When Vic Giniuzas receives the call, he finds it hard to contain his excitement. From his home in Springwood, he sets off into pristine and often isolated parts of the Blue Mountains with valuable technology in his backpack. Sometimes, his mission requires him to camp out overnight – not that he’s complaining.
“I enjoy exploring,” he says. “It’s a bit like prospecting. You might find something valuable, something unique.”
Vic is a proud ‘citizen scientist’. For a couple of years he had been doing his own research into the Giant Burrowing Frog, which is threatened. Since August, 2020, he has been able to put his knowledge to good use as a volunteer assisting University of Newcastle researchers.
In 2019, renowned amphibian expert Professor Michael Mahony and his team received $300,000 from the NSW Government’s Saving Our Species grant to investigate the threats to five threatened frog species in protected habitats such as Vic’s beloved Blue Mountains National Park as well as the Barrington Range and New England Range.
As part of the three-year project, citizen scientists – local residents and community groups such as Bushcare Blue Mountains – are helping to monitor auditory data loggers known as AudioMoths, which are placed near known frog populations to record their calls. Volunteers such as Vic take the AudioMoths to designated sites and retrieve data every six weeks or so which is then shared with University of Newcastle researchers.
For Vic, being involved in the project gives him a sense of purpose: “I’ve always been a nature nerd and it gives my interest and passion legitimacy. You feel like you’re part of something bigger.”
Michael Mahony is a driving force behind the University's engagement with citizen scientists. A committed teacher who began his science career supervising high school students while completing his PhD, Michael's mentorship was recognised in 2016 by former University of Newcastle student Dr Simon Clulow, who named a newly discovered frog after him. Mahony's Toadlet (Uperoleia mahonyi) is found in select coastal sand swamps in the Myall Lakes, Port Stephens and Central Coast.
Michael's passion for teaching combined with a commitment to conservation drives his focus outside the lab on the role of citizen scientists. He has worked alongside hundreds of people throughout his research career who may not have attended university, but want to do their bit to protect frogs.
"With tools and training, citizen scientists are empowered to become our eyes and ears, and also that of the wider community," he says. "They can make a valuable contribution and I think since the bushfires more people want to be involved. We defend what we care about."
Michael Mahony speaks ‘frog’. “Waak, waak, waak … brrr, brrr, brrr,” he mimics. “And the amazing thing is, they answer back. It’s how we locate them.”
Sadly, an increasing number of frog populations are falling silent. When the Black Summer bushfires were finally extinguished in March 2020, the statistics reinforced the grim images that dominated news reports. Of the more than 18 million hectares razed nationally, 5 million were in New South Wales.
But it was the loss of animals that made headlines around the world.
Michael was one of 10 scientists who contributed to the report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfires: The Wildlife Toll. It estimated that 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the fires and 51 million of those were frogs. The figures are regarded as conservative.
“The fires distressed us all,” says Michael. “They may have changed some habitats forever. We’re still coming to terms with what was lost and we will go through it again.
“Frogs are a symbol of the health of our environment and they capture our imagination. You can remember as kids heading into the bush searching for them. They’re accessible in a way that other animals aren’t. You can collect tadpoles, listen to frogs at night in your backyard."
Long before the fires, frogs were vulnerable. The waves of extinction gained momentum in the 1980s, both here and overseas. Globally, nearly 200 frog species have been lost in the past 30 years to disease, and a further 200 face imminent threat. Australia has 240 frog species, 40 of which are in the Hunter region, and all of the diverse population aren’t found anywhere else in the world. We have already lost 10 species and researchers estimate another 30 to 40 are at risk.
From 1980 to 1986, six species of frog became extinct in rainforest in Queensland’s wet tropics. That they were disappearing in pristine areas was significant. Theories included drought, damage to the ozone layer, and loss of habitat. It took until 1998 for it to be accepted that the chytrid fungus was largely responsible for wiping out more than a third of the world’s frog species. Chytrid is a highly infectious fungal disease that attacks the keratin in a frog’s skin, disrupts the flow and levels of electrolytes, and eventually causes a heart attack.
Chytrid fungus is probably transferred by direct contact between frogs and tadpoles, or through exposure to infected water. The disease may not kill frogs immediately, and they can swim or hop to other areas before they die, spreading fungal spores to new ponds and streams. This means it is very important not to move frogs from one area to another. Wet or muddy boots and tyres, fishing, camping, and gardening equipment may also be contributing to the spread of the disease.
Michael describes frogs as “the clearest sign of impending disaster”, like canaries in a mine because their shell-less eggs and permeable skin is so sensitive to changes in the environment. His message is that we need to buy time:
“In spite of our influence and impact, humans haven’t made one new species. We can’t make DNA, but we can use innovation and technology to find solutions. We shouldn’t let millions of years of evolution disappear in the click of a finger. We need an insurance policy. We can store the genome in frozen gene banks. Everyone can make a contribution to their preservation.”
The University of Newcastle’s Conservation Science Research Group is creating a new conservation paradigm – one focused on innovative biological interventions that mitigate threats which can’t be stopped in time to prevent extinction. Traditional conservation programs known as translocations typically fail because threats remain present or establish themselves in translocation sites. They also don’t stop at boundaries of national parks, reserves or other conservation areas.
The University of Newcastle team is driving three key research areas to protect frog species:
Michael and fellow researchers have developed a world-first ‘in the field’ semen collection and cryopreservation technique. “IVF for frogs,” says Michael, who is regarded as a pioneer in amphibian DNA cryopreservation.
This work has also resulted in a cutting-edge collaborative project on de-extinction called The Lazarus Project. In a world-first, the Newcastle team helped revive and reactivate the genome of the extinct Australian Gastric-Brooding Frog using sophisticated cloning technology.
The frog, which bred its young in its stomach and gave birth through its mouth, became extinct in 1986. Newcastle researchers partnered with the University of NSW to recover cell nuclei from tissues that were collected in the 1970s and kept for 40 years in a deep freezer.
In repeated experiments over five years at the University of Newcastle’s Amphibian Laboratory, researchers took fresh donor eggs from the distantly related Great Barred Frog, inactivated the egg nuclei, and replaced them with dead nuclei from the extinct frog. Some of the eggs spontaneously began to divide and grow to early embryo stage. This innovative cloning technology was one of Time magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of the year in 2013.
In partnership with the Taronga Conservation Society, the University of Newcastle team is working to collect and store frog DNA in ‘banks’ to preserve frog species and also enable reintroduction of historical DNA to prevent inbreeding.
Captive breeding program
University of Newcastle researchers have gained new insights about the impacts of the chytrid fungus on the endangered Australian Green and Golden Bell Frogs by studying disease incidence in natural populations at Kooragang Island and Sydney Olympic Park. They found that peak infection occurred in winter, which led to major mortality events each year. The loss of breeding-age females had the greatest impact on the population, as fewer females were able produce the large numbers of spawn that would have sustained the local population.
Working with industry partners, the team started a captive breeding program. From 2012 to 2016, they released 40,000 tadpoles and juvenile frogs into newly constructed habitats at Kooragang Island.
After more than two successful breeding seasons, Kooragang Island is now home to a new generation of Green and Golden Bell frogs, which had not been seen in large and sustainable numbers for nearly two decades.
The citizen science program is supported by the NSW Government through a partnership between the Saving our Species program and the Environmental Trust.