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After disease engulfs island, rare mountain chicken frogs airlifted to safety

In a rescue operation that sounds straight out of an action film, 50 mountain chicken frogs were airlifted from the Caribbean island Montserrat after the discovery of Chytridomycosis, a fungal disease that has wiped out amphibian populations worldwide. Already, hundreds of the critically-endangered mountain chicken frogs succumbed to the disease, which is thought to have made its way to the island in late 2008 or early 2009.

A partnership of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Parken Zoo in Stockholm, Sweden, split the frogs into three groups with each institution receiving a batch.

A team from DWCT worked with the Department of Forestry in Montserrat to survey the conditions of the frog populations after the disease was discovered. Seeing the gravity of the situation, a decision was made to evacuate as many healthy frogs as possible. Only one population of mountains chickens on the island appears to remain disease-free, although biologists believe it’s only a matter of time before the disease reaches the last population.

“I remember being surrounded by calling frogs in Montserrat and the effect of the sound echoing off the sides of the valleys was magical,” says DWCT’s Head of Herpetology, Gerardo García. “It has been very sad to return to these valleys and see them either empty or full of dead and dying frogs. The one positive aspect was that we were able to get to the main population in a place called Fairy Walk before the disease, and now these animals form the basis of our rescue efforts”.

The frogs were sent to institutions that already have experience working with them. As one of the world’s largest frogs, they have matching appetites and are known for being difficult to keep in captivity.

“As we see from elsewhere in the world, chytrid has spread to Montserrat with devastating effect,” says Quentin Bloxam, DWCT’s Director of Conservation Management. “We now have a strong collaboration between institutions that are well placed to lead this effort. The captive populations form a crucial part in protecting this species from extinction.”

Considered one of the world’s rarest amphibians (listed as number 158 on EDGE’s amphibian list, which lists species regarding their threat-level and genetic distinction), the mountain chicken frog used to be abundant on six Caribbean islands. A number of factors, including invasive species like rats and hunting for food by locals, have led to its extinction on all the islands but Dominica and Montserrat. The mountain chicken frogs on Dominica were devastated by chytridmycosis in 2002. With the disease entering Montserrat the best chance for these frogs may be in institutions like ZSL, Parken Zoo, and DWCT.

“Our captive breeding unit means that we are now in a great position to support the Mountain chicken frogs from Montserrat at a time when their home is rife of this deadly disease,” says Ian Stephen, ZSL’s Assistant Curator of Herpetology . “This ex-situ rescue population gives genuine hope for the future survival of this species.”

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