I am profoundly grateful to Jenny Spencer, research volunteer from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)for taking time from her work on the Dominica Mountain Chicken Project to respond to my questions about the current plight of this critically endangered frog in great detail, as noted below. Readers will observe that we refer to this amphibian as ‘crapaud’ in this report, which is the local Creole name.
A Mountain Chicken ‘poses’ on a rock for Jenny, who took this photo!
This is Jenny’s third time in Dominica, while there have been other ZSL volunteers in the interim periods. She came here in 2011, 2012, and 2015 to actively participate in this important collaborative initiative, which is hosted by the Government of Dominica’s Forestry, Parks and Wildlife Division. She will have completed her current assignment by the end of June 2015, when another volunteer from ZSL will take over her duties.
Because I have spent considerable time with her, I know that Jenny has spent many hours in the field looking for frogs at night, as well as caring for the ones in the Research Facility in the Botanical Gardens by day. In addition, she has shared her knowledge with others and passionately promoted their plight to increase public awareness about this dire situation. Thank you Jenny!
Jenny Spencer examines a mountain chicken/crapaud in the forest on Dominica. Photo taken by Stephen Durand.
Here is a review of present situation (2015) with respect to the critically endangered crapaud/mountain chicken frogs:
Gwen: What happened to the 9 juveniles and 2 adults that were found in the undisclosed location that I wrote about here almost three years ago ?
Jenny: Despite intensive monitoring efforts, these frogs have not been found again during the past two years. It is possible that the frogs succumbed to the fungal disease, chytridiomycosis. We know that this location has been subjected to some habitat alterations and has a polluted water source. Sadly, a combination of these factors could have proved fatal to the mountain chickens.
Gwen: How has the overall situation changed with respect to the health of the crapaud/mountain chicken frogs and their numbers on island?
Jenny: It is estimated that the wild population of mountain chickens in Dominica is now less than 100 individuals. This may sound like enough, but when you consider that between 8,000 and 36,000 frogs were hunted annually before the hunting ban was introduced in 2003, you can see how abundant the crapaud used to be. Thankfully, the frogs that we have found during our 2015 surveys appear to be healthy with no signs of disease (although this does not necessarily mean that they are disease free – the swab results will determine this). We are also finding young frogs, indicating that these are important breeding populations. If these frogs can stay healthy and undisturbed, their numbers could slowly increase.
Gwen: What is happening in the Captive Breeding & Research Facility in the Botanical Gardens?
This crapaud is one of five that is housed in the Captive Breeding Research Facility in the Botanical Gardens. Photo taken in 2012, but it and its ‘friends’ are still there and doing well!
Jenny: Three male and two female mountain chickens are successfully being maintained in the facility (in addition to various species of insect to feed to the frogs!). Whilst no successful breeding has yet occurred, some infertile nests were produced by the frogs last year. It’s still early in the 2015 breeding season but the male frogs have started to make loud ‘whooping’ calls from their burrows at night to attract the females – a positive sign!
Jenny ‘feeds’ the frogs insects such as cockroaches and crickets in the Research Facility. Photo taken in 2012.
Gwen: What is being done to promote continued awareness of this crisis?
Gwen: Why is it important to continue with efforts to save the frogs, if their numbers are so few?
Let’s all work together to save the Mountain Chicken/Crapaud! Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.
Jenny: There are so many reasons to save this species from extinction. Mountain chickens are the largest native amphibian in the Lesser Antilles. They are highly valued culturally, scientifically and economically through hunting. They play an important role in the ecosystem and provide a free pest control service by eating large amounts of crickets, cockroaches, slugs and snails. They have a unique breeding system with a high degree of maternal care. (Females lay their eggs inside a foam nest at the bottom of a male’s burrow. The tadpoles develop within the foam nest as the male and female guard and defend the nest against intruders. The mother feeds her tadpoles with unfertilized eggs until they are ready to metamorphose into young froglets).
Dominica is known as the ‘Nature Island’ and has rich environmental assets. However, nature can be fragile and we have an obligation to protect local biodiversity for the health of the island and to encourage eco-tourism. Studying these remaining mountain chickens could help scientists discover new methods of controlling the disease in the wild. This would benefit amphibians worldwide as at least 200 species have already suffered massive declines or extinctions caused by the chytrid fungus.
Gwen: How can the public assist the Forestry Division with its efforts, if at all?
Jenny: We greatly appreciate any help or information that the public can give. If anyone sees or hears a mountain chicken, we would like them to call the Forestry & Wildlife Division on 266-5852 to give details of the location and time. However, it is important not to touch or move any frogs.
People can also help by refraining from pouring oil, diesel or other chemicals into ditches or waterways and by not using pesticides and chemicals in their gardens. The public should remember that it is still illegal to hunt or eat the crapaud.
Gwen: Is the situation better or worse on Montserrat, the only other place where the crapaud are still found?
Jenny: It’s probably just as bad, if not worse! The chytrid fungus reached Montserrat in 2009 and had the same devastating effect on their crapaud population as we have experienced in Dominica. In addition to this, volcanic activity in the Soufriere Hills has resulted in the complete loss of mountain chickens and their habitat in the south of the island. At present, nearly 60% of Montserrat’s land area is within the exclusion zone. In response to the chytrid outbreak, 50 frogs were evacuated and used to establish safety net populations in European institutions. Some anti-fungal treatment trials and experimental reintroductions of captive bred mountain chickens have been attempted but the disease is still prevalent on the island.
Gwen: What is the prognosis at this point for the recovery of the crapaud population?
Beautiful crapaud art work adorns a wall at the Research Facility. Frog on the left by Marta and the one on the right by Ben, both previous ZSL volunteers!
Jenny: Despite the critically low numbers of wild mountain chickens, it is encouraging to find that the remaining frogs are managing to survive and produce offspring. Our ongoing research suggests that some of these animals may still have Chytridiomycosis but are somehow coping with the disease. It is possible that this trait could be passed on to future generations, giving these frogs some degree of immunity. This is why it is so important to protect these rare survivors and give them the time they need to recover. If we are patient and sympathetic to the needs of the crapaud then we may be rewarded by the sound of their ‘whooping’ calls reverberating around the forests at night once again.
* Jenny, thank you for your passionate and dedicated efforts to aid in research and education about Dominica’s critically endangered crapaud/mountain chicken frog. I wish you well as you return to your patient and supportive husband, Warren, and the two lovely cats who wait for you in Amsterdam. Au revoir!