Frogs Under Fire

Frogs Under Fire (Frog Image by Christina Renowden, Fire Photo by Maxim Tajer on Unsplash; montage image created by Christina Renowden)

For over 200 million years, frogs have been happily chirping, peeping and hopping about the planet. Often referred to as a barometer of a healthy environment, frogs, now sadly, are increasingly under fire. Are their nightly calls diminishing to the point that we cannot hear their soft, melodic voices warning us the planet is in peril?

I have always had an affinity with frogs, they were my introduction to the world of conservation. It all started when I rescued tadpoles and ‘metamorphs’ (baby frogs) from our pool which was to be chlorinated – I have been chasing frogs one way or another ever since.

For many others that I have spoken to over the years, frogs have also enlightened their childhood memories. Where ‘tad-poling’ in the local creek enabled children to marvel at one of nature’s most fascinating processes: metamorphosis.

But such stories and experiences with frogs, particularly in urban areas where most of us live, I no longer hear. Rather, I am bombarded by stories of disease decimating frog populations, habitat loss and the increased threat they face due to fire and climate change.

When I consider the Black Summer bushfire season in 2019/2020, where over 1 billion animals perished, and millions of hectares of bush were burnt, my heart hurts just thinking of the frogs.  While I know some species have evolved to survive fire, many will struggle to recover.

To survive or not to survive fire

Considering Australia is a fire-prone continent – it gives me hope that frogs having evolved with fire will know what to do when they strike. Indeed, research shows that some frogs display an amazing adaptation to an approaching fire as they leap to their hiding places under logs, rocks, or in water. Some frogs are even cued by the sound of fire allowing them to hop away and hide.

Frogs are experts at finding moist, cool refuge. Here a Growling Grass Frog keeps cool and moist in a hole made by a cow’s hoof (Photo by Christina Renowden)

So, even when temperatures get extremely hot in fires, frogs bunkered underground or in water remain relatively cool.  In some cases, frogs will emerge after fire and be heard calling for a mate; provided there is available water. However, not all frogs respond to bushfire in the same way.

Problems arise when fires are more intense and hotter, as we saw in the Black Summer fires, recovery becomes considerably tougher and threats can intensify.

With little refuge left, frogs are easy prey for lurking predators such as cats, foxes, and birds. Some species like foxes hone in on burnt areas as easy prey are left vulnerable.

With little shelter left, foxes prey on wildlife following fires (Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash)

The bad news continues. As the fire subsides, there is less insect prey available and frogs are often left homeless and hungry. Compounding the issue can be rain after fire washing ash into the waterways leaving frogs with unsuitable breeding habitat.

It’s time for citizen action 

Throughout my time as a frog researcher, science communicator and all-round nature advocate, frogs have claimed the undesirable title of being one of the most threatened vertebrate groups in the world. For a group of animals already facing mass extinction, higher risk of fire under current climate scenarios is of real concern to me and other frog-lovers around the world. Responding to the dwindling frog populations in Victoria, and beyond is a nation-wide citizen science program designed to monitor frogs and track their recovery overtime.

And there is already good news coming from such programs. After the 2019/2020 fires, 45 frog species have been recorded by everyday citizens armed with their smart phones and the Frog ID app.  While we don’t have the full- or long-term picture yet, it provides an important snapshot of what is happening with some frog species after the fires.

Hopefully, through such programs, researchers will have a more informed understanding of how to respond and conserve frogs into a fire-prone future.  And I for one will keep spreading the good word about these wonderful sentient creatures we share the planet with.

Eastern Banjo Frog (Photo By Christina Renowden)


6 Responses to “Frogs Under Fire”

  1. Thanks Aaron. Yes we wait to see how conservation efforts will evolve and how the upcoming bushfires season will go…

  2. Aaron Heap says:

    It’s going to be really interesting to see how conservation is going to have to adapt to the increased risk of fire with longer fire seasons and higher intensity fires. Lucky that mother nature has given wildlife those escape cues. That was really interesting to find out frogs take the cue of the sound of fire to hide. Great article

  3. Thanks for the reflection and comment Michaela!

  4. Michaela Mueller says:

    I really liked your emotional style of writing, it was a very enjoyable read!

    A very nice explanation of how a species, that we might take for granted, is actually in deep need of help. It’s such a great thing that you could be involved in saving them.

  5. Thanks Darren!
    It might warm your heart to know there is a whole organisation called ‘Save the Frogs’

  6. Darren Chieng says:

    The concern for species will certainly become a common theme. We will be seeing this more and more as extreme weather persists sadly. However, it was great to read an article from someone that is so passionate about frog health! I believe that as more people like you talk about this, we could see a change in the future of ecological preservation. It really makes me want to join the party (perhaps start a hashtag? #SaveTheFrogs)!