Loving the silent type
Guest blogger, Frog scientist & conservationist, Phil Bishop
One of the commonest questions people ask me is “Why frogs? What makes them so special to you?” and it’s a hard one to answer.
Often I reply with a flippant suggestion that maybe I was a frog in a previous life, but when I sit down and try to ask myself that question, I realise that at a very early age, roundabout 4 years old, I had an ‘up-close and personal encounter’ with a common British toad and basically fell in love (as much as a toddler could) with amphibians.
They say that childhood sweethearts last the longest and this has been true about me and amphibians. Their faces intrigued me. Toads in particular have endearing faces, intelligent eyes and are slow and lumbering – ideal qualities in a playmate for a four year old.
As an example of my passion for frogs, I’ll tell you about my recent visit to the World-renowned Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey. At Durrell they do fantastic work saving a whole range of rare and exotic animals like orangutans, lemurs and lowland gorillas from extinction and people ask me “What was it like?”.
Well, I’m afraid I really don’t know, as I spent my whole time there in a 40-foot container filled with rare and exotic frogs! And that was one of the best trips of my life!
Africa is a hotspot for amphibians with many hundreds of different species and I completed my PhD there on the acoustic and social behaviour of frogs. You may find yourself asking why would I choose to live in New Zealand, where there are only four species of native frogs, all of which are small, secretive and silent! Well that’s exactly why I did come to New Zealand!
I worked out how the noisy frogs of Africa communicated and what the different calls meant, but what was more intriguing to me was how do ‘silent’ frogs get all those messages across to their friends without actually using their voices. My interest in how New Zealand’s silent (and earless) frogs communicate led to another relationship with the unique and very special frogs of New Zealand (all in the genus Leiopelma).
Once I started to study these amazing little animals I realised how vulnerable they were and how very important they are.
They needed an advocate – a friend of these little animals in low places – that would help raise their profile and help people realise that they are just as important (and more endangered) than the kiwi, or the saddleback, or even the tuatara. My work has now swung around from the study of frog calls to the study of how to conserve these icons of a clean green New Zealand environment.
Over the last few years, along with my students and colleagues, we have studied the success of inter-island translocations, helped increase the available frog habitat on Stephens Island and cured some Archey’s frogs of the dreaded amphibian chytrid fungus (that is wiping out other frogs throughout the World). I formed the New Zealand Frog Research Group (NZFROG for short) and our website documents everything you might want to know about frogs in general and frogs in New Zealand (see www.nzfrogs.org <http://www.nzfrogs.org> ).
The native frogs of New Zealand were ranked by the Zoological Society of London as the most significant frogs in the World. In fact, when measured in terms evolutionarily distinctiveness & endangerment – New Zealand’s Archey’s frog took the top spot. Measuring less than 40mm with no external eardrum, no tadpole stage, round not slit-like eyes, the ability to wag it’s (absent) tail and a population of less than 5000 individuals it’s not hard to see why has been ranking as the ‘world’s most important amphibian’. And this is just one of our frog species.
The other three all lie in the top 60 – er ‘beating’ nearly 6,470 other species of amphibians. Although some people may think they are less charismatic than species like the kakapo, or the hector’s dolphin, our frogs deserve just as much protection. We should be proud of these voiceless, earless wonders, and make sure that we do everything in our power to ensure they never appear on a frog extinction list by giving them a voice.
Remember “The Future of the Earth depends on Frogs” – but that’s another story for another time!