May 3

A newly-established population of mountain chickens appears to be alive and well, three months on from their reintroduction back into the wild. The news is an encouraging step in the right direction for the scientists working to ensure the survival of this Critically Endangered frog.

Photo of mountain chicken

Disturbing declines

The curiously-named mountain chicken is a species of amphibian found only on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. In recent years, populations of the mountain chicken have declined by as much as 80% in the wild.

Several factors have been attributed to the mountain chicken’s alarming decline, including the apparent likeness of its taste to that of chicken, which has resulted in this species becoming a local delicacy and an attractive lure to local hunters. This species has also been affected by Montserrat’s active volcano, which erupted in 1995 and rendered parts of the island uninhabitable.

However, perhaps the most troubling threat to the mountain chicken is the presence of the fatal chytrid fungus on Montserrat. This devastating disease has already severely affected many amphibian species around the world.

Photo of mountain chicken juvenile

Saving a species

After discovering the disease had spread to the island in 2009, researchers described the frog’s outlook as ‘desperate’, and hopes for its long-term survival looked fairly slim, with only two uninfected populations remaining.

In a bid to save the species, conservationists from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey and a number of other zoos in the UK and Sweden embarked on an emergency mission to airlift 50 surviving mountain chickens to safety.

Some of these frogs were relocated to Jersey, UK, where dedicated herpetologists worked to successfully breed the frogs in captivity and prepare them for reintroduction back into the wild.

A promising start

In January 2012, a population of 33 healthy mountain chickens were released back onto Montserrat. The frogs were all fitted with an electronic tag before their release, to help scientists track their movements more effectively.

Three months on from the frogs’ release, Sarah-Louise Smith, project co-ordinator for the Mountain Chicken Recovery Programme, says that “the fact that we still have live frogs in the release site looking healthy and calling is a very encouraging sign.”

Some frogs will be found underground in burrows or at the bottom of ponds so we would never find them without this technique,” said Ms Smith, referring to the electronic tags. “When we find the frogs we collect data such as location, swabs of the skin to test for the chytrid and any signs they might be breeding.”

Photo of mountain chicken in leaves

Although some of the released frogs have been infected by chytridiomycosis, the team say that this could in fact help them to better understand the problem facing the mountain chicken in its natural habitat.

Scientists are now hoping to listen for further signs that the frogs are surviving and potentially breeding by setting up microphones, nicknamed ‘frog loggers’, to listen out for their calls and monitor signs of survival in other parts of the island.

Between April and September the males have a very distinctive ‘whooping’ call that echoes around the forest to attract females to their burrow, so we’re hoping to start hearing these calls as confirmation frogs are trying to breed,” says Ms Smith.

Hope for the future

Although the current signs are encouraging, Ms Smith says, “We still have a long way to go with our research and there is still a lot about the chytrid that we do not know, but there are many people local and international dedicated to the mountain chicken and working hard to make sure we are successful.

The chytrid disease is known to currently affect over 500 species of amphibian worldwide, penetrating the skin and causing lesions which prevent sufficient oxygen entering the body, effectively suffocating them.

Read the full article on BBC Nature: ‘Chicken’ frogs survive in new home

Find out more about the mountain chicken on ARKive

Find out more about the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

Find out more about the Mountain Chicken Recovery Programme

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author