Leap day for frogs!

Benedict Wilson
28 February 2020

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The 29th of February 2020 not only adds a whole extra day to our calendar year, it also celebrates a leap day for frogs! The Endangered Wildlife Trust initiative aims to raise much needed awareness of the plight of our froggy friends and serves as a crucial conservation drive for amphibians and the habitat they live in.

Amphibians which include frogs and toads (anurans), newts and salamanders (caudata) and the caecilians are one of the most endangered groups of organisms in the world. They are especially threatened by habitat loss, a terrible amphibian-specific disease and pollutants that are put into waterways by human actions. As of 2020 there are estimated to be 8,110 species of amphibians, with around 90% of those being frogs. New species of frogs are also being regularly identified - here in South Africa several new species have been discovered including the Ndumo and Phinda rain frogs, in addition to three new mountain toadlets and a few dainty frogs. However, many more species are being lost.

But why are frogs important? Frogs are key players in the ecosystem and serve as a really useful conservation and biodiversity assessment tool since they can be used to evaluate the health of a habitat, making them an environmental indicator species. Frog species are highly sensitive to the slightest change in the environment so evaluations of population dynamics can shed light as to when an ecosystem is under threat. Moreover, frogs are very good at keeping levels of insects and mosquitoes and other potentially disease spreading invertebrates in check, as the juvenile frogs (tadpoles) feed on their larvae; frogs themselves are also in turn food for many other species. In addition to the many biological reasons as to why amphibians are important, frogs are fascinating creatures, steeped in folklore and should be preserved for the future generations to wonder at. Amphibians have been around for at least 362 million years ago and have survived on Earth far longer than us humans, yet they currently face extinction and need our help!

Amphibians have been undergoing severe declines, globally, with around half of all species currently under threat, many of which are going extinct. Here in the Western Cape such threatened species include the Western leopard toad and the Table Mountain ghost frog. There are many reasons for the decline but one of the major factors is a fungal pathogen with a long and complicated name: Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. This fungus causes a fatal disease in frogs called chytridiomycosis and has been affecting populations worldwide. The other major threat has been the change in wetland and terrestrial habitat use due to agriculture, which has led to a loss of habitat for these poor creatures. The current frog narrative may be a sad one, but by building awareness and increasing conservation efforts they could still stand a chance. To learn more about the threats facing amphibians feel free to read the corresponding articles provided.

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A few of the frogs found here in South Africa: (Top Left) Clicking stream frog. (Top Middle) Red-banded rubber frog. (Top Right) Foam nest frog. (Middle) Bushveld rain frog. (Bottom Left) Giant African bullfrog. (Bottom Middle) Painted reed frog. (Bottom Right) Toad sp. Pictures: Benedict Wilson.

Some fun ‘Leap’ facts from EWT:

Frogs can leap, on average 30 times their body length! That means that if you were a frog you could jump the length of a rugby field. This is without a running start.

Some frogs fly! This is because these frogs have webbed toes and use these as a parachute to slow down their fall and sort of glide from one object to the next.

The secret to a frog’s jumping skill lies in its tendons. These stretch out while the leg muscles shorten at this point, transferring energy into the tendons. The frog then blasts off as the tendon recoils like a spring. This elastic structure is the key to the frog’s ability to jump long distance.

How high can frogs jump? How high frogs can jump depends on the species, but some people say frogs can jump at least 2 times their own height and the better jumpers (tree frogs for example) can jump up to 10 times their height but cannot jump backwards. Frogs are much more known for the length of their jump.

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The Threatened Amphibian Programme (TAP) was initiated in 2012 and aims to:

  1. Elevate the conservation importance of frogs and their freshwater and associated terrestrial habitats within southern Africa.
  2. Implement conservation actions that align with global amphibian conservation goals.
  3. Bridge the gap between research and on-the-ground conservation action by supporting and implementing relevant research projects.
  4. Drive social change to promote behaviours that support sustainable natural resource use to the benefit of amphibians and their habitats.

Accelerated loss of biodiversity in the 20th and 21st centuries has brought extinction from evolutionary time within the dimensions of ecological time, providing an opportunity to study the causes of extinction in recent, not ancient, populations. This is especially true in the case of amphibians where, since the 1980s, research has shown that modern amphibian declines and extinctions exceed that of any animal class over the last few millennia. Currently, almost half of all known amphibian species worldwide are experiencing population declines. This trend is mirrored in South Africa. Furthermore, only about 0.01% of the world’s total freshwater is readily available to terrestrial life. If amphibians are to survive, it is critical, not only that aquatic ecosystems are protected, but also that associated terrestrial habitat is secured. The degradation of either ecosystem type disrupts amphibian life cycles and affected populations become vulnerable.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust, through its Threatened Amphibian Programme, is the only NGO operating in South Africa to include frogs as a conservation focus. Using threatened frog species as flagships for the conservation of important freshwater and terrestrial habitats, we implement species and habitat monitoring, initiate habitat protection strategies at important amphibian areas, improve management of important amphibian habitat, use research to support conservation action, and promote social change to galvanise behavioural change towards frogs and recognition of the importance of their habitats in South Africa…and beyond!

What can we do to help?

  • Hold a fundraiser through civvies days (wear green) or a cake sale of frog-shaped cookies, cupcakes and cakes.
  • Build a frog pond at home or at your school 
  • Clean up a local frog habitat
  • Use sustainable and bio safe toiletries
  • Post frog flyers/posters on the school or office notice board
  • Learn about frogs! Hold a class on frog biology  
  • Do some frog art, or poetry
  • Play a game of Leap Frog!

 

Sources:

https://www.ewt.org.za/get-involved/get-involved-leap-day-for-frog/