Tiny frogs face a troubled future in New Guinea’s tropical mountains


Paul Oliver, Australian National University and Mike Lee, Flinders University

At night, the mountain forests of New Guinea come alive with weird buzzing and beeping calls made by tiny frogs, some no bigger than your little fingernail. The Conversation

These little amphibians – in the genus Choerophryne – would shrivel and dry up in mere minutes in the hot sun, so they are most common in the rainy, cooler mountains.

Yet many isolated peaks, especially along northern New Guinea, have their own local species of these frogs.

So how did localised and distinctive species of these tiny frogs come to be on these isolated peaks, separated from each other by hotter, drier and rather inhospitable lowlands?

Our new study of their DNA, published this week in the open access journal PeerJ, reveals how they achieved this feat. It reveals a dynamic past, and more worryingly it highlights the future vulnerability of tropical mountain forests and their rich biodiversity.

A hotspot of frog diversity

New Guinea has an astounding diversity of frogs: more than 450 known species and counting. This is nearly double the diversity in Australia, a landmass ten times larger.

Remarkably, a majority of these species are in a single species-rich, ecologically diverse group that have dispensed with the tadpole stage.

Instead they hatch out of their eggs as tiny little replicas of the adults. Because they do not depend on still pools of water to breed, they do really well in the incredibly wet, but steep mountains of New Guinea.

One of our group (Stephen Richards) has been collecting DNA from frogs across New Guinea for the past 20 years. This work is at times arduous and painful. Having a leech worm its way into the back of one’s eye, and then stay there for more than a week, is not pleasant.

But these trips are also extremely rewarding. So far we have described more than 70 new species, and discovered many more that await description.

They also provide opportunities to explore some of world’s most wild places. Perhaps the best example is the first scientific expedition to the remote Foja Mountains.

This isolated mountain range in northern New Guinea was previously almost unexplored, but revealed a treasure trove of diversity, including a “lost” bird of paradise, a completely new species of another bird, and a bizarre treefrog with an erectile nose.

We also found several species of Choerophryne frog. DNA from these allowed our team to test two potential ways that miniature frogs could have come to occupy distant mountain peaks that are separated by inhospitable lowlands.

Across the Fojas by frog

The first way involves mountain-top frogs evolving separately on each isolated peak, potentially from larger frogs capable of surviving in the hotter and drier, nearby lowlands.

If this were the case, the frog on any given mountaintop would be most genetically similar to frogs from adjoining lowlands.

The other way involves exploiting climate change. During past phases of global cooling (glacial periods), the colder, wetter, mountainous habitats of New Guinea expanded downhill, a process termed elevational depression.

If depression was extensive enough, the frogs on one mountain might have been able to travel across tracts of cool, wet lowlands to colonise other mountains.

Later, a warming climate would wipe out the lowland populations, leaving two isolated mountain populations, which might eventually become new species.

If this were the case, we would expect the frogs in different mountains to be genetically related, since they almost literally hopped from one peak to the other.

Our new study of the DNA of the little Choerophryne frogs indicates they used both routes to conquer the peaks of New Guinea.

In the remote Foja mountains, for example, there are three species of Choerophryne. One species has evolved in situ in northern New Guinea from nearby lowland frogs.

The other two are related to frogs from distant mountains of central New Guinea, and presumably moved across the intervening lowlands during cooler glacial periods.

The little frogs and the future

Why does it matter how the tiny frogs moved to their mountain habitats? Because it could be a warning to their future survival.

Tropical mountains have some of the most biodiverse assemblages of plants and animals in the world. Their ecosystems are also far more dynamic than is popularly recognised.

Just like glaciers, the movements of frogs (and other organisms) up and down mountains has tracked global temperatures. As we’ve shown, the global cooling in past glacial periods allowed the mountain-dwelling frogs to move down across the lowlands to find new mountain peaks.

But today, as global temperatures soar to levels not seen for millions of years, their habitable cool zones are heading in the other direction: shrinking uphill.

We have no idea how quickly these frogs will respond to these changes, but recent research elsewhere in New Guinea has found birds are already shifting upslope rapidly.

We don’t yet know what could happen to these cute little amphibians should temperatures continue to climb, and they in turn run out of mountainside to climb.

It’s more than ten years since the first expeditions to the Foja Mountains, and this study provides a great demonstration of the ongoing value of the scientific data collected on these trips.

