Two Oceans in fight for frogs




Suspend disbelief as you enter the
frog’s-eye-view fantasy of the land
beyond the pond – without forgetting the
serious threats these gorgeous creatures
face every day.
(Image: Two Oceans Aquarium)

The beautiful and delicate arum lily frog.
(Image: Helen Lockhart)


The equally beautiful painted reed frog on
a strelitzia plant.
(Image: M Burger)

Jennifer Stern

South Africa’s Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town has joined 500 zoos and aquariums around the world, in the biggest collaborative effort in the history of these institutions, to raise awareness of the plight of amphibians – animals which serve as the canaries in the mine of the world’s environment.

The resulting temporary exhibition Frogs – Beyond the Pond is an exuberant celebration of the life and environment of frogs and toads. It also makes a fitting end to 2008, which the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have declared the Year of the Frog.

“Frogs are the ideal animals on which to hang such a conservation programme,” says Two Oceans Aquarium curator Michael Farquhar.

“They have porous skins through which water and oxygen are absorbed, but through which environmental pollutants are also absorbed, making them very susceptible to polluted environments.

“Scientists consider them indicators of environmental health. If the frogs disappear we should worry.

“Once the frogs have croaked, it’s too late,” he says with a smile.

“Amphibians have watched the dinosaurs come and go,” Farquhar explains. “And yet, sadly, almost half of the 6 000 or so known species are currently faced with extinction. In fact, over 150 species have gone extinct in the last few years.”

This extinction is largely caused by habitat destruction and pollution – human causes, but also things we can address. Another threat, also caused by humans but more difficult to fix is the recently identified chytrid fungus.

“This fungus spreads quickly,” Farquhar says, “and often destroys entire frog communities in its path.

“Interestingly, it is thought to have originated here in South Africa and been exported to the rest of the world on the common platanna in the 1950s when these animals were widely used in pregnancy tests.”

The amphibian ark

The international conservation community’s response to the amphibian crisis is a multi-faceted approach, which includes the Amphibian Ark Programme in which endangered species will be bred in captivity until they can be safely released in the wild.

The Two Oceans Aquarium’s Frogs – Beyond the Pond exhibit will not only raise money for the breeding programme, it will also raise raising awareness of the threats to frogs and other amphibians – and how humans can mitigate these threats.

It’s generally the world’s topical areas that have a large number of amphibian species; the Western Cape, with its Mediterranean climate, is a particularly notable exception.

The region, says Farquhar, is “blessed with a rich frog diversity of 62 species, which is more than half of the total number of species in South Africa. Twenty-nine of these are endemic to the Western Cape, and thus found nowhere else.”

These endemic frogs include the endangered Table Mountain ghost frog, which lives exclusively in the streams on the mountain and is threatened by the encroachment of thirsty alien plants which lower the water table and so reduce stream levels.

Another local species under threat is the western leopard toad. Faced with habitat destruction as more and more buildings go up on wetlands, these beleaguered amphibians are forced to cross busy roads, even freeways, in the mating season. The resulting carnage is horrendous, yet some motorists speed over migrating frogs with blithe indifference. That’s one of the things the exhibit is designed to address.

Making an eloquent plea for the safety of his fellow leopard toads is Teddy the Tongueless Toad. Teddy was found near the Liesbeek River in Observatory after having been run over by a car. His jaw was broken and his tongue hanging on a thread. Conservation officials from Rondevlei Nature Reserve and Kenilworth Race Course rushed to his aid.

“A local vet agreed to help patch him up as best he could,” Farquhar says. “Unfortunately, Teddy’s tongue had to be amputated, but his jaw was put back together, and the vet wished him well, and wished his new keepers good luck.

This they seemed to possess in good measure in addition to patience and commendable compassion. They managed to nurse Teddy back to health, including force feeding him, until someone tried wriggling a cricket in front of his face. He immediately grabbed the cricket and they knew that he was now well on his way to recovering.

“As a result of his injuries, though, he now has no tongue and is blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other, so there is no chance of him being released back into the wild and he will instead remain at the Two Oceans Aquarium as a mascot for his species.”

He seems happy enough – a tongueless spokesperson for his fellow toads. Teddy’s fellow live exhibits, which are mostly local species, include arum lily frogs, painted reed frogs, Cape river frogs, and a giant bullfrog, native to northern South Africa, on loan from the Pretoria Zoo. A fascinating exhibit of the amphibian life cycle features the common platanna – that bearer of life-changing news to a generation of women all over the world.

From a frog’s eye view

On entering the exhibit you are given a frog’s eye view of what could be someone’s back garden, or a particularly pretty wetland. Dwarfed by giant clivias, lilies, mushrooms and other colourfully lush plant life, you’re likely to notice the football-sized snails and tennis-ball sized ladybirds – and, of course, the orange-toed arum lily frog, peering over the top of its lily home.

There is an interactive touch-screen display that offers in-depth information about frogs, while an automated puppet show is a delight for kids. But it’s serious stuff. The show tells the story of a lonely western leopard toad, and the terrors and ordeals he has to endure to reach the nearest wetland where he can mate.

From there the display moves into the live exhibits, which are seamlessly incorporated into the permanent Sappi River Meander display.

It seems strange to have a permanent exhibit of a river system in an aquarium called Two Oceans. Farquhar explains: “We have always stressed the importance of good catchment management in the conservation of coastal marine ecosystems, and we have adopted the H2O concept – that is, Hilltop to Ocean – implying that whatever we do on land impacts the oceans.”

It’s a bit of a wake-up call. Humans have altered the world in ways no other species has come close to and, if we are going to mitigate the effects of our actions, we have to all start now. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It can be something simple, like driving slower and looking out for frogs, creating frog-friendly gardens, recycling, saving water, and generally trying to live a little lighter on the earth.

As Kermit says: “Every journey begins with a single hop.”

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