Life In Cold Blood
David Attenborough’s BBC nature documentary series “Life in Cold Blood” studies the evolution and habits of amphibians and reptiles, including one of Australia’s most elusive and unique frogs, the Hip-Pocket Frog.
Earthwