Conservationists have used environmental manipulation techniques to create safe areas to release 27 mountain chicken frogs, a species which is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The semi-wild enclosure is located in Montserrat and should be a safe refuge for the species.
Native to the islands of Montserrat and Dominica, mountain chicken frogs have survived hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and being hunted for centuries but were driven to the brink of extinction by the deadly chytrid fungus.
Chytridiomycosis is a microcscopic fungus Batrachocytrium dendrobatidis (Bd.), more commonly known as chytrid, and is believed to have causedthe extinction and decline of over 500 amphibian species around the world.
Chytrid reached Dominica in 2002 and Montserrat in 2009, and nearly wiped out the mountain chicken frog.
The semi-wild enclosure on Montserrat includes artificially heated pools that are uninhabitable for the chytrid fungus, which cannot survive in temperatures above 30°C.
The pools are solar powered and regulate their own temperatures to ensure they remain hot enough to maintain a chytrid-free environment.
A semi-wild enclosure. © Durrell/ZSL
“Currently, there is no known method for eradicating chytrid from the wild. We have had to think outside the box and come up with a mechanism for enabling frogs to survive alongside the fungus in their natural environment,” says Dr Mike Hudson, who leaders the project for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
“In this world first attempt at using environmental manipulation to mitigate the disease in the wild, we are hoping to not only make steps towards saving the incredibly threatened mountain chicken frog, but also to provide a model system that can inspire conservation action for hundreds of other species affected by the disease globally.”
As the project continues, the frogs will be monitored and tested regularly for signs of infection.
A mountain chicken frog during a health check. © Jennifer Parker
The scientists involved hope that this environmental manipulation technique will be successful and can be expanded to create a network of safe refuges for mountain chicken frogs.
“The solar-powered ponds were trialled with mountain chicken frogs in carefully designed facilities within zoo settings before the release – and so far, it looks promising,” says Ben Tapley, curator of reptiles and amphibians at ZSL London Zoo.
“It’s an enormous privilege to be part of such a ground-breaking project that really demonstrates the importance of conservation breeding in zoos in response to chytrid mediated amphibian population declines.”
The project is a collaboration between Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, ZSL, Chester Zoo, Bristol Zoo Gardens, Nordens Ark and the Government of Montserrat.
Main image: Mountain chicken frog. © Durrell/ZSL