16 February 2016
Herpetology keeper- Philippa Carter-Jones

Below she tells us more about the critical situation many frog species are currently facing and the important role zoos play in helping to protect these critically endangered animals in the wild:

“I’m a keeper on the herpetology and terrestrial invertebrate section. That means I help look after the zoo’s reptiles-amphibians and bugs.  I love working with all of our animals-but my main interest lies with our frogs-toads-salamanders and caecilians.

“Devastatingly-we’re currently experiencing a global amphibian extinction crisis. Between 33 and 50% of the world’s amphibian species are at risk of extinction. As with many types of animals-habitat loss is causing the decline of many amphibian species. Often amphibians are specialised to very specific habitats-meaning they cannot simply relocate somewhere else if these habitats are destroyed.

Deforestation in Madagascar

“One huge threat that is exclusive to amphibians is the disease chytridiomycosis-often shortened to ‘chytrid’.

“Chytrid is a fungal disease that firstly affects the skin of amphibians.  Amphibian skin is extremely delicate and permeable and is used to regulate water uptake.  When the chytrid fungus invades amphibian skin it disrupts electrolyte levels causing the amphibian’s heart to stop. Some aquatic amphibians also use their skin for respiration and if this is disrupted by chytrid it can lead to suffocation.  This extremely deadly disease is causing rapid decreases in population sizes at an alarming rate. Pollution of habitats-capture for the pet and food trades and the introduction of invasive animal species are also threatening many amphibian species.

“We can learn so much from the amphibians that live at the zoo that we wouldn’t be able to from frogs in the wild. We’re able to understand what triggers these animals to breed-what kind of conditions they prefer to live in and also what they need to be the healthiest animals they can be.

Wild golden mantella

“This means that when we’re trying to save these animals in the wild-we can pinpoint the exact aspects of their natural environment which they need to strive. We can then target our conservation efforts where they will have the biggest positive impact.

“It also means that we are able to breed endangered species in the safety of captivity-where they aren’t subjected to the same threats as in the wild. We are also able to study animals in ways that wouldn’t be possible with wild frogs. For example-we have been able to trial radio-transmitter belts on our mountain chicken frogs-with the aim of using them to track them in the wild.

Mountain chicken frog at Chester Zoo

“Here at the zoo we are able to monitor the animals very closely for any negative effects of the belts and remove them immediately if any problems should develop. This means when the final belts are fitted on wild frogs we can be confident that they will not cause them any harm. Similarly-the technique of elastomer marking was developed for use with golden mantellas here at Chester Zoo.

“Working with the vet team we were able to monitor our group of mantellas after being marked with elastomer. This enabled us to determine that this type of marking has no negative effects on the frogs-and we were then able to pass on the technique to our project partners in Madagascar-Madagasikara Voakajy (MaVoa)-for use during their surveys of the wild frogs.

“Collaboration is absolutely essential if we want to come up with a solution for the amphibian extinction crisis. The situation is so huge and so dire for so many species of amphibian that a single organisation or institution cannot solve the problem alone.  This has led to many zoos-universities and non-government organisations (NGOs) working together to develop captive breeding and release projects-education programmes-population surveys and scientific studies into amphibian disease.

“Amphibians are an extremely important group of animals. They play an essential role in the food web-controlling levels of algae (which is eaten by tadpoles) and insects like mosquitos. They also act as an important food source for many fish-reptiles-birds and mammals. Without them so many other species of animal would struggle to survive. They might be small and slimy and not everyone’s idea of beautiful-but they deserve to be protected just as much as the more popular animals. It would be a tragedy if we lose amphibians before people realise how special and important they are.

Philippa working in the field-in Madagascar

“I recently travelled to Madagascar as part of a Chester Zoo expedition team. I went to help the MaVoa field team survey the golden mantella frogs endemic to that region of Madagascar. These frogs are critically endangered in the wild-as the ponds they live in are being destroyed due to mining in the area.  Together with MaVoa we want to monitor their population sizes in the wild-as well as the health of the frogs and which areas of the pond they prefer to live in. This is done by surveying the ponds several times throughout the year.  As all golden mantella look same-(small and orange with no other markings) we inject a tiny amount of coloured elastomer under the skin on their hind legs to act as a distinguishing marker. This is really useful as it means we can track which frogs are found in which area throughout the year.

“I’ve looked after this species in the zoo for a few years now and have been able to develop my skills in elastomer marking.  It was fantastic to have the opportunity to work with the MaVoa field team to survey these beautiful frogs.”