Virginia Opossum Becomes Official State Marsupial
RALEIGH, N.C. (June 28, 2013) — North Carolina’s collection of state symbols got a little wilder yesterday after Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation making the Pine Barrens treefrog and the marbled salamander the official state frog and salamander, and the Virginia opossum the official state marsupial.
Gov. McCrory signed the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Avila of Wake County, in front of a small, but enthusiastic crowd of amphibian aficionados. Among them was Rachel Hopkins, a 15-year-old from Wake County who spearheaded a year-long effort to get an official state amphibian after successfully lobbying to have then-Gov. Bev Perdue proclaim April 28, 2012 as “Save The Frogs” Day in North Carolina.
The Durham Academy student and self-described “frog lover” has spent the last few years speaking to Wake County Commissioners, conducting radio interviews and presenting multiple exhibits at schools and events across the county, on behalf of frogs worldwide. Last year, she combined her considerable public relations expertise with the broad reach of the N.C. Herpetological Society to bring amphibians to the attention of the current legislature.
The Herpetological Society counts among its many accomplishments helping with the designation of the eastern box turtle as the official state reptile in 1979. Dedicated to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles, the organization has been pushing since 2008 for a state amphibian to complement the state reptile. More than 6,000 people cast votes on the Herpetological Society’s online poll to choose the Pine Barrens treefrog and marbled salamander over six other candidates.
Rachel took it from there, contacting Rep. Avila and asking her to sponsor a bill naming one or the other as the official state amphibian. To Rachel’s surprise and delight, Rep. Avila included both amphibian species in the bill.
As N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Jeff Hall explains, having two amphibians as official state symbols makes a world of sense, given North Carolina’s rich diversity of amphibians, particularly salamanders.
“North Carolina has a great diversity of amphibians, among the highest in the whole Southeast,” Hall said.“I was really tickled to see not one, but two amphibians become official state symbols yesterday. The Wildlife Resources Commission is charged with managing amphibians and reptiles, along with their habitats, and this signing will go along way to helping us teach people about the important roles amphibians play in our daily lives.”
Hall, who is also coordinator of the N.C. Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, has spent his entire career working with reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as “herps,” and raising awareness about these ecologically important but often misunderstood animals.
He hopes that the designation of the Pine Barrens treefrog and the marbled salamander as official state symbols will educate people better about the plight of amphibians, which, in many locations, is quite dire.
With their permeable skin that can easily absorb toxic chemicals, amphibians are especially susceptible to environmental pollutants. That trait, along with habitat loss, invasive species, infectious diseases and other factors, has resulted in steep population declines in many places.
“While North Carolina has good populations of many species of salamanders and frogs, we also have some that are struggling,” Hall said. “Additionally, many parts of the world are seeing vast amphibian die-offs, which is tragic.”
Hall cited frogs and salamanders for their integral ecological roles in the food chain and their important and expanding roles in medical research that benefits humans.
Tadpoles and larvae keep waterways clean by feeding on algae and small aquatic insects. Adults of both groups eat large quantities of insects, including some insects that can transmit diseases to humans. In turn, these amphibians are important food sources for other wildlife, such as fish, snakes and birds.
This ecological role played by amphibians is important, according to Hall, but amphibians’ roles in medical research that benefits humans can be equally newsworthy.
“Amphibians produce an array of skin secretions, and scientists are using those secretions to create new antibiotics and painkillers that can potentially improve human health,” Hall said.
Practical medical and ecological contributions aside, Hall said that the aesthetics of having frogs and salamanders as part of the natural world made them worthy of conservation efforts.
“Frogs and salamanders deserve our utmost dedication to helping conserve their populations so that our children’s children can enjoy the thrill of flipping over a fallen log and finding a salamander or hearing the nasally honk-honk of a Pine Barrens treefrog as it calls for a mate,” he said.
The Pine Barrens Treefrog – “One of Our Most Colorful Frogs”
In North Carolina, the Pine Barrens treefrog is found mostly in the pine forests and acidic bogs of the Sandhills and the coastal region. Because of its limited and steadily decreasing habitat, the Pine Barrens treefrog is considered significantly rare and is a priority species in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan. It is a nocturnal frog and is rarely seen outside of its breeding season, which takes place in late spring and early summer.
“It is certainly one of our most colorful frogs, with a white-bordered purple stripe running down the length of its body on each side and a brilliant orange patch on the underside of its legs,” Hall said. “In fact, a lot of people, myself included, consider the Pine Barrens treefrog the most beautiful frog in North America.”
The Marbled Salamander – A Uniquely Patterned and Chunky Salamander
The marbled salamander is chunky and uniquely patterned with a black or dark brown body and whitish crossbands. In North Carolina, marbled salamanders can be found in a variety of habitats, from upland forests to wetlands and floodplain forests in the Piedmont and coastal regions and in a few mountain locations. Although it is fairly common in the state, it is listed as a priority species in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan, which means it is a species that the Wildlife Commission has targeted for conservation actions to help keep it common in the state.
“Marbled salamanders are most easily seen in the fall when they’re moving to woodland pools or depressions to breed,”Hall said. “They appear much earlier than most of the other pool-breeding salamanders, which show up later in the winter or early spring. This gives young marbled salamander a chance to grow larger and compete more successfully in the pond.”
Because they often arrive at ponds before the ponds completely fill with water, marbled salamanders also lay eggs differently than other salamanders in the same family. They deposit their eggs under logs or leaf litter and guard the eggs until their nests are inundated with water.
The Virginia Opossum – A Lone Marsupial
While the Pine Barrens treefrog and the marbled salamander had a strong show of support at the signing ceremony, the Virginia opossum,with less fanfare, was designated the official state marsupial under HB 830,which was also sponsored by Reps. Susan Martin, Pat McElraft, Roger West, Jonathan Jordan, Nathan Ramsey and Rena Turner.
The only marsupial native to North America, the opossum is a familiar sight to most North Carolinians as it is well adapted to a wide range of habitats from woodlands to backyards. Learn more about the Virginia opossum in North Carolina here.
For more information on amphibiansand other nongame wildlife in North Carolina, visit the Conserving page.