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Save the Frogs, Save the World

By on April 22, 2011 in Amphibians, EDGE Updates, Uncategorized

Marta, a Vodafone World of Difference winner has had an inspirational visit to Jersey where she attended a ‘GIS for Conservation’ course and had an opportunity to meet the keepers in the Herpetology Department at Jersey Zoo to learn more about their successful Mountain Chicken frog breeding programme. Marta is now using the experience as an opportunity to improve the living environment of London Zoo’s own Mountain Chicken frogs with the hope it will increase breeding success here in London.

It’s been a while since my last blog. If I remember well I gave in it a general view of what working with living animals looks like and I definitely promised to deliver some nice pictures of the Critically Endangered Mountain Chicken frogs, inhabitants of London Zoo’s secret building in front of the Reptile House. Everybody has heard about these frogs and ZSL is taking part in their breeding and introduction programme but not many people have actually seen them. I’ve not worked with the frogs for a little while either because I spent the last 8 days in Jersey, one of the Channel Isles, taking part in a ‘GIS for Conservation’ training course and working with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey Zoo. It’s been an intense, hard-working and extremely fulfilling 8 days. I met the most incredible people from all around the world, devoted to conservation.

Mountain Chicken frog

Just to give an example: Mr Robert Mulimbi, a Wildlife Manager and Head Gorilla Guide from the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo. This park, dominated by two dormant volcanoes, Mt. Kahuzi and Mt. Biega, is an important refuge for the highly endangered Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei), as well as many other species. Robert is the recipient of Durrell’s first Gorilla Guardian scholarship; he’s been working in the park for the last 8 years risking his own life for protection of the Gorillas from armed militia groups during the war in Congo. I also had the pleasure to meet with lovely Citra Novalina Panjaitan from the ZSL Indonesia Programme. Citra is a Tiger and Camera Trapping Officer working at Berbak National Park in Sumatra. She is trying to solve the main problems affecting wild tigers which consist of illegal logging, illegal poaching, snares, and human-tiger conflict. I have spent with them a wonderful week, sitting many hours and discussing ‘the hottest’ world conservation issues.

At the same time I didn’t forget why I went to Jersey and I took every opportunity to pop up to the Herpetology Department and meet with keepers over there. The species that I was interested in the most was of course the Mountain Chicken frog (Leptodactylus fallax). I would like to thank Dr Ian Stephen for arranging the opportunity for me to work with Durrell Trust and Dr Gerardo Garcia, the Head of the Herpetology Department in Jersey Zoo, for letting me hang around his department for one week, chatting with staff, observing, making documentation and absorbing everything that can possibly help ZSL’s ‘Chickens’ to start breeding like they do in Jersey.

The Mountain Chicken frog (Leptodactylus fallax), so-called for its similarity in taste to that of chicken, is a large Caribbean frog of the family Leptodactylinae. Formerly recorded from Martinique, St Lucia, St Kitts and Guadeloupe, it is now confined to Dominica and Montserrat in the Lesser Antilles, Eastern Caribbean and is a Critically Endangered EDGE Amphibian (rank = 158). Leptodactylus fallax have experienced a drastic decline in population, over 80% since 1995. As of 1999, the species range had decreased to just several square kilometers on Montserrat. Volcanic eruptions began in July 1995 and have significantly impacted the habitat on Montserrat with lava flows, highly acidic rain, toxic gases, and volcanic ash-fall. L. fallax is a terrestrial breeder, with foam nests and eggs deposited in burrows and volcanic ash-fall was reported to have killed newly morphed froglets.

The final ‘blow’ was from chytridiomycosis, which broke out in Dominica in 2002 and spread throughout that island, eradicating nearly all Mountain Chickens within as little as 15 months. Chytrid was recently introduced into the island of Montserrat (through different species of frogs carried with transportation of bananas from Dominica) and has decimated all but two remaining populations in Montserrat. Captive populations of L. fallax exist at the Jersey Zoo (UK), London Zoo (UK), Parken Zoo (Sweden), Rotterdam Zoo (Holland) and St. Louis Zoo (U.S.A), where only the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has been successful with captive breeding this species for several years.

Mountain Chicken frog

Hopefully I came back to ZSL with all the knowledge needed to catch up with Jersey in terms of our frogs reproductive programme. Ever since I have been very busy rebuilding and redecorating their current enclosure. It might surprise many how little things actually matter; from the frogs point of view. Let’s take the colour of the plastic buckets which were supposed to resemble burrows in their natural environment.  We put in a red bucket with bright green lid. Unfortunately the light is coming through the bucket which might disturb the frogs, as underground burrows are obviously pitch black. I also took the samples of frog substrate and checked the pH factor. The results showed that the substrate is highly basic (alkaline) which might be an uncomfortable factor as well. Now I am just about to check the samples from Jersey to see if there is a difference with the substrate over there. And one more example: in Jersey the breeding frogs are kept in pairs, we are keeping them in groups. This species is highly territorial, males are wrestling to get domination and mate with the females. It was previously noted that some males are bullied by other males. Now I am trying to find the best pairs relying on my notes from the past two months about which frogs were sitting where and with whom they are sat (it’s the next best thing to marriage!). I don’t know if all these things are going to work but I really want to try and let me say a big thanks to Ian for trusting me and allowing me to do all these changes.

I also really would like to thank Wendy Van Neste – the Jersey ‘Chickens’ guide. She was a great help with my Jersey experience. She is another wonderful person who discovered the magic of working on helping a Critically Endangered animal and decided to devote her time to come to the Durrell Trust every day and service the frogs. We have done a few short movies about her work with Leptodactylus fallax which I want to introduce to you after a little editing in my next blog. Now please enjoy my older films called ‘Where is the frog?’, ‘Is it the neighbour’s dog barking?’  and ‘Help, help,’ which is shown below.

In my next blog I would like to share my experience of meeting with scientists working on different amphibian conservation programmes within ZSL.
Until next time…