Amphibian calling

Words and photographs by Dr Jeanne Tarrant

Most of my field work takes place at night, when most frogs are active.

It all depends on what species we are targeting and what our objectives are. We use acoustic monitoring (basically, listening to the calls) for many of the nocturnally active species, as this is one of the most accurate ways of identifying each species. A good pair of waders or gumboots and a headlamp are the most important pieces of equipment.

Once, this involved trekking through the snow of the Drakensberg Mountains, in freezing temperatures, without a GPS not knowing whether we would make it back to civilisation! This in the quest of tracking down the type locality (first place a species was described from) for an obscure Lesotho River Frog species. I have also had a few close calls while conducting fieldwork with security personnel questioning why I was out and about at night in the wetlands. Of course, once I explained what I was doing, it was fine! Usually though, being out in the field with the frogs calling around you is extremely tranquil and good for the soul.

My passion for amphibians emerged when I joined the North-West University (Potchefstroom) to do an MSc in Environmental Science. There I met Prof. Louis du Preez who heads up the African Amphibian Conservation Research Group, and almost by default fell into the world of frogs. My thesis was on river frogs of Lesotho, including the second largest species in Africa – the Maluti River Frog, a huge frog that comes complete with teeth. Having to go to the highest peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains and seek these out definitely beat an office job in London – something I had been doing prior to returning to SA.

I carried on with my studies with NWU to a PhD that focussed on SA’s threatened frog species, in the process learning about what was happening globally with amphibians. And it was not good news. While there was, and still is, a lot of excellent amphibian-related research happening in SA, not a lot of this was being applied to direct conservation. And just as globally, our amphibians are under threat too. This realisation led me to want to start my own NGO initially, but ended up joining a well-established conservation organisation instead – the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). One of my objectives remains to bridge the gap between research and on-the-ground conservation.

Almost all of my work is linked to threatened frog species, which are usually associated with very limited distribution ranges and specific habitat types, most of which are not protected or well-managed, so this is where we focus our efforts. Where a species may occur in several locations, we carry out prioritisation exercises to determine which sites are most in need of intervention. We also look at priority areas in terms of provincial and national conservation importance.

Through the various projects I coordinate, we look at several research streams; monitoring is an important one, looking at species presence/absence, breeding activity and population estimates. We have several projects making use of Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM), recording species calls as a monitoring tool. We also conduct habitat and ecological assessments. We use ecological niche modelling and occupancy modelling, based on field data collection, to better understand the ecological and habitat requirements of species. We are also starting to look at the use of eDNA. All of this ultimately informs better conservation interventions.

Table Mountain Habitat Threatened Amphibian Programme Dr Jeanne Tarrant Endangered Wildlife Trust
Pickersgill Reed Frog Threatened Amphibian Programme Dr Jeanne Tarrant Endangered Wildlife Trust
Cape River Threatened Amphibian Programme Dr Jeanne Tarrant Endangered Wildlife Trust
School trip Threatened Amphibian Programme Dr Jeanne Tarrant Endangered Wildlife Trust

For stream-dependent species, such as the Critically Endangered Table Mountain Ghost Frog, we look at several stream health factors, such as temperature, turbidity, water quality – we also make use of SASS and mini-SASS across several projects to assess water health looking at the invertebrate community at any given site. We monitor the Endangered Kloof Frog, looking at its unique egg clumps, which are also an indication of stream health.

Loss of habitat is by far the biggest threat globally to amphibians, by a factor of four over the next one, which is pollution. Disease, in particular the amphibian fungal disease, chytridiomycosis is a really big problem to many frog species globally. And there are many indirect threats linked to habitat fragmentation and climate change.

I think there are still global historical cultural associations with frogs that deem them unimportant, or scary. The field of study that includes amphibians and reptiles – herpetology – literally means to study of creepy crawly animals! Not a great advertisement. For eons, people have associated frogs with witchcraft, and while this is no longer so much the case in Western cultures, in South Africa these is still a lot of genuine fear of frogs because of these connections. The ‘usefulness’ of frogs is also often questioned – with many people failing to see the links between frogs, freshwater and healthy environments and human health. We are working to try and change these attitudes and beliefs and grow an appreciation for the incredible role that frogs do play.

In actual fact, amphibians can represent the overall health of a specific area. Amphibians make up a very large proportion of what we call the ‘biomass’ in most tropical and temperate ecosystems. In short, frogs are food to a huge range of other animals, so there need to be a lot of them. They also play an extremely important role as predators themselves, consuming vast numbers of insects, so they are right in the middle of the food chain.

In terms of ecosystem health, amphibians are very important indicators of this for a number of key reasons; their use of both the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems during their lifecycle, their semi-permeable, sensitive skins and their highly specialised adaptations to niche habitats (in the case of many species). As such they are sensitive to changes in the environment. The fact that 41% of amphibians globally are at risk of extinction is a clear indication that the health of the world is severely compromised.

Protection of new areas is critical, as these areas do not include any formalised management plans or protection, especially for frogs, despite the presence of highly threatened species that may occur – quite literally – nowhere else in the world. In fact, of the 21 IUCN-listed threatened frog species in South Africa, only three (two Data Deficient and one Endangered) are considered ‘Well Protected’ according to the most recent National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA 2018), while 82% of amphibian species of concern in the country are threatened by habitat loss. To this end, my habitat protection work aims to formalise the protection of areas encompassing these species’ ranges using the approach known as South Africa’s Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. Doing so commits landowners to a formal process to manage their land to the benefit of endemic species and important habitat, for which they can receive tax incentives and support from the provincial nature conservation authorities.

For example, my long-term work in the Eastern Cape is resulting in the declaration of the first and only formal protected area for the Critically Endangered Amathole Toad. Here I collaborated closely with both the land-owners and the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA), towards declaring the 1,129 ha Elandsberg Nature Reserve. This represents the only formally protected area where the Amathole Toad is known to occur – the species does not occur in any existing PA – and the Biodiversity Stewardship process includes a management plan for both the species and its habitat where neither previously existed. My next steps are to engage neighbouring farmers to do the same.

Table Mountain Threatened Amphibian Programme Dr Jeanne Tarrant Endangered Wildlife Trust
Table Mountain Ghost Frog Threatened Amphibian Programme Dr Jeanne Tarrant Endangered Wildlife Trust
Tadpole Threatened Amphibian Programme Dr Jeanne Tarrant Endangered Wildlife Trust

Using the Stewardship model in KwaZulu-Natal, my programme is working with traditional leaders in a communal land area (Adams Mission) to declare 500 hectares of unique coastal wetland and swamp forest habitat where the Endangered Pickersgill’s Reed Frog and Kloof Frog occur sympatrically. This is the only such species-specific protection work taking place on traditional authority land in South Africa currently, and as such the approach to stakeholder engagement is proving vital. I aim to apply a similar process to a number of species in this application to the Whitley Fund for Nature, including the Rough Moss Frog and Micro Frog (both Critically Endangered) as well as the newly described Moonlight Mountain Toadlet (Data Deficient). All occur in the Western Cape, and currently receive minimal formal protection (less than 1% of their range is protected in some cases).

Protecting new areas not only contributes to national protected area expansion strategies and prevents further transformation of land continually under pressure from new developments (be this in the form of mining, agriculture, urban development or energy production), but can also see rehabilitation of areas back to a more natural state from previous detrimental land-use (usually agriculture). While the nature of amphibian distributions is often fragmented and range-restricted, protection of even relatively small areas catalyses protection of larger corridor-areas, thus facilitating broader ecological and evolutionary processes.

In all of my habitat protection projects, the key is establishing and maintaining good working relationships with the landowners and management authorities. Ultimately, in both cases, having the proper management measures in place and the relationships to ensure these for the long-term is crucial. In summary, while improving management plans in existing Protected Areas (PAs) is paying dividends for frog conservation work in South Africa, implementing new PAs is arguably more effective to my work given both the lack of any real protection for species that occur here, coupled with the fact that most of South Africa’s highly threatened amphibian species occur outside of PAs.

In a way, it is an advantage to be able to carry out research where little is already known, and it is great to contribute to the knowledge base. We also work closely with several research institutions (universities) to ensure that this research is robust. The main challenge is having the capacity to carry out this research, and of course the funding to do it, so the fact that I have been selected as one of six winners of this year’s Whitley Award to support this work is incredible. It is the only winning project this year focused on amphibians, and one of three representing projects from Africa. This project is focused on eight of South Africa’s threatened frogs across three provinces of South Africa, for which we will initiate habitat protection to secure a total of 20,000 hectares of important amphibian habitat. I will also lead the revision of the next 10-year strategy for amphibian conservation and research in South Africa and bring to completion several conservation action plans for threatened species. The Whitley Award is allowing us to expand our work more into the Western Cape, where most of the country’s threatened and endemic species occur.

My hope is that more people start to recognise and appreciate the importance of these creatures. They are truly fascinating, and I would encourage everyone to learn a bit more about their local frog fauna. On a broader scale, we need political and corporate will to stop “business as usual” to prevent further destruction of key amphibian habitats – which encompass wetlands, rivers, streams, grasslands, forests and even deserts! These habitats represent really important ecological goods and services that supply us all with clean water, functioning systems that support our food provision and healthy air.

We need also to stop the slow, insidious loss of habitat brought about by smaller, unregulated development, as well as large-scale development. Legislation to support this is being strengthen in South Africa, but the challenges of a developing economy need to be underpinned by sound ecological infrastructure and the acknowledgements that there are limits to growth. The current global situation provides a very real, and more immediate, opportunity to effect these changes, and we can all have a voice in supporting the need for nature-based solutions to not only the future of frogs, but improved human health.