As we travel the globe for our Around the World in 30 Days challenge, this week we’re visiting the Caribbean island of Montserrat, to hear how an iconic frog that's close to extinction is returning to it's home soil with help from ZSL.
The mountain chicken is not a chicken. In fact, it is one of the largest frogs in the world. Their name comes from the fact that they were a local delicacy in the Caribbean, supposedly tasting like chicken!
They are carnivores and have a huge appetite, eating almost anything - insects, crustaceans and even smaller frogs and snakes. They can reach a head and body length of over 20cm, weigh up to a kilogram and live for up to 15 years.
The mountain chicken frog is classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, meaning that they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. Their numbers have fallen dramatically due to hunting, habitat loss, the introduction of invasive predator species and a fungal disease called amphibian chytridiomycosis.
Since the arrival of chytrid fungi on Dominica in 2002 and Monserrat in 2009, the mountain chicken population declined by over 90% in 18 months. The sad reality is that there are probably fewer than 100 wild individuals on Dominica and the species is functionally extinct in the wild on Monserrat.
But there is hope for this iconic species. ZSL is a member of the mountain chicken recovery programme, and we are working in collaboration with partners to help save this Critically Endangered species through hands-on conservation in Montserrat and Dominica. We also breed mountain chickens in London Zoo, some of which have been translocated to Montserrat.
Ben Tapley, ZSL’s Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, explains how 24 mountain chicken frogs bred at London Zoo are contributing to a landmark return for the species:
“The frogs have returned to two semi-wild, predator-proof enclosures on the island,” says Ben Tapley, ZSL’s Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians. “We know that chytrid fungus is still present on the island, and is carried by treefrogs, so to give the mountain chickens a fighting chance we’ve installed heated pools and removed some of the canopy cover in these enclosures. The fungus is sensitive to temperatures above 320C, so we hope that the pools and higher ambient temperatures will help the frogs fight off the disease.
“When frogs get sick with chytridiomycosis, they tend to seek out water. We tested the heated pools at our breeding facility in London and found that healthy mountain chickens were happy using them, so the next step is to try them in the wild.” The technique has already won the programme a gold award from BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and, if successful, could have huge implications for many other threatened amphibian species —amphibian chytrid fungi have been implicated in the declines of over 500 species of amphibian and is thought to have caused the extinction of at least 90 species.
So far, the news is promising. ZSL’s Veterinary Officer Tai Strike participated in the release and observed the frogs calling and feeding on their very first evening back on Montserrat. Zookeepers and conservationists from the mountain chicken recovery program will continue to monitor their progress, but the next step is for them to breed.
“The mountain chicken frog is emblematic of the two islands — it features heavily in Creole culture and even on Dominica’s coat of arms,” says Ben. “Having a breeding population back on Montserrat would be massive for the frogs, the local people and our ability to garner international attention for the project.”
There is a long way to go for the mountain chicken frog but, the mountain chicken recovery programme is benefiting from ZSL’s expertise in wildlife health, bringing wildlife back from the brink and building relationships between wildlife and people, there is real hope for their future in the wild.