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Authors:  Sergius L. Kuzmin and David F. Tessler


Moor Frog. Photo: Konstantin Mikhailov, Nature Picture LibraryThe herpetofauna of the Arctic is depauperate relative to temperate and tropical regions. Only five amphibians and a single reptile range into the Arctic, and none are circumpolar. All Arctic amphibian and reptile taxa are currently categorized as ‘Least Concern’ according to IUCN criteria. However, basic survey and inventory data for these species are lacking across most of the Arctic, and there are few quantitative data on abundance, status or trends for Arctic herpetofauna. At the same time, isolated populations of amphibians and reptiles in the Arctic exist at or near their current physiological limits and likely face a number of escalating challenges stemming primarily from habitat alteration.


Although amphibians and reptiles account for nearly 15,000 species worldwide, only five amphibians and a single reptile are found in the Arctic. The majority of Arctic herpetofauna are found in the eastern hemisphere; there are no circumpolar taxa (Tab. 5.1). Amphibian species richness (number of species) in the Arctic is as low as in desert regions. Amphibians and reptiles are phylogenetically the oldest of terrestrial vertebrates, and their limited representation in the Arctic is due in large measure to their poikilothermic physiology (body temperature determined by ambient conditions).

We have lizards. We have seen them this year even at the upper reaches of ‘Afanas’ki’.
Leader of the Saami indigenous obschina ‘Piras’ in the Kola Peninsula, Andrey Yulin on northwards expansion of lizards; Zavalko & Mustonen (2004).

A number of recent publications have suggested major changes to herpetological systematics (Frost et al. 2006, Roelants et al. 2007), but because these proposed changes are not yet universally accepted and many names remain in a state of flux, we follow stable herpetological taxonomy as described in Collins & Taggart (2002) and Kuzmin & Semenov (2006).

Eastern hemisphere taxa:

  • Siberian newt Salamandrella keyserlingii
  • Common frog Rana temporaria
  • Moor frog Rana arvalis
  • Siberian wood frog Rana amurensis
  • Common lizard Lacerta vivipara

Western hemisphere taxa:

  • Wood frog Rana sylvatica


Sensitive areas and hotspots

Hotspots are difficult to identify because the distributions of Arctic amphibians and reptiles are so poorly characterized. Furthermore, these species are found in small, isolated and patchily distributed populations for a variety of reasons: (1) their Arctic range limits likely represent each species’ physiological limitations, (2) amphibians require a number of different microhabitat features to intersect in close proximity due to their limited movement potential, and (3) they may not occupy all suitable habitats within their apparent range due to the susceptibility of small populations to stochastic events and the residual effects of past disturbances (Olson 2009). Nonetheless, a few areas in the Eastern hemisphere appear to be of particular importance: the corridors and deltas of the Khadyta-Yakha River on the Yamal Peninsula, the Chaunskaya Tundra in the lowlands of the Chaunsky Administrative District of the Chukotsky Autonomous Okrug, and the Khalerchinskaya Tundra in the Kolyma lowlands.


The principal knowledge gap is the near complete lack of survey and inventory data for status and population trends of Arctic amphibians and reptiles. Distributions are poorly and incompletely characterized, and are known only in broad general terms.

There are no reliable abundance estimates for local or regional populations for any Arctic herpetofauna, and there are no statistically meaningful monitoring efforts currently in place. General lack of understanding of the factors which limit amphibian and reptile populations in the Arctic is also a principal knowledge gap. 

Research recommendations

  • Establish effective survey and inventory efforts to better define the actual distributions and ecology of these species.
  • Construct statistically defensible baselines of abundance data in specific locations against which changes in abundance can be monitored.
  • Establish monitoring programs with replicate schema representative of the range of habitats and microhabitats inhabited by each species. Monitoring locations should also be chosen in such a way so as to minimize the effort and expense to reach them in order to increase the likelihood that monitoring will be continued into the future. If practicable, monitoring efforts should be collocated with monitoring efforts for other taxa in order to develop economies of scale for all monitoring, and to improve our understanding of the dynamics of Arctic ecosystems.
  • Conduct research into the impacts of climate-induced changes to hydrology/hydroperiod on reproduction, persistence and habitat connectivity for Arctic amphibians.
  • Determine the geographic prevalence of contaminant burdens and chief pathogens for amphibians across the Arctic.
  • These efforts may involve citizen science projects.

Conservation action recommendations

  • Develop guidelines for human development projects that require land managers and developers to consider amphibian and reptile habitats and populations in their development plans.
  • Determine which areas are of special importance for amphibian and reptile species richness and for the long-term persistence of individual taxa. Use data from survey and inventory efforts to identify hotspots and areas of likely significance by modeling species’ habitat and micro-habitat associations across the Arctic landscape.
  • Establish or strengthen protections for areas of key importance to reptiles and amphibians. Arctic amphibians have complex life cycles, and require a range of habitats throughout their annual cycles and life histories. Conservation of these species will require a landscape-level approach, conserving various vital habitats at appropriate spatial scales and maintaining connectivity between conservation units, while accounting for expected wetland loss and alteration.