Ringing in spring with a peep! Getting to know the spring peeper

Don’t be fooled by its small stature—Michigan’s smallest frog also happens to be the loudest.

For decorative purposes.
When male spring peepers call, they inflate a speckled brown or greenish vocal sac under their chin into a large round ball.

Amphibians are a fascinating group of critters that become active as the weather warms in spring. Amphibians include salamanders and frogs/toads. We have 10 salamander species and 13 frog/toad species in Michigan. One of the characteristics that make amphibians so interesting is their two-phase life cycle—shifting from water as babies to land as adults—at least for most species! This change means they are important for both water and land food webs. Another unique characteristic is their permeable skin. They are thus sensitive to chemicals or pollutants in their environment because their skin isn’t much of a barrier, making amphibians important indicator species of healthy habitats.

But how do amphibians even make it through winter? In colder months, some species survive by producing a sugar-based antifreeze, preventing ice from forming in their cells. Other species go underwater or underground to stay warm, with leaf litter and snow layers helping to insulate them.

Species snapshot: Spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
A sure sign of spring is hearing “PEEP! PEEP! PEEP!” near ponds, marshes, and other flooded areas. The chorus you hear is the mating call of the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). At only 1 to 1.5 inches, they are Michigan’s smallest frog species. Their scientific name “crucifer” refers to the dark “X” shape on their backs. The rest of their body is brownish gray allowing them to easily camouflage in leaf litter where they are normally found. They are often hard to see due to their small, camouflaged bodies and because they are most active at night. But they are definitely easy to hear when they call!

Most spring peepers breed in April and females lay around 1,000 eggs in small clusters, usually in rows that are attached to twigs or other aquatic plants. It takes approximately 100 days for the tadpoles to transform into frogs. After the breeding season they move into woodlands, fields, and other shrubby areas but stay relatively close to water.

Their diet consists of any animal small enough to fit into their mouth such as ants, beetles, flies, caterpillars, and spiders. They are also a food source for many other animals such as fish, birds, snakes, and larger frogs.

Tips to keep Michigan’s frogs healthy:

  1. Handle them with care. If you have insect repellent, sunscreen, hand sanitizer or soap on your hands, do not handle frogs or other amphibians. They can be harmed or killed by chemicals we consider safe due to their sensitive skin. It’s best to look at them and admire their beauty from afar.
  2. Report them. Because frogs are important indicators of healthy natural areas their presence or absence is important to environmental managers. You can report sightings of spring peepers to the Michigan Herp Atlas and iNaturalist. If you’d like to contribute to regular tracking of amphibians and their habitats, consider joining the Michigan Vernal Pool Patrol.   
  3. Keep pet frogs and native frogs apart. Never release a pet frog into the wild. Chytrid fungus causes a deadly disease that affects amphibians around the globe and is easily spread from pet frogs to wild ones. You should also avoid capturing wild frogs and keeping them as pets.
  4. Create a frog friendly yard. Use a diverse mix of native plant species that can provide ample food and protection. You can also maintain natural wetlands or add water features. Minimizing the use of chemicals, such as applying fertilizers and pesticides on non-windy and dry days, mowing from the inside out, and controlling rainwater runoff are all simple ways to help protect frogs. Learn more from Michigan State University Extension in the “Smart Shorelands: Keep it Clean to Protect Frogs and Toads
  5. Drive carefully on rainy nights. Amphibians often cross roadways on rainy evenings to reach wetlands for breeding. Avoid driving on rainy nights or drive more cautiously if you can do so safely. You can even join a volunteer group to help move them safely across roads—called amphibian crossing brigades—on certain nights in spring for areas known to have lots of amphibian movement.

Join us on a springtime frog walk

Want to learn more about the frogs that call Michigan home? Join us for an evening filled with croaks, trills, and splashes from some of our favorite frog friends at the Bengel Wildlife Center in Bath Township on April 12, from 7 to 8:30 PM.

We will kick off the evening with a brief introduction to frog calls followed by a hike to various frog habitats, including vernal ponds and wetlands. The hike will include multiple stations spread over approximately 1 mile of uneven terrain. While all ages are welcome, this program will require walking off-trail and on old footpaths. Registration is required. The event is free to attend.

Did you find this article useful?