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Conservation of Prairie-Associated Herpetofauna


Tallgrass prairie reaches its southeastern extent in our region; thus, many prairie-associated species reach their range limits and have limited distribution in Arkansas. Northwest Arkansas once hosted substantial prairie habitat, but current estimates suggest that less than 1% of historic tallgrass prairie remains. Fourteen amphibian and reptile species listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the state are restricted to, or associated with, prairie habitats within Arkansas and several additional prairie-associated species have strong potential to occur within the state, but have not been conclusively confirmed. Yet, no comprehensive herpetological surveys have been conducted within remnant prairie habitats in Northwest Arkansas, and it is likely that populations of these secretive species have been overlooked. For example, the prairie-associated Lined Snake was recently documented for the first time in Arkansas in the city of Bentonville. We are conducting large-scale surveys of herpetofauna within historic prairie regions of Northwest Arkansas to determine the status of prairie-associated herpetofauna in Northwest Arkansas. Species specifically targeted by our surveys include the Crawfish Frog, Great Plains Narrowmouth Frog, Tiger Salamander, Ornate Box Turtle, Prairie Skink, Graham’s Crayfish Snake, and Slender Glass Lizard. We are using community occupancy analyses to rigorously evaluate local and landscape variables that drive community composition and occupancy of rare species. Data on species’ distributions and habitat associations will help guide future habitat protection, restoration, and management to benefit these rare species.


Although most prairie associated species that are rare in Arkansas are common elsewhere, the Crawfish Frog is of particular concern because it has been declining dramatically across its range in the eastern Great Plains. Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas River Valley once hosted robust and widespread populations of this species, but our recent surveys suggest that ~30% of known populations have been extirpated over the last 25 years. Most of this loss stems from urban and suburban development and fragmentation of large expanse of former prairie and low intensity agriculture (cattle crazing and hayfields). We are conducting a combination of descriptive field studies, mesocosm experiments, and modeling studies to evaluate factors driving Crawfish Frog declines and methods that might be used to conserve their populations. A major focus of our research thus far has been evaluating the effects of non-native vegetation, especially Tall Fescue grass, on larval development. Other focal areas include assessing upland habitat use by adult Crawfish Frogs and investigating the role of farm ponds in subsidizing predators (fish, watersnakes, mesomammals).

Research Areas:

  • Assessing the status and current distribution of prairie-associated herpetofauna in Arkansas.

  • Assessing the potential for native vegetation within solar arrays to support native wildlife.

  • Evaluating relationships between local and landscape factors and occupancy and community composition of herpetofauna in Arkansas' historic prairies..

  • Evaluating the effects of non-native vegetation on development of larval Crawfish Frogs.

  • Examining upland habitat use and habitat requirements of adult Crawfish Frogs in fragmented and changing landscapes.


Yerdon*, G., E. Royal†, C. Kross†, and J.D. Willson. 2023. Effects of Prairie Degradation and Restoration on Box Turtle Thermal Ecology. J. Herpetology 57:92-98.


Royal†, E., C. Kross, and J.D. Willson. 2022. Legacy Land Use Predicts Occupancy Patterns of Prairie-associated Herpetofauna in Western Arkansas. Landscape Ecology 38:423-438.

Kross†, C. and J.D. Willson. 2022. Land-use alters the form of larval density dependence to increase extinction risk in a grassland amphibian. Animal Conservation 25:771-781.


Kross†, C. and J.D. Willson. 2022. Population Decline and Landscape-Scale Occupancy of the Crawfish Frog (Lithobates areolatus) in Northwest Arkansas. Ichthyology and Herpetology 110:50-58. (Cover Photo)


Kross†, C., A.K. Dodd, P. Mariage*, and J.D. Willson. 2020. Context-dependent effects of non-native vegetation on amphibian development in prairie ecosystems. Oecologia 194:113-122.


Baecher*, J., P. Vogrinc†, J. Guzy†, C. Kross†, and J.D. Willson. 2018. Herpetofaunal Communities in Restored and Unrestored Remnant Tallgrass Prairie and Associated Wetlands in Northwest Arkansas, USA. Wetlands. 38:157-168.

Baecher*, J.A., P.N. Vogrinc†, J.C. Guzy†, J.C. Neal, and J.D. Willson. 2014. Lithobates areolatus (Crawfish Frog). Predation. Herpetological Review 45:681-82.4.

Primary Students:

Elliot Lassiter, Ethan Royal, Chelsea Kross, Alex Baecher

Partners & Funding Sources:

  • Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

  • Arkansas Audubon Society

  • Prairie Biotic Institute

  • University of Arkansas


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