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Finding frogs down under


WORLD Radio - Finding frogs down under

Everyday Australians are helping a museum gather data on the continent’s frogs

A frog pond. Photo Credit to Amy Lewis

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is the 14th of April. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Paul Butler.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

KERMIT: It’s not easy being green

You may recognize the voice there of Jim Henson playing one of the most famous frogs of our time. We’re talking about Kermit the Frog, of course.

BUTLER: But other frog voices aren’t as easy to recognize, like this Cave Frog.


Or there’s this one.


If you didn’t know, that’s a Tasmanian Smooth Froglet.

EICHER: Nope. I didn’t know that.

BUTLER: Well, a new app and thousands of volunteers are helping Australian scientists slow down, turn around, bend down, and catalog frog species on their continent—putting them on the map, quite literally, for the first time. Here’s WORLD Correspondent Amy Lewis.

AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: Many people go outside for exercise or to get from Point A to Point B. But Dorothée Heibel is not like many people. Heibel goes outside to sit—and to listen. She also goes outside—at night.


HEIBEL DOROTHÉE: I usually go out around 10, after dinner or when it's dark and I have my peace, and you see the sky as well, you know. It just gets you outside at the time where you wouldn't be. I always enjoy that.

Heibel and her husband live in the Hunter Valley, about two hours northwest of Sydney. By day, Heibel is an artist. At night, she’s a citizen scientist.

For the past three years, Heibel has been recording frog songs for the Australian Museum.


DOROTHÉE: So I've sent in 536 recordings so far. And 1190 frog calls. It just adds up. (laugh)

Heibel is one of 35,000 users of the FrogID app. It’s an app that the Australian Museum developed in 2017 to pinpoint the exact location and distribution of frogs in all their many species. Along with their volunteers, the Australian Museum hopes to map all 246 frog species on the continent. After a half a million recordings, they have only 33 species left to go.

But what’s the big deal about frogs? Lynette Plenderleith is president and founder of FrogsVIC, a networking hub for frog scientists and enthusiasts.

LYNETTE PLENDERLEITH: Most people either come down to “I love frogs,” or, ‘“Oh, my goodness, frogs are disgusting. How could you?”

Plenderleith has learned a lot since she first met an elusive frog as a 5-year-old in the UK. She says frogs serve a greater purpose than just grossing people out or making them swoon. Their presence in a waterway encourages a diverse ecosystem.

PLENDERLEITH: Frogs bring with them things that eat frogs. So by having frogs around, we've also got waterbirds and, and snakes and other things that like to eat, eat frogs, like kookaburras.


Frogs are small and may seem insignificant. But if they disappeared, their main food source—insects—would rule the world.

PLENDERLEITH: I don't think people realize, you know, kilogram per kilogram just how much of the world is made up of frogs, and amphibians. It's quite, quite a hefty amount. And water, of course, is an utterly vital resource for every single living animal, plant, fungus on the planet. And frogs have so much to do with water, that makes them a really significant part of the ecosystem.

Scientists gather all sorts of information—like habitat change, or the presence of disease-susceptible frogs, or the prevalence of common species that might crowd out threatened ones. They can then apply what they learn in practice elsewhere.

PLENDERLEITH: The more data you've got the better–always. Always, always, always.

But getting all that data relies on a troop of citizen scientists.

PLENDERLEITH: So professional scientists tend to be sort of centered around a research institution or their house. But of course, the general population is spread through all sorts of corners of Australia and around the world as well. So, so they stand to really fill a gap in, in data collection that we can’t do with people that are paid to do it.


Dorothée Heibel’s corner of Australia was stark and barren when she moved there 25 years ago. The 45 acres only had a few gum trees—and certainly no frogs. Heibel and her husband worked hard to rejuvenate the land. A lot has changed.


HEIBEL: When there is bird count twice a year in winter, and in summer, we counted up to 40 species on our property. But we know that there are many, many more because we hear a lot and can't identify them because we don't see them. Not every bird comes to a bird box.

Their property has become a haven for native animals. They’ve seen a dingo, an iguana, beautiful snakes, and plenty of kangaroos. Plus, some quail.

HEIBEL: Eight little quails walked over the veranda, like little soldiers, one after the other. We don't see them very often anymore. Sadly, we're almost a little bit of an island here, because around us, lots of bush has been removed.

But she is encouraged by what she does see and hear on her property. When she visits one of their dams to record for frogs, Heibel has a hard time picking out the various species from the whole frog chorus.


The museum put a dot on the map for each of the frog species Heibel recorded. And they emailed her the results. She was surprised at what came back.

HEIBEL: So I just looked it up yesterday, and I was surprised that we have 17 different species. I would have thought we have about two different frogs, you know, but it's, it's incredible.

Not everyone is enamored with frogs. Lynette Plenderleith of FrogsVIC says that’s ok.

PLENDERLEITH: If you're one of those people that is horrified by the thought of an animal that is constantly covered in snot, then I would encourage you to consider how interesting and how amazing that is. You can still observe them with curiosity from a distance and, and be amazed by them, because they, they do help us out. They are part of an important part of the global ecosystem. And they’re great to have around.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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