Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Mountain Chicken

Frogs worldwide are feeling the effects of global warming, human encroachment, pollution, disease and many other life-threatening situations – most of them manmade.

The Caribbean island of Montserrat has long been a playground of the rich and famous; as well as, the rich and infamous. Montserrat is back in the news for a totally different reason. That reason is the Mountain Chicken.

Chytridomycosis, a fungal disease, has wiped out amphibian populations worldwide and now has a stranglehold on Montserrat. The mountain chicken is already critically endangered with hundreds of victims due to chytridomycosis. If something isn’t done soon, the mountain chicken could become extinct. It is believed that the disease entered Montserrat in late 2008 or early 2009.

What does chytridomycosis, a fungal disease that attacks amphibians, have to do with the possible extinction of the mountain chickens of Montserrat? Simple, once you realize the mountain chicken is actually a frog. It is probably the largest frog known to man, has been hunted by locals for food and has hind legs that resemble a chicken’s wing – hence mountain chicken.

Working with the Department of Forestry in Montserrat, a team from DWCT (Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), surveyed the condition of the frog population after they discovered the disease. The frogs’ condition was grave. A decision was made to evacuate as many healthy frogs as possible.

At this time it would appear that only one population of mountain chickens remains disease-free; although, biologist believe it’s just the calm before the storm.

“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 GarcĂ­a. “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”.

Can frogs fly? These critically-endangered frogs can. Fifty mountain chicken frogs were airlifted to safety thanks to a partnership between Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Parken Zoo in Stockholm, Sweden. Each partner received a batch of frogs to be the basis of a captive breeding program.

“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.”

“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.”

It is worth noting that the mountain frog was driven to extinction on the island of Dominica by chytridmycosis in 2002. At that time, only two islands still had populations – the islands were Dominica and Montserrat.

Also noteworthy: The Montserrat Mountain Chicken Frog is listed as #158 on EDGE’s amphibian list. This list categorizes species regarding their threat-level and genetic distinction.

The following is a super video from National Geographic discussing the mountain chicken and the problems it faces today.

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