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Australian endangered species: Tinker frogs

South-west of the port of Gladstone in Queensland lies Kroombit Tops National Park, housing many plants and animals, some of them unique. The reserve includes steep escarpments with wet, rainforest gullies…

This tiny tinker frog is lives in the gullies of Queensland rainforests. Flickr/Smithsonian's National Zoo

South-west of the port of Gladstone in Queensland lies Kroombit Tops National Park, housing many plants and animals, some of them unique. The reserve includes steep escarpments with wet, rainforest gullies.

Walk through these gullies during the spring-summer wet season and you might hear a unique “tink, tink, tink” sound. It sounds like a bird or someone hitting two tiny pieces of metal together, but actually it’s the Kroombit Tinker Frog. This tiny frog - growing to no more than 25mm - is found nowhere else.

The tinker frogs (part of the genus Taudactylus) are one of the most primitive groups of frogs within Australia. There are six species within this genus (T. acutirostris, T. eungellensis, T. pleione and T. rheophilus, T. diurnus and T. liemi), and all are found in Queensland, Australia (different species occur in different national parks).

All species live in wet, rainforest gullies or streams and are extremely cryptic, often hiding under rocks, boulders or leaf litter. It is believed that all species within this genus lay eggs, hatch as tadpoles and metamorphose into adult frogs.

Status

Currently, four of the tinker frogs (T. acutirostris, T. eungellensis, T. pleione and T. rheophilus) are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, while T. diurnus is listed as extinct and T. liemi is listed as near threatened. It is believed that populations of most tinker frog species are in decline.

This more common tinker frog, Taudactylus liemi, is the first to be bred in captivity. Flickr/Mackay Region Natural Environment

Threats

Several factors have contributed to the decline or complete extinction of these species. These are the usual suspects, including introduced pests species (such as pigs and horses) and, in the past, habitat destruction through logging. Clearing vegetation on leased land may still be an issue, and wildfire may also be contributing to declining numbers.

One main threat that cannot be seen with the human eye is amphibian chytrid fungus. This fungus is believed to be responsible for or have contributed to numerous amphibian extinctions around the globe. The fungus has been found in some streams where certain tinker frog species are found. The extremely restricted distribution of these species populations means that they are particularly susceptible to all of these threats.

Strategy

Continued surveying (both visual and acoustic) to monitor the population of critically endangered T. pleione is essential to pick up any further declines of the species. Fire and pest management controls have also been implemented in Kroombit Tops National Park.

Similar management strategies are in place for the other tinker frog species outside of Kroombit Tops National Park. Monitoring programs to determine the population health of certain tinker frog species, feral animal control, disease investigations and public education and participation are all strategies either currently in place or used in the past.

Recently, a captive husbandry project has been established at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in conjunction with Griffith University. This project is aiming to establish a “safe haven” for any unforeseen scenarios that could lead to the extinction of the remaining tinker frogs. The program has successfully raised, for first time ever, the near threatened T. liemi. It is hoped that a similar outcome can be obtained with the other tinker frogs.

Conclusion

The tinker frogs have seen vast declines over the past 30 years. Their decline has been attributed to several factors. With one of six known species already extinct, it is imperative that everything be done to conserve the remaining populations. Strategies to control these declines are currently in place; however, the narrow distribution range of the species within the tinker frog genus means that the threats associated with these species are heightened.

Clay Simpkins

The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Eric Vanderduys

    Ecological Researcher

    Good on you Clay, for bringing some attention to this poorly known group.

    I think it should be pointed out that although listed as endangered, two of the Taudactylus are generally considered extinct. Legislation hasn't caught up with reality. T. acutirostris is gone (someone please tell me I'm wrong), and T. rheophilus is gone, or hanging so precipitously close to extinction that I'd be surprised if it is still around in a few years. The captive breeding of T. liemi gives me some tiny hope if T. rheophilus does turn up again.

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  2. Jim Inglis

    retired

    I often wonder how big a part in frog extinction the Cattle Egret has played:

    "Originally native to parts of Asia, Africa and Europe, the Cattle Egret has undergone one of the most rapid and wide reaching natural expansions of any bird species. Land clearing and the provision of water for stock in dry areas have favoured the expansion of the Cattle Egret's range.

    Birds in Australia originate from Asia. In Australia, colonisation began in the 1940s, with the species now widespread and common…

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    1. Eric Vanderduys

      Ecological Researcher

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Gidday Jim,
      I suspect cattle egrets haven't had much to do with frog extinctions discussed in this article. The reason I say this is because most of the extinctions in northern Australia are from relatively pristine, rainforest stream environments, not paddocks where cattle are hanging out. Similarly, species that have declined remarkably and haven't gone extinct, or may have gone extinct and we don't know it yet, are largely rainforest stream (or nearby) dwellers. In southern Australia there are some species that have similarly declined or gone extinct, and again chytrid is the probable cause.

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    2. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Eric Vanderduys

      Thanks Eric. Where I hang out which is between a couple of national parks where small running streams with waterfalls flow from top country to cleared cattle country below, I daily observe that whenever cattle are grazing near these same creeks there are numerous Cattle Egrets that quickly join them.

      I suspect Kroombit Tops is similar country.

      The Cattle Egrets are always there. And our frog population has also plummeted.

      When these populations are being seriously affected by chitrid and all the other problems of civilisation, the CEs are possibly the last straw.

      I agree that CEs wouldn't affect frog pops in areas that were away from grazing country but many of these frog habitats today are very fragmented and becoming more so.

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    3. Eric Vanderduys

      Ecological Researcher

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Hi Jim,
      There are few cattle at Kroombit. The tinker frogs there mostly live in very steep boulder fields. Pigs may cause problems in some areas at Kroombit, but not cattle egrets I think.

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    4. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Eric Vanderduys

      Thanks Eric. Probably all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope our normally very tough frogs can develop some resistance to chytrid .

      It is to be hoped that these very reduced species will stick around long enough for that to happen.

      But I must get up there and have a look [I've been telling myself that for some time].

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  3. Michael J. Cunningham

    Lecturer at University of Pretoria

    Hi Clay,
    Sorry I'm picking up on this article late...I hope the project at Currumbin is doing well.

    I have not heard on progress with the Kroombit Tinker since the monitoring was canned - as far as I know it is currently an experiment in laissez-faire threatened species management (unreplicated, or at least inadequately controlled).

    You are probably aware of this but I think it is worth noting here that the eggs and tadpole of this species have never been found or described. What is most surprising…

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