Amphibians: Then and Now.

The Civil War generated countless journal and diary entries and in some cases these journals documented the natural world that surrounded the soldiers on both sides of the war. The following is an excerpt from Kelby Ouchely’s “Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide.”

American Toad

“About fifty species of frogs and toads are found in the eastern United States. They live in a diverse range of habitats, from below ground to tree-tops. Most are closely tied to wetlands during part or all of their life cycle, especially during egg and larval (tadpole) stages. Frogs occupy important roles in the middle of food webs. They eat insects and other invertebrates and are eaten by fish, snakes, egrets, herons, owls, raccoons, mink and humans among others.

Frog were likely more abundant during Civil War era than today because most wetland habitats were still intact. In the period since, large-scale habitat losses have resulted from activities such as agriculture in…and urban sprawl that often fragmented and isolated habitat. Scientists consider frogs and other amphibians as biological indicators of overall ecosystem health because of their permeable skin that is sensitive to pollutants, their intermediate position in the food web, and the fact that many species spend part of their lives on land and part in water. This leads to the premise that collapsing frog populations should raise concerns for overall ecosystem (including human) health.

Grey Treefrog

The idea of frogs as “coal mine canaries” was foreign during the Civil War. Most soldiers mentioned frogs only incidentally in their letters, diaries, and journals. Some considered the sound of calling frogs a pleasant experience; others did not. Perhaps the contrast was a result of an individual’s state of affairs at the time. The first two anecdotes reveal the differences in attitude as a northern and southern soldier write about frogs on the same Georgia night while only ninety miles apart.”

Sergeant Taylor Peirce, 22nd Iowa Infantry, writing to his wife on Feb. 4, 1865 at Savannah, Georgia: “The weather is mild and pleasant. The frogs are Singing and all nature shows the near approach of Spring.”

John S. Jackman, 9th Kentucky Infantry, near Waynesboro, Georgia, on Feb 4, 1865: “Our camp is on the boarder of a little lake, out of which we use water, and which abounds with frogs. The frogs keep up such a croaking as to prevent us from sleeping at night.”

Spotted Salamander

Here at Gettysburg National Military Park as our daily temperatures begin to rise with the approach of spring…so do the hibernating critters that inhabits the battlefield. After months of sleeping, some almost frozen solid, frogs, toads, and salamanders are beginning to awaken from their winter slumber. Whether they are aquatic or terrestrial there are 10 species of frogs and toads and 5 species of salamanders known to call Gettysburg NMP their home.

The spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) a popular park resident (if you’re into amphibians) has been up for weeks and has wasted no time in pairing up with a mate. These sleek black and yellow-spotted creatures have already laid eggs which can be observed in vernal pools throughout the park. Although the salamanders silently select their mates and mark the arrival of spring…soon other amphibians–a bit more gregarious like the northern spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer)–will vocally announce their availability as they compete for the right to mate. Within a few weeks strings of eggs and other egg masses will appear next to the spotted salamanders white-cottony looking egg mass progeny.

Spotted Salamander Eggs

When you are visiting the Gettysburg battlefield, you may want to take some time to listen and look for these signs of spring. Please observe these egg masses from the edge of vernal pools. There are two known amphibian diseases that may have the potential to affect our local populations; ravanvirus and chytrid fungus. Both have been discovered in native populations of amphibians and reptiles in Pennsylvanian and Maryland. Scientist from USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center will test amphibians in vernal pools this spring for the presence of either disease.

To keep our amphibian populations safe from these diseases and potentially others please review these recommendations from biologists:

– Stay out of the pool as much as possible, walk outside the pool including the very shallow waters when moving from place to place

– Don’t take animals or egg masses home or move them between pools

– Rubber knee boots or hip waders with solid (versus felt) soles are the ideal foot gear, make sure they are scrubbed clean and totally dry prior to visiting the site.

For an easy online identification take a look at the attached link:

For more information on Ranavirus:

For more information about Ranavirus in our local area read the recent discovery below.

For more information on Chytrid Fungus:

Special thanks to Carolyn Davis, NPS, and Evan Grant, USGS, for use of their photos.

by Zach Bolītho
Chief, Resource Management
Gettysburg NMP & Eisenhower NHS


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1 Response to Amphibians: Then and Now.

  1. John Rohal says:

    Interesting article. Ten or so years ago my son and I spotted a very large snake (or perhaps two snakes) in the Triangular Field. It was mostly concealed in the brush but based on the visible circumference of its body I would guess it to be very much larger than the small garden type snakes I have seen on several other hikes on the battlefield. If indeed it was only one snake rather than two it would also have measured at least several feet in length. We could not see its head or determine what kind of snake it was before it rapidly moved away from us. It would be interesting if you did an article on snakes that are commonly found in the park. I have heard anecdotal stories of large snakes that supposedly live in the rocks of Devils Den nearby the Triangular Field but I have never spotted any there. Any soldiers stories of snakes or other wildlife specifically mentioned in accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg would also be worth while reading material.

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