The Port Moresby Nature Park announces the successful breeding in captivity of green tree frogs.

This success comes as part of the ongoing in-situ research program on the amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), that is being carried out by the park’s wildlife team. Phase one of this program is to develop captive frog management skills for the wildlife team at the Port Moresby Nature Park (PMNP) through training and skill share.

The park’s wildlife manager, Ishsimu Bebe, said: “As part of phase one, the staff must show that they understand the biology of the species they are working with and demonstrate that they can care for and breed the frogs in their care.

“They are starting off with easy to maintain species which they can develop their skills on before progressing to more difficult species to care for.”

The ultimate goal of the research program is to secure New Guinea’s amphibian fauna against the likely catastrophic impacts of the amphibian chytrid fungus. The fungus is now recognised as the most significant example of emerging infectious diseases worldwide, affecting frogs globally, with more than 40 percent of species now threatened with extinction and another 170 species considered to have already become extinct in the last 20 years.

Nature Park’s Curator, Brett Smith, said: “With the regular movement of people, animals and goods between New Guinea and neighbouring countries, entry of the chytrid fungus into New Guinea is considered a matter of when, and not if.

“New Guinea is the world’s largest tropical island and remains the last major centre of amphibian biodiversity that is chytrid-free. This is significant because the island is mega-diverse for frogs, and home to above 6 percent of the world’s amphibian species of global frog diversity, with more than 400 described species and many more yet to be described.”

New Guinea is particularly vulnerable to the introduction of parasitic chytrids because of its proximity to Asian pet markets and infected sites in both eastern Indonesia and Australia, and the increasing movement of people between these regions. Climatic modelling reveals that large areas of the central highlands of New Guinea have a climate favourable for the fungus.

Many of the Australian frog species that have declined since the 1970s have close evolutionary and ecological affinities with the New Guinea frog fauna, strongly suggesting that, as in Australia, dramatic declines will occur when the pathogen arrives. Patterns of frog declines in Australia suggest that more than one hundred frog species across New Guinea could be at risk from the amphibian chytrid fungus.

 A recent publication in Science calls for “unified, international, multidisciplinary action to prevent or slow the spread of chytrid to, and within, New Guinea and prepare for its arrival”. The ultimate goal is to secure New Guinea’s amphibian fauna against the likely catastrophic impacts of amphibian chytrids. New Guinea is a large island, with rugged terrain and a poor road system that prevents easy access to habitats where many of the frog species occur. Moreover, it is subject to the laws and management of two national governments, Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the east and Indonesia in the west.

The Nature Park is currently working closely with Macquarie, James Cook and New England Universities in Australia and has a ‘Sister Zoo’ partnership with Zoos Victoria. Developing and implementing an island-wide program is a long-term endeavour for the Nature Park, as this requires multiple avenues of research and development with many partners for success.

The success of the breeding program is the park’s first step towards achieving the overarching research goal. 

In light of the long and varied relationships between PNG and Australia, and existing herpetological links by Australian scientists with PNG, the first phases of this program will focus on PNG. Developing and implementing an island-wide program is a long-term endeavour, requiring multiple avenues of research and development with many partners for success.

In PNG, government capacity for implementing wildlife protection policies is limited. Similarly, in-country husbandry and research capabilities are in their infancy and heavily reliant on international support. As such, immediate priorities are developing captive management capabilities for PNG frogs, in PNG, along with the capacity for genome storage of gametes and other tissues and the associated assisted reproductive technologies required for managing the genetic diversity of these populations in perpetuity. While the ideal solution for managing declining populations is to arrest the cause(s) of decline, this is not always possible in the timeframe required to prevent the erosion of genetic diversity, as is almost certainly the case with the amphibian chytrid fungus when it arrives in PNG. Establishing policy frameworks and initiating management & research protocols for PNG frogs is a necessity.

Following extensive discussions in recent years, phase 1 is well underway:

  • Agreement between all stakeholders on the program’s rationale and policy framework, including the PNG Conservation & Environment Protection Authority (CEPA).
  • Port Moresby Nature Park will be the physical base of the program and has allocated space and initial infrastructure. The Park is the only zoo in PNG with the necessary capacity and commitment to frog biodiversity conservation.
  • Zoos Victoria, under the banner of its sister zoo partnership with the Nature Park, has a long-term commitment to staff support and training. This includes sharing its frog husbandry and breeding expertise to develop and sustain a captive management plan for PNG frogs.
  • Three Australian universities (Newcastle, James Cook and Macquarie) will establish a genome storage facility at the Nature Park to manage genetic diversity of declining populations and to enable disease research, collection and storage of genetic material on-site, and the use of assisted reproduction in managing genetic diversity.
  • The captive husbandry program will develop in line with growth of staff skills at the Nature Park. Recognizing that these are currently low, the program will commence with two or three common species naturally occurring on the Nature Park grounds. The Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) and White-lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata) are resilient species that will allow development of husbandry capacity with terrestrial and arboreal species. The Pond Frog (Papurana daemeli) is an additional species under consideration.
  • As management skills develop with the aforementioned species over the next twelve to eighteen months, appropriate species for the following phase will be identified and collection approvals negotiated. These will be chosen from the microhlyids, which comprise the most extensive group of frogs in PNG, with a huge radiation of species across numerous ecological niches. Most are very small and only found in the highlands, with unknown captive requirements. Their high diversity of ecology and morphology suggests that some are also likely to be vulnerable to the amphibian chytrid fungus and are therefore the highest priority. These plans complement two additional activities, which are already in place and ongoing:
  • Expand permanent research transects and survey sites throughout PNG (currently established in the Kikori Basin and Eastern highlands (Goroka and surrounds) to monitor for disease arrival.
  • Biodiversity surveys with local landowners to establish baseline data sets, monitor frog populations, and increase knowledge of species diversity, in areas where disease surveillance has been established.

 Future priorities are:

  • Site visit by Zoos Victoria invertebrate specialist to Port Moresby Nature Park to identify live food collection and production opportunities and establish best options.
  • Fit-out of two forty-foot insulated shipping containers on-site now at the Nature Park.
  • Collect first groups of frogs at the Nature Park and establish in the first container.
  • Establish genome capture and storage capability in the second container. This is a very exciting project and we look forward to bringing in other stakeholders over coming years to secure a positive future for PNG frogs. The White-lipped Tree Frog is already a feature at the Port Moresby Nature Park. The Park is a charity organisation that relies on grants and donor funding to operate.

By visiting the park, you help support the Park’s efforts in preserving PNG’s unique natural environment for future generations, including the Park’s 550 resident animals, majority of which have been surrendered to the Park for care.

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