We now have a snapshot of the distinctive frogs (and many other animals) that live at the tops of these remote mountains, and a window into their past.

This provides an incredibly important resource to help us understand the dynamic history of these mountain forests, and reminds us that despite their inaccessibility, they face an uncertain future.


Stephen John Richards, a research associate in systematics, biogeography and conservation of amphibians, at The South Australian Museum, was a co-author on this article.

Paul Oliver, Postdoctoral Researcher in Biodiversity and Evolution, Australian National University and Mike Lee, Professor in Evolutionary Biology (jointly appointed with South Australian Museum), Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump tears down US climate policy, but America could lose out as a result


Kumuda Simpson, La Trobe University

US President Donald Trump has followed through on his promise to undo Barack Obama’s climate policies, signing an executive order to review his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan and any other regulations that “burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources”. The move potentially paves the way for the United States to walk away from its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. The Conversation

America’s leadership on climate change has been patchy at best, yet under Obama the country made an important diplomatic shift – one that now looks to be fundamentally unravelling. Trump’s executive order, released on Tuesday, aims to dismantle the network of institutions and laws that regulate greenhouse emissions, and those that conduct globally important research to track climate change. The consequences, both at home and abroad, will be severe.

The order comes as little surprise. Trump, after all, has previously claimed that climate change is a conspiracy perpetrated by the Chinese government to gain economic advantage at America’s expense, and made a campaign promise to undo the Paris deal. His administration has deep ties to the oil and gas industry, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former chief executive of ExxonMobil. Trump also greenlit the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.

Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) caused alarm among environmental activists and EPA staff alike. Pruitt has a history of suing the EPA during his time as Attorney General of Oklahoma, and hundreds of recently released emails attest to his close relationship with the oil and gas industry.

The new executive order signals that Trump does not want climate research to be carried out by government agencies such as the EPA, NASA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In a speech to Congress earlier this month, he outlined plans to slash the EPA’s budget. He has also pledged to reinvigorate the coal industry, and the Republican-controlled House has already rolled back an Obama-era regulation that prevented coal companies dumping their waste in rivers.

China leading the climate race

The irony is that while Trump may believe that the emissions targets agreed upon in Paris would weaken the US economy, particularly against China, the reverse is actually closer to the truth.

As my colleague Ben Habib recently argued, China now leads the world in renewable energy investment, a trend that will see it dominate the market in the decades to come. The Paris targets are one way that other countries can similarly encourage clean energy investment.

Meanwhile, China’s plans to move away from its heavy use of coal-fired electricity generation means the price of coal will continue to fall, making America’s cherished coal industry less profitable and exacerbating the economic and social costs to coal mining communities. With many analysts warning of a potential “carbon bubble”, Trump is in danger of backing the wrong horse.

The Chinese government’s desire to move away from fossil fuels is driven partly by serious domestic pollution and health issues. Instead of cutting research funds, the US should pay similar attention to the health of its own citizens.

America’s huge size and geographical diversity means it is likely to experience many different climate impacts, from coastal flooding and severe storms to drought and wildfires.

Global impacts

The Pentagon has repeatedly warned that climate change is a threat to global security that will make existing challenges even harder to deal with.

Competition over scarce resources such as food and water have already contributed to the civil war in Syria, and increasingly violent conflicts over food and farmland in the Horn of Africa. These conflicts have contributed to a growing mass migration crisis, and longer droughts and irregular rainfall in agricultural regions will impact global food prices.

People in the Pacific Islands will likely lose their homes to sea level rise, potentially adding further to the migration of refugees from around the world. Some of the poorest countries in the world, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, will also face the impacts of sea-level rise, yet lack the resources to adapt to the changing environment. More frequent and intense storms and extreme weather events such as cyclones will create humanitarian crises that will require an international response.

Many of these crises will require an American response, whether through the provision of disaster relief and support, or through managing increased migration. When it comes to violent conflict as a result of climate-related tensions, it is likely that America would face immense global pressure to intervene.

It is clear that Trump has less appetite for international intervention than his predecessors. But nor does the White House appear to place any value on managing America’s own vulnerability to climate change.

If Trump’s climate policy takedown is successful, he may well find himself presiding over a country that is weakened economically, socially and politically, both at home and abroad.

Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Still here: Night Parrot rediscovery in WA raises questions for mining


Robert Davis, Edith Cowan University

The Night Parrot is unquestionably one of Australia’s most enigmatic, elusive and enthralling species. The final frontier of Australian ornithology, this cryptic parrot eluded dedicated expeditions to find it for nearly half a century. The Conversation

Last week, a momentous chapter in the Night Parrot story was written, with the first photograph of a live Night Parrot in Western Australia. The photos come in the wake of several other recent sightings, including the parrot’s rediscovery in Queensland in 2013.

Despite media reports, the parrot has never been officially listed as extinct, with sporadic evidence of its existence throughout the 20th century.

But now we know for sure that the parrots are alive and found across the continent, we can move on to making sure they remain so in the future.

Mystery bird

We know that Night Parrots favour spinifex or tussock grasslands, often close to inland wetland systems. But the areas of potential habitat are vast throughout inland Australia.

The Night Parrot has been listed as endangered in the Action Plan for Australian Birds since 1992. It is listed as endangered under federal legislation.

It has never been listed as “presumed extinct” or “extinct”. Reliable ongoing reports and the well-known cryptic nature of the species meant that the ornithological community considered it likely to have survived, albeit incredibly hard to spot.

The Night Parrot has been known to exist in WA since at least 2005, when a colleague and I clinched the first peer-accepted sighting in recent Australian history during an environmental impact assessment for the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) Cloudbreak mine.

Fortescue Marshes, where the Night Parrot was first seen again in WA in 2005.
Robert Davis

This was by no means the first sighting of Night Parrots in WA, with regular and reliable reports since at least the 1980s. But until 2005 none had provided sufficient detail to eliminate other possibilities. Further sightings have been monitored at another location in the arid zone since 2009 and that work is pending publication.

The significance of the latest find is immense. A dedicated team of birdwatchers (Adrian Boyle, Bruce Greatwich, Nigel Jackett and George Swann) has confirmed the existence of a population in WA. The discovery, resulting from a well-planned expedition, is the start of a real dialogue about Night Parrot conservation in WA.

The latest record cements the fact that Night Parrots are present at several locations in WA and potentially throughout arid Australia, including in regions rich in mineral resources.

In contrast to the Queensland populations, which have so far been found in national parks and pastoral leases, the WA situation sets up a quandary for how to manage development, Night Parrots and mining.

Mining and conservation

Our 2005 sighting was important because, given the parrot’s endangered status, FMG was required to provide offsets for potential disturbance to Night Parrot habitat. The offsets included avoiding areas of likely habitat on the Fortescue Marshes, and funding follow-up surveys throughout the areas surrounding the proposed mine. These unfortunately did not find further evidence of Night Parrots.

Research offsets from FMG also funded the writing of a national research plan for Night Parrots. This was later followed by on-ground research on Night Parrots at Pullen Pullen Reserve in Queensland, the population found by naturalist John Young in 2013.

Recent developments by other WA resource companies have seldom considered Night Parrots. My personal experience is that surveys usually look for endangered mammals such as Northern Quolls and Bilbies, but rarely search properly for Night Parrots. This is likely due to two main reasons.

The first is the incredibly cryptic nature of the Night Parrot. Clearly the species has evaded detection for so long because it is difficult to find.

The second is what I term “the Thylacine factor”. The only equivalent species in Australia that has the same degree of scepticism and mythology is the Thylacine.

Thylacines have (so far) not been rediscovered. But developers, consultants and regulators take the same attitude to Night Parrot sightings. The parrots are often seen as a mythical animal that doesn’t exist. The idea of looking for them is met with mirth.

Finding the parrots

Recent findings from research by Steve Murphy in Queensland, and other recent work in WA, are slowly providing us with the tools to overcome both of these issues. With better knowledge of their specific habitat requirements, including a need for long-unburned grasslands close to water sources, we can reduce the daunting challenge of Night Parrots potentially existing anywhere that spinifex is found.

Fire is one of the threats facing the Night Parrot.
Robert Davis

The recent release of calls from the Queensland population and a new recording of calls from the WA population provide the most powerful tool yet for doing surveys. Playing back the calls can be used to elicit a response from any Night Parrots in the area. The call can also be used to identify calls from deployed remote recording devices.

As more populations are discovered and more evidence becomes available, this will help convince the public and decision-makers that the parrots are (hopefully) found across a wide range and need careful management, despite the difficulty of observing them.

Let’s hope government bodies will strongly enforce the requirement to search for Night Parrots in all areas of potential habitat within their known current and historic range. This should ensure that we don’t lose any parrots before they are even found.

Robert Davis, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Biology, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.