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I recently returned from The Grampians, Victoria, where I was helping Museum Victoria conduct a large biological survey of the area. Sixty-two Museum staff and twenty Parks Victoria rangers surveyed the flora and fauna of the Grampians National Park for 12 days. I spent most of my time there conducting nocturnal amphibian surveys and we found 9 frog species, including the Growling Grass Frog. This is my PhD study species, listed as vulnerable to extinction nationally and endangered in Victoria. My study field sites are located around the urban fringes of Melbourne and are often very polluted and degraded, so it was really exciting to find the frog in beautiful, clean, healthy waterbodies in the Grampians. Another highlight was the discovery of Common Spadefoot toad metamorphs! The species spends most of its time burrowed underground and uses little black ‘spades’ on its back feet to dig. Velvet worms were another incredible find. After being a little obsessed with these gorgeous creatures for awhile now, I finally saw them for the first time and they didn’t disappoint.

Lots of cute animals were found, I’ve included photos of some of my favourites below.

The Growling Grass Frog, Litoria raniformis

The Growling Grass Frog, Litoria raniformis

Me holding a large female and a small male Growling Grass Frog

Me holding a large female and a small male Growling Grass Frog

Common Spadefoot Toad metamorph, Neobatrachus sudelli

Common Spadefoot Toad metamorph, Neobatrachus sudelli

Common Spadefoot Toad displaying it's little digging 'spades'

Common Spadefoot Toad displaying it’s little digging ‘spades’

Velvet worms!

Velvet worms!

An Eastern Long-necked Turtle, Chelodina longicollis, attempting to lay eggs on the road

An Eastern Long-necked Turtle, Chelodina longicollis, attempting to lay eggs on the road

A baby Jacky Dragon, Amphibolurus muricatus

A baby Jacky Dragon, Amphibolurus muricatus

Young Stumpy-tail Lizard, Tiliqua rugosa

A young Stumpy-tail Lizard, Tiliqua rugosa

I’ve just returned from The 7th World Congress of Herpetology in Vancouver, Canada. The conference was lots of fun and it was great to see presenters with so many amazing study species and beautiful field sites from around the world. The conference was held at The University of British Colombia, and I presented my work on the genetic structure of the Growling Grass frog in an urbanising landscape.

I also spent a few days before the conference camping in Olympic National Park, Washington, USA and Vancouver Island, Canada. Olympic National Park was incredible, with beautiful remnant forest, wildflowers and snow-capped mountains. However, the most exciting attraction the park had to offer (well, to a herpetologist anyway) were its adorable amphibians. We found Olympic Torrent Salamanders and Tailed Frogs! My entire reason for going to Olympic NP was to search for Tailed Frogs and they did not disappoint. There are two species of Tailed Frogs; the Rocky Mountain Tailed Frog, Ascaphus montanus and the Coastal Tailed Frog, Ascaphus truei. The species we encountered in Olympic NP was Ascaphus truei. Unlike other frog species, which have external fertilisation, Tailed Frogs actually use their little tail (an extension of their cloaca) for internal fertilisation. This is a helpful adaptation for life in fast-flowing streams and additionally means that females can store sperm and delay oviposition. Tailed frogs are an ancient frog lineage that also lack the ability to vocalise.

I’ve included some photos of gorgeous Tailed Frogs, as well as some of the other amphibians we encountered on the trip.

Male Coastal Tailed Frog, Ascaphus truei, Olympic National Park

Ventral surface of male Coastal Tailed Frog, Ascaphus truei

Female Coastal Tailed Frog, Ascaphus truei, Olympic National Park

Olympic Torrent Salamander, Rhyacotriton olympicus, Olympic National Park

Rough-skinned Newt, Taricha granulosa, Vancouver Island

Western Toad, Anaxyrus boreas, Vancouver Island

Northern Red-legged Frog, Rana aurora, Vancouver Island

Pacific Tree Frog metamorph, Hyla regilla, The University of British Columbia

Recently I’ve been spending time in the genetics lab, where I’ve been optimising both nuclear primers for sequencing and microsatellite markers. I’ve also been preparing my presentation for the World Congress of Herpetology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. I’m really excited about this conference and had an amazing time when I attended the previous WCH, four years ago in Manaus, Brazil.

