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La Niña rain brings baby boom for critically endangered Booroolong frog

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a close up of a frog: The Booroolong frog was rediscovered in the New England Tableland in 2017. (Supplied: Jodi Rowley)

The Booroolong frog was rediscovered in the New England Tableland in 2017. 

Wetter weather over summer has led to a local baby boom for a critically endangered frog species in northern New South Wales.

Australian Museum frog scientist Jodi Rowley identified 15 baby Booroolong frogs in a creek bed near Glen Innes in the New England Tablelands in late January.

The species was rediscovered there in 2017 after a 40-year absence from the region, but the numbers found have been low.

She said the apparent baby boom was probably due to the La Niña weather pattern and would hopefully lead to a local resurgence of the species.

The museum's recent field trip was part of ongoing research comparing frog populations with work done by the University of New England in the late 1960s and early 70s.

The Booroolong frog was discovered accidentally in 2017 when researchers were looking for two other critically endangered species, the peppered tree frog and the yellow-spotted bell frog.

Dr. Rowley said the Glen Innes region was one of the best-studied in Australia, thanks to the university's historic research.

The museum's new study has yielded important information.

"What we found is a complete change in the frogs that used to occur here," Dr. Rowley said.

"Frog species that were abundant 40 years ago were missing, and others that weren't that commonly encountered are actually more common."

She said frog populations there and around Australia were extremely vulnerable to the amphibian chytrid fungus, a disease spread by the global trade in frogs for food, pets and pharmaceuticals.

"This is a tiny little fungus-like thing which affects the skin of frogs," she said.

"Frogs use their skin for pretty much everything — breathing, drinking — and so something that affects the skin of a frog, it's kind of their Achilles heel, they can't cope with it."

Dr. Rowley said climate change was also a likely factor in the extinction of at least four Australian frog species and the threatened status of dozens more.

"Climate change is certainly already impacting frogs; we don't know quite what has happened in the past and what is a disease, what is habitat loss, what is introduced species. Frogs are just being hit by so many things at once, like much biodiversity," she said.

Dr. Rowley said there were more than 240 species of frogs in Australia and new ones were still being discovered.

"The biggest obstacle to frog conservation, apart from some of the threats, is that we really just don't know that much about them," she said.

"Frogs are tricky and there's just not that many frog biologists."

Citizen scientists lending an ear

Citizen scientists across Australia are helping frog conservation through the museum's FrogID app.

More than 13,000 people have recorded about 250,000 frog calls and their locations for the FrogID database.

"It's been really amazing how much people have been ready to join the fight to save frogs, from landholders on enormous properties, from rangers out in the middle of nowhere to people driving around the country in every walk of life recording frogs and making a huge contribution to Australia's understanding of our amazing frog species," Dr. Rowley said.

Private landholders in the New England region are also helping the museum's current research, opening up land not studied by the original University of New England scientists.

Increasingly farmers are understanding that healthy biodiversity can deliver a production benefit, according to Dr. Rowley.

"By having healthy frog populations on your property, including a diversity of species, it really indicates you have a healthy environment going," she said.

"I mean, they're very sensitive to any chemicals which get sucked straight through their skin and they're a really important part of a healthy ecosystem, so the tadpoles help keep the streams clear and free of algae and the adults eat a lot of invertebrates, including pest species, while also being eaten by a whole bunch of other animals, mammals, birds, reptiles.

"So even though each frog is quite small, together they're usually really, really abundant in a healthy ecosystem and they are a really, really important part of a healthy ecosystem."

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