Scientists venture deep into Victorian forest to secure future for giant burrowing frog

By Australian Geographic 31 March 2021
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There’s hope for the giant burrowing frog after Melbourne Zoo successfully collected tadpoles to begin a breeding program.

Melbourne Zoo has established the first ever captive breeding program for the endangered giant burrowing frog.

Found in small populations in remote parts of Central and East Gippsland, the embattled frog was hard done by during the 2019–20 bushfires, which spurred scientists into action. 

In March, a team of scientists from Melbourne Zoo and the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research ventured into wild habitats in a remote part of East Gippsland to collect tadpoles.

“Heading into the bush field site to find these tadpoles was a remarkable experience,” says Zoos Victoria Threatened Species biologist Deon Gilbert.

“We were exceedingly lucky to find them, and to share the moment with colleagues who have spent so much time studying this species was beyond special. Everyone was ecstatic.”

Frog experts collecting wild giant burrowing frog tadpoles from east Gippsland to start a captive breeding program at Melbourne Zoo. (Image credit: Zoos Victoria)

According to Deon, recent wet weather created the perfect environment for frog collection. 

“This species breeds in shallow pools and, unfortunately, the pools can dry out really quickly depending on the weather.

“This year, unlike many others, we have had a lot of rain in early spring and summer, and that produced really good conditions for giant burrowing frogs, so we were lucky enough to find some tadpoles and that’s what has instigated this program.”

Because very little is known about the rare frog, scientists say the first step of the breeding program will be dedicated to gathering information about its wild ecology and captive biology. 

“We need to figure out how to grow them, rear them and produce really fit frogs,” Deon says. “And then those frogs will go on to start a conservation breeding program.”

As is the case with many frogs, giant burrowing frog populations have been ravaged by the chytrid fungus, an infectious disease that attacks frog skin. 

Melbourne Zoo has had previous success with breeding programs for the baw baw frog and southern corroboree frogs, which face similar challenges.