Elusive giant burrowing frog in world-first captive breeding program at Melbourne zoo

Researchers have collected tadpoles of one of Victoria’s rarest amphibians after being hampered by years of drought

Tadpoles from one of Victoria’s most elusive amphibians, the giant burrowing frog, have been collected by Melbourne zoo and will be the subject of the first captive breeding program for the species.

Scientists from the Arthur Rylah Institute have been been searching for the frog for years, but were hampered by the last decade’s drought.

That changed after recent higher than average rainfall across Gippsland. Zoos Victoria scientists joined researchers from the institute to locate and collect tadpoles from a remote area in the state’s east.

Deon Gilbert, a threatened species biologist at Zoos Victoria, said the frog was an “incredibly rare and cryptic species”.

“To find a viable breeding site with tadpoles in it felt like winning the lottery,” he said.

The tadpoles were transported to Melbourne zoo, where the species will be held and bred in captivity for the first time. Gilbert said the captive frogs provided an insurance population at a time when populations in the wild were down to critical levels.

“The wild populations are so low and suffer from multiple threats. On top of droughts, there’s climate change, land clearing, logging, disease and introduction of feral predators,” he said.

Giant burrowing frog tadpoles at Melbourne zoo.
Giant burrowing frog tadpoles at Melbourne zoo. Photograph: Zoos/Zoos Victoria

He said the black summer bushfires had burnt much of the species’ terrestrial habitat, and the impact had been exacerbated by post-fire logging and predation. It increased the chance of the frogs being affected by diseases, such as chytrid fungus, he said.

Gilbert said the research team’s initial goals were to study how the tadpoles grew into adult frogs and to develop a breeding program. The tadpoles had proved themselves “voracious eaters” and almost doubled in size since arriving at the zoo. “They’re doing amazingly well, I’m pleased to report,” Gilbert said.

Dr Jodi Rowley, a frog biologist at the Australian Museum and University of New South Wales, said it was “fantastic” to have an insurance population in captivity. She said the southern population of the species in Victoria was “a really important genetic part of that species”.

Rowley said Melbourne zoo had previously helped lead a “flagship conservation success story” with the critically endangered southern corroboree frog. Along with a conservation program at Taronga zoo, it was “the only reason this species is still alive”, she said. Melbourne zoo has also had success breeding baw baw frogs.

Giant burrowing frog sitting on some wet leaves and rocks
‘They are a pretty striking frog when they choose not to be buried,’ biologist Deon Gilbert says. Photograph: Rohan Bilney

Dr Simon Clulow, an amphibian research fellow at the University of Newcastle, said Melbourne zoo was “leading the way” in Australian captive conservation. “What’s really impressive about Victoria is its incorporating assistive reproduction and gene banking to properly manage the genetic diversity of their captive population,” he said.

Gilbert said a full grown giant burrowing frog was “something a bit bigger than a cricket ball – the size of your palm, with big muscly legs, huge eyes and quite charismatic”.

“They are a pretty striking frog when they choose not to be buried,” he said. “We hope to inspire Victorians and Australians to love the giant burrowing frog.”

Contributor

Natasha May

The GuardianTramp

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