green frog in the lake

In a bid to save one of New Zealand’s remnants of its Gondwanaland past, Auckland Zoo has established a new facility to breed one of New Zealand’s most endangered native frogs

The new native frog research centre, a joint project of Auckland Zoo, the Department of Conservation and Carter Holt Harvey, will mainly focus on breeding, researching and advocating for Archey’s frog.

Native New Zealand frogs, whose lineage stretches back to the time of the dinosaurs, are highly unusual: they lack external ears, don’t croak, are nocturnal and hatch directly into froglets without going through a tadpole stage.

New Zealand was originally home to seven frog species, but three are extinct because of habitat loss and predation by pests such as rats. Now only the Hamilton’s frog, the Maud Island frog, Hochstetter’s and the smallest of them all, Archey’s, remain. The Archey’s frog is classified as “nationally critical” by DOC and critically endangered by the international conservation group, the World Conservation Union.

“The captive breeding programme is crucial to safeguarding the long-term future of this unique native animal,” says Conservation Minister Chris Carter, who opened the Auckland Zoo facility.

The frogs’ new zoological home has been designed to replicate the Archey’s moist, misty, cool, high altitude habitat — even the decking surrounding the building has been isolated from the main structure, as the Archey’s frog feels the slightest vibration through its sensitive feet. The facility will only be accessed by the zoo’s native fauna team, but visitors will be able to walk around and look in from the outside.

“Zoos have come a long way in recent years, and it’s exciting for us to reach a point where our expertise in captive rearing and our role in conservation is now recognised, and our participation required,” says Auckland Zoo director Glen Holland.

Captive breeding and observational research is considered an essential part of native frog conservation to boost natural population numbers, and to establish new populations at safe sites, both on the mainland and on off-shore islands.

“The great thing is that the facility is going to provide a safe haven for Archey’s frogs and provide an invaluable opportunity to increase our understanding of the biology and captive management of native frogs generally, which will in turn assist with management of them in the wild,” says Andrew Nelson, the leader of Auckland Zoo native fauna team, who will oversee the management of the frog facility.

In addition to the problems of predation and habitat loss, the Archey’s frog population has also been infected by a disease caused by chytrid fungus. According to the Global Amphibian Assessment, Archey’s once abounded, but since 1996 have been in decline. In one habitat in the Coromandel, the number of Archey’s was slashed by almost 90 per cent between 1996 and 2002. Worldwide, according to the World Conservation Union’s “Red List” of threatened species, at least 1,856 amphibian species are threatened with extinction, a third of all amphibian species.

“If we can increase the survival rate of young frogs in captivity, we can then boost wild populations to the extent that will allow them to be resilient against other diseases,” says Avi Holzapfel, DOC’s national frog recovery group leader.

Auckland Zoo expects to receive its first frogs within the next couple of months.

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