I’m spending a few days in Olympic National Park, Washington, USA on my way to the conference, in search of salamanders and tailed frogs. As Australia has no native salamanders, I’m looking forward to hopefully finding some in Olympic NP.

If all goes to plan, my next blog entry will be filled with amphibians and amphibian stories from the northern hemisphere!

Borneo: Frog Paradise

I recently returned from an amazing trip to Malaysia, Borneo.

Surrounded by Harlequin Tree Frogs and File-eared Tree Frogs!

Although not part of my PhD research, it was a great opportunity to go looking for some amazing frog species. My favourite place was Danum Valley Field Centre, in Sabah. The field centre had great facilities for researchers and was situated amongst 43 800 hectares of primary rainforest. Danum Valley Conservation Area is the largest area of pristine lowland dipterocarp forest remaining in Sabah. Danum Valley has some incredible wildlife, including more than 60 amphibian species. I was lucky enough to find 2 of Borneo’s 3 species of flying frogs – Wallace’s Flying Frog and the Harlequin Tree Frog. These flying frogs have a large amount of webbing between their toes and fingers, which they use to glide between trees. When I held Wallace’s Flying Frog it produced a sticky, white secretion from its skin as a defense. Borneo definitely has some incredible frog species, including the Bornean Rainbow Toad, Ansonia latidisca, which was rediscovered last year, after not being seen since 1924. I’ve included some of the photos I took and have attempted to (hopefully correctly) ID the species. To read more about Borneo’s frogs, The Frogs of Borneo is a great site, which includes information on over 100 frog species from East Malaysia.

Wallace’s Flying Frog, Rhacophorus nigropalmatus

Wallace’s Flying Frog webbing

Harlequin Tree Frog, Rhacophorus pardalis

Harlequin Tree Frog

Harlequin Tree Frog webbing

Harlequin Tree Frogs in amplexus

File-eared Tree Frog, Polypedates otilophus

File-eared Tree Frog thigh bars

Frilled Tree Frog, Rhacophorus appendiculatus

White-lipped Frog, Rana chalconota

Striped Stream Frog, Rana signata

Four-lined Tree Frog, Polypedates leucomystax

Rock Skipper, Staurois latopalmatus

Bornean Tree-hole Frog, Metaphrynella sundana

Dark-eared Tree Frog, Polypedates macrotis

Dark-eared Tree Frog, Polypedates macrotis (I think)

Rough Guardian Frog, Limnonectes finchi

Yellow-bellied Puddle Frog, Occidozyga laevis

Brown Marsh Frog, Rana baramica

Crested Toad, Ingerophrynus divergens

Crested Toad, Ingerophrynus divergens (I think)

Green Paddy Frog, Rana erythraea

Bornean Narrow-mouthed Frog, Microhyla borneensis

Grass Frog, Fejervarya limnocharis

Cricket Frog, Rana nicobariensis

Greater Swamp Frog, Limnonectes ingeri (I think)

No idea what this little cutey was

Going, Going….

Recently, an important but disheartening article was published in The Age, focusing on the continuing threat of urbanisation to Growling Grass Frogs around Melbourne. It highlighted Dr Geoff Heard’s recent finding that over the past 10 years, there has been an almost 30% drop in Growling Grass Frog populations north of Melbourne, falling from the occupation of 58 to just 41 sites.

This already endangered species is losing its habitat. When I think of ‘ideal’ Growling Grass Frog habitat, one site has always immediately appeared in my mind. A naturally spring fed waterbody, in the middle of a paddock in Epping. I first went to the site to survey Growling Grass Frogs about 5 years ago. It was such a refreshing change to walk up to a wetland in the middle of the night and instantly see lots of frogs’ eyes looking back at me, illuminated by my head torch. Here was what appeared to be a healthy sized population of Growling Grass Frogs in a waterbody that wasn’t polluted and filled with rubbish. There was good emergent vegetation, floating vegetation and fringing vegetation, which the frogs love.

