The Night Watch

by Dan John on
Dan John

I have to admit that in my everyday life I am not all that adventurous. Sometimes I get on a Tube train just as the doors are shutting, but that's about as hard core as I get. In Montserrat the forest trekking I had to do was pretty tame, yet in my head I felt like I was like Bear Grylls. Little did I know what the ZSL team had in store for me here in Dominica.  

In filming the work ZSL are doing for the Mountain Chicken Frog Project here in Dominica I am following around Alex, ZSL's Conservation Volunteer over here and Machel, the Amphibian Technician for the Forestry department. They've been showing me the different tasks they undertake, from running the breeding facility to community outreach projects to scientific field surveys of the mountain chicken frog population. 

The mountain chicken frog breeding facility in Dominica.
The mountain chicken frog breeding facility in Dominica.
 The breeding facility itself, which ZSL helped to establish, is based in the National Botanical Gardens here in Dominica. The team are working hard here to attempt to breed mountain chicken frogs that can then be re-introduced back onto the island. The frogs are fed on a selection of live feed, from crickets to cockroaches, and I was surprised to discover that the first task of the day at the facility was not to feed the frogs themselves, but rather to feed the food! And it's not just left overs either, these bugs get fresh fruit and vegetables carefully chosen so as to provide them with the prefect balance of vitamins and nutrients that will then be passed on to the frogs when they are eaten. Depressingly, these crickets and cockroaches get much more of their five a day than I do. 

It was great to see the work going on at the breeding facility and as the breeding season is upon us there is a lot of hope here that they may see their first mountain chickens born here this year, so fingers crossed! However, it was the scientific field surveys that I was particularly looking forward to as it was a chance to see some wild mountain chicken frogs in their natural habitat on the island. The work currently being conducted is the biggest field survey in around seven years, looking into the status of the chytrid fungus on the island amongst its amphibian species. I had imagined this might involve some nice strolls through a forest counting frogs. I couldn't have been more wrong. 

A mountain chicken frog being swabbed during the field survey in Dominica
A wild mountain chicken frog being swabbed.
 Firstly the surveys take place after dark as this is when the frogs are most active, instantly making the task of even finding them much more difficult, let alone navigating your own way around. Secondly the frogs seem to inhabit quite a variety of habitats; we have so far visited three different types of survey sites - one in an urban area, one alongside a river and the third and by far the most difficult was up the side of a very steep cliff-like hill in the middle of the forest. I have to say this last one was genuinely pretty scary. At times we were climbing up at a 45 degree angle on lose ground, grabbing hold of trees and vines to stop you falling and trying to avoid mini landslides. Add to that the fact that I had bought the world's worst head torch and was trying to carry a rather expensive camera, it made the task nerve rackingly difficult, especially trying to keep up with the team who were bounding up the slope like Spiderman. As I swung from a vine to grab hold of a tree and haul myself up, narrowly avoiding a tumbling rock I realised this was the most Indiana Jones thing I'd ever done. 

Filming a mountain chicken frog during a field survey in Dominica
Filming a mountain chicken frog during a field survey.

It also made me realise what an amazing job the ZSL team are doing out here. Whilst I battled simply to stay on the slope, Machel was able to spot a frog, go after it and capture it in a matter of moments. The team then positioned themselves on this precarious terrain to swab the frog and take its measurements, the data from which will go towards a study being conducted back at ZSL's Institute of Zoology in London. The frog we found on that occasion turned out to be a brand new one that had never been caught before, so the teamed tagged it and released it to bound back up the hill. By the time we finished that night I was exhausted and bruised, but for the team it was just another normal night in the field. 

It was fascinating to experience the different habitats that the mountain chicken frog is able to survive in and it gave me a new respect for the species. On one evening I was given the opportunity to hold one of the frogs they had caught before we released it again. Looking at the little guy in my hand I found myself really hoping that all the work going into studying and combating the chytrid fungus and its effects on these awesome frogs pays off, because it really would be awful to lose this Lara Croft of the frog world from the island forever.

A mountian chicken frog being held during science survey in Dominica
A wild mountain chicken frog caught during the survey.

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