Encouraging Research Continues on Dominica’s Critically Endangered Frogs*

DMCP logo (2)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!

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 examines a mountain chicken/crapaud in an undisclosed location on the west coast  of Dominica.  Photo taken by Stephen Durand.

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 Breeeding Research Facility in the Botannical Gardens.  Photo taken in 2012, but it and its 'friends' are still there and doing well!

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' teh forgs insects such as cockroaches and crickets in the Research Facility. Photo taken in 2012.

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?
Jenny: The mountain chicken project runs an outreach program that includes school visits, talks, radio / TV interviews plus leaflet and poster campaigns. We had a crapaud carnival queen in 2014, and host a mountain chicken hike and Mountain Chicken Day on an annual basis in September. We have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dominican-Mountain-Chicken-Project/136933839835254 and a website: http://www.mountainchicken.org to keep our supporters up-to-date on the latest news and events.

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.

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. DSCF3195
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!

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!


Searching for Dominica’s Critically Endangered Frogs*

This adult female Mountain Chicken (aka Crapaud) has just had her dinner. The leg of an insect dangles from her mouth!

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 marks a swab sample at her portable field research station.

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.

Machel  holds  a juvenile Mountain Chicken frog while Jenny performs a buccal swab in its mouth which will be sent back to ZSL for genetic research.

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.

One of the nine juveniles that were found on this research expedition.

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.

The research team takes measurements of an adult female Mountain Chicken frog.

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.