Just before I started my first field season for my PhD at the end of 2010, one of my supervisors, Geoff Heard, took me to a site to learn to catch Growling Grass Frogs. Although I had surveyed for the frogs in the past, I didn’t have much experience with catching them. Catching a Growling Grass Frog when it’s in the water or on the water’s edge is not easy, and as my research would involve having to catch hundreds of frogs, I needed to practise. I knew that the site we were heading to had lots of Growling Grass Frogs and was being destroyed, as a new housing development was being built. Catching these frogs would not only help me, but would help others co-ordinating a mark-recapture and translocation study.

As we began to approach the area in the car, still a few kilometers from the actual site, my heart sank. We were heading towards my ‘ideal’ site from years before. We were helping with a study which revealed the presence of approximately 200 adults, 1000 metamorphs and 1000 tadpoles. The site no longer exists. It was mentioned briefly in The Age article as one of the sites that was lost to development – Aurora Estate in Epping.

What could have been incorporated into the plans for a new housing community, which promotes parklands and healthy waterways was destroyed. With the proposed urban growth boundary for Melbourne coinciding disastrously with remnant populations of this endangered frog species, stories like the one above seem doomed to be repeated.  I feel that at the very least, these new housing developments need to be planned with a respect for the existing ecological communities, which could so easily be incorporated into and enhance these areas.

At this rate, what will be left when populations are re-surveyed after the next ten years?

During my recent field season, I would often return to sites to catch Growling Grass Frogs. Although not a mark-recapture study, as my purpose was to collect genetic samples from as many Growling Grass Frogs as possible, I inevitably did recapture individuals. When this occurred, I took some measurements and a photo of the recaptured frog. This lead to some interesting observations. One individual particularly caught my attention, as each time I caught him (twice in total, one month apart) he had a serious foot injury. A Growling Grass Frog with a foot injury is unfortunately not an unusual occurrence. I have come across many during my field work. While they differ in their severity and time since the incident occurred, I assume that most are the result of a narrow escape from a predator, including bites from turtles often found in the same wetlands. This particular injury was unusual however, in that I recaptured the individual and was therefore able to see the degree of healing that had occurred during the month in between. I was surprised by the speed of the healing process, especially given this frog was caught from a polluted wetland in an industrial area. As frogs have semi-permeable skin, they have to be tough at fighting disease and injury. When I originally caught this individual, he had two protruding bones, when I recaptured him one month later, these protrusions appeared to have broken off and the skin had grown over the wounds. The frog appeared in good physical condition on both occasions (other than the foot injury). Although the two photos I have are unfortunately of different sides of the foot, they still show the healing that had occurred and demonstrate how resilient frogs can be. One of the many remarkable attributes that make frogs the most amazing animals.

The frog’s foot 23 January 2012

The same foot 23 February 2012

Although not usually quite as spectacular as the leucistic frog I wrote about in my previous blog entry, Growling Grass Frogs can be found in a large range of colours and patterns. They normally range from a bright, iridescent green, to a dull, dark brown and their patterns can be equally as variable, ranging from virtually no markings to quite intricate patterns of brown, green and gold. The frogs are a cream colour underneath and many exhibit a brilliant blue on the groin and thighs.

During my recent field season, I collected genetic samples from the frogs by taking a small section of the toe webbing on one of the back feet. This also served as a method for identifying frogs that were recaptures. I took a photo of every Growling Grass Frog I caught, which I then used to compare individual markings and identify who I had recaptured. This was quite straightforward for some frogs, however others were more challenging to identify. This is because each frog can change colour, depending on environmental conditions or mood, so one individual can change from a dull brown to an emerald green within a short period of time. Another really interesting observation (which further complicated identification) was that markings also changed over time as the frogs grew.

During my field work I’ve come across some particularly interesting markings on Growling Grass Frogs. One of my favourites is the ‘moustache frog’, which i’ve included in the pictures below.

Showing ‘greener’ variations

Olive to dark brown colour variations

Note the blue thigh

This individual had a blue markings down to its foot

A ‘typical’ quarry frog – very brown

Moustache frog!