Mountain chicken frogs offspring return to Caribbean home

Mountain Chicken Frog

Dozens of frogs reared in UK zoos to escape the deadly chytrid fungus returned to Montserrat, Adam Vaughan reports for London’s Guardian.

Dozens of frogs reared in UK zoos have been returned to their Caribbean home in a painstaking operation, five years after their parents were airflifted out to escape a deadly fungus.

A total of 51 Leptodactylus fallax, known as mountain chicken frogs because they reportedly taste like chicken and make a clucking-like noise, were released on the Jersey-sized island of Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory.

In 2009, conservationists rescued a population of the critically endangered frogs from the island to avoid them being wiped out by a chytrid fungus which has devastated amphibian numbers worldwide. The mountain chicken frog population has also dwindled due to people eating them – the species is the national dish in Montserrat and nearby Dominica.

Following a breeding programme with the rescued frogs by London Zoo and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which produced 76 frogs from just two females, 51 frogs in July were put in custom-built shipping containers, flown to Antigua and then by a smaller plane to Montserrat. On arrival at their remote forest home on the volcanically active island, they were kept in tents for several days to avoid being stressed by their new environment, before being released into the wild.

Ben Tapley, head of herpetology at the Zoological Society of London, said the demanding logistics showed the dedication of the conservation efforts. “As the frogs were being held in the run-up to release [on Montserrat], they had to be fed. We ordered a massive load of insects, and to avoid introducing an invasive pest to the Caribbean, someone had to sort through the crickets, throwing out the females so we only sent males. We checked it three times, and sent 5,000 male crickets.”

While not the first ever reintroduction of the frogs to the island, Tapley said it was the first during the wet season, when he hoped frogs would be more dispersed than in the dry season, and therefore less likely to contract the disease caused by the fungus, Chytridiomycosis, which infects the skin through which many amphibians drink and breathe. In the dry season, the frogs are thought to congregate around scarcer water sources and thus come into closer contact with one another.

“The fungus hasn’t gone away,” warned Tapley. “But frogs are surviving [the fungus]. It could be because they’re tiny populations. It could be because they are living in microclimates that are not ideal for the fungus. Or they could be developing immunity.”

The freed frogs will be tracked by radio tags to map their movements, with batteries that will last a few months, as well as a team of conservationists in the field.

Jeff Dawson, Durrell’s amphibian programme officer, said: “The data collected will help our understanding around the dynamics of this disease in the wild which will be vital in guiding our future conservation actions for this amazing species.”

In July, scientists reported that they had discovered that a certain type of toad could acquire immunity through contact with dead fungi.

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