled for the fungus," Davis said.

Frogs should be reported by calling 1-877-INVASIVE. They can be turned in to zoologist Tracey Gotthardt, who can be reached at 257-2782.

This is not the first time in recent years Alaska has gotten a shipment of Christmas trees with unwanted guests. More than 3,100 Douglas, noble and grand fir trees from Oregon bound for Hawaii was diverted to Anchorage in December 2007 after inspectors found several types of wasps not found in Hawaii, including two yellow jacket queens and a type of hornet.

Hawaii, isolated as it is, has strict requirements on its agricultural imports, requiring all Christmas trees to be mechanically shaken, said Tom Wessels, Plant Services program manager with the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

"Christmas trees are tough because they're bushy," Wessels said. "That's why they have these shakers, because they really do shake loose the stuff. And you'd be surprised what comes out of those trees."

Washington, however, has no export requirements of its own on exports and only does what the receiving state requires, he said. A typical inspection would include examining a sample of the trees -- 2 percent is the general standard, he said.

Franci Havemeister, director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, said Alaska does not require its imported trees to be shaken.

"I believe that the old sense was the fact that because it's so cold we'd kill everything," Havemeister said. "That mentality is changing a lot."

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

Video: Pacific chorus frog croaking
By JAMES HALPIN
jhalpin@adn.com