On a drizzly Monday evening in late August, I accepted an invitation to observe wildlife researchers in action. Their quest to track down a particular species was somewhat out of the ordinary. These specialists were looking around in the dark in the hope of finding a critically endangered frog called the ‘Crapaud’ (pronounced Craw-poe), in local Creole language. It’s commonly known as the Mountain Chicken, and is highly regarded as a national symbol that is found on Dominica’s Coat of Arms. But sadly, to actually see or hear one in its natural habitat these days is extremely rare. Since 2002, their once prolific numbers have rapidly declined by about 90%, due to a new fungal disease called chytridiomycosis (or ‘chytrid’ for short). And right now, they’re on the brink of extinction!
Fortunately, scientists are actively looking for ways and means to eradicate the devastating fungal infection. I actually witnessed some of these investigations, which are part of a long term international project between Dominica’s Forestry and Wildlife Division and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in the U.K..
About a year and a half ago, I had the pleasure to meet Jenny Spencer, a volunteer with ZSL who specializes in amphibians and reptiles. She was my neighbour at that time. Over the seven months of her first stay in Dominica in 2011, she patiently explained the plight of this large frog to me in great detail. Before she returned to the Nature Isle this past June, I happened to meet other ZSL representatives who reinforced what I had learned from Jenny about this serious conservation crisis.
Contrary to what one might obviously think, the Mountain Chickens are not found on higher terrain. As I quickly discovered, they tend to reside at lower elevations, near streams or forests and even in residential areas!
Jenny and her research team from the Forestry Division picked me up early that evening and we drove to a housing development along the west coast that was in close proximity to a small stream. They ‘set up shop’ on a grassy vacant lot that was interspersed with banana plants and mango trees. The protruding porch of a house under construction provided some shelter from occasional drizzle and protected Jenny’s paperwork from the damp ground.
We were in an area where some frogs had been found before and there was a feeling of optimism that we might hear and/or see some of these amphibians once again. Two Forestry Division staff members and two student volunteers searched the deep grass with strong “headlights.”It wasn’t too long before Machel from the Forestry Division called out that he had found one! Excitedly, we gathered around to see it. Then the team followed strict scientific protocols, and carefully recorded important data such as weight and measurements. They also swabbed their underbellies, hind limbs and hind feet so that the samples could be analyzed in laboratories in Dominica and ZSL to determine if the frogs were infected with the ‘chytrid’ fungus. Numerous photographs were taken for identification purposes. The first frog of the evening was a female and it was determined that she had been previously assessed as a microchip reading was found upon scanning her. This helps the team to easily identify the frog and to monitor body weight and condition accurately. Jenny also took a GPS location reading and carefully recorded by hand all of the information that had been gathered about that frog. The enthusiasm of the group did infect me. I admired their attention to details and their rigorous routines with respect to constantly changing gloves and wiping down equipment with alcohol whenever necessary to prevent cross- contamination, as well as their careful handling of these wild creatures.
Over the course of four hours, the team delighted in finding NINE juveniles, all of very similar weight and length. Everyone was amazed, because this large find of young frogs proves the Mountain Chickens are successfully breeding. It was estimated that the babies were about 0ne month old and likely to be siblings from the same nest. (The genetic swabs will confirm this). Jenny and the team were so thrilled on this night because, to the best of their knowledge, there had never been such a large find of juvenile Mountain Chickens since the commencement of the research project a number of years earlier. Towards the end of the evening, one more female was captured and her particulars were documented. While no males were directly observed or caught, we did occasionally hear their distinctive whooping call in the distance while we were there.
The nine juveniles and two adult females were released into their habitat after they had been examined. On previous outings, a small number of frogs had been taken for further observation and study at a specially built facility which is located in the Botanical Gardens near Roseau. These frogs have been successfully treated for the disease and it is hoped that they will breed in the near future. Their offspring may be released into areas that no longer have Crapaud but did support populations of frogs in the past.
I was uplifted just by watching the dedicated and enthusiastic research team. Their love of the animal and strong desire to aid in its conservation was clearly evident. I admired the hard work that is involved in finding a rare Mountain Chicken in the field. But most of all, I stepped away from this remarkable experience with renewed hope. Perhaps the end result of this gargantuan effort to save the ‘Crapaud’ will be its ultimate survival. Thank you to all the researchers involved in this important project. May your efforts be truly rewarded…
You can read more about this dire ecological situation and obtain further background information about the Mountain Chicken Research Project in my previous article here. Jenny has also recently written about the ongoing joint initiative between Dominica and Montserrat (the only other Caribbean country where these frogs are still found) on the mountainchicken.org blog.
I urge you to carefully consider the importance of wildlife conservation and the preservation of all species – no matter where you live.
* Written with the kind assistance of Ms. Jenny Spencer, volunteer from the Zoological Society of London.