Conservationists had reason to celebrate this week as two highly threatened mountain chickens produced a massive brood of offspring.
A lucky escape
On its Caribbean island home of Montserrat, the strangely named mountain chicken faces a whole host of threats, from predation to volcanic activity. Yet the biggest threat of all comes in the form of the deadly chytrid fungus, which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of amphibians and has led to the mountain chicken being considered one of the most threatened frog species in the world.
However, thanks to conservation efforts led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), things are looking up for this intriguing amphibian. A few years ago, 50 mountain chickens were air-lifted from Montserrat in a desperate attempt to ensure a future for the species, and flown to Sweden, London and Jersey to be cared for and bred in captivity. It was hoped that this would produce a healthy population for future release into the wild.
This bold move has proved fruitful this week, as 2 of the female mountain chickens being housed at ZSL London Zoo have produced an incredible 76 tadpoles between them, massively boosting this species’ population.
“We’re absolutely chuffed to bits,” said Dr Ian Stephen, ZSL’s Curator of Herpetology.
The original challenge
This latest success for ZSL’s mountain chicken breeding programme is the culmination of years of hard work which have seen the rescue team face many difficult tests.
“The first challenge was getting them out of the Caribbean in to Europe safely,” said Dr Stephen. “Although the mountain chicken is one of the biggest frogs in the world they’re still a small animal so they’re incredibly sensitive to temperature fluctuations and that tends to be the thing that would kill a frog during transportation.”
To minimise stress on the frogs and to protect them on their long journey, the mountain chickens were transported in temperature-controlled boxes. Since their arrival in the UK, the 12 frogs have been housed in a specially designed bio-secure breeding unit, which includes temperature controlled rooms, automated spray systems and live food rearing areas. Keepers have to don full paper suits, masks and gloves in the facility, to ensure that no diseases can enter the enclosure and threaten the frogs.
The arrival of the 76 tadpoles is an incredible accomplishment for the ZSL team, as the mountain chicken is notoriously difficult to keep in captivity, mainly due to its voracious appetite and unusual breeding behaviour. Female mountain chickens create a special foam nest in the ground, into which they lay their eggs. The females then produce unfertilised eggs, and regularly feed them to the tadpoles.
Dr Stephen hopes that the majority of the 76 tadpoles at ZSL will survive to adulthood, with a view to releasing them on Montserrat in an area which has not yet been touched by the chytrid fungus.
Chytridiomycosis, the disease caused by the chytrid fungus, is described by Dr Stephen as being incredibly serious: “It’s probably the first time where a disease is affecting an entire class of animals. It’s moving towards driving the extinction of most of the amphibian species across the globe.”
A ‘safety net’ population of mountain chickens will also be kept in captivity, in case the chytrid fungus causes any further devastating losses on the island.
Read more on this story at BBC – Frogs rescued from killer fungus have ‘massive’ brood.
Find out more about the mountain chicken on ARKive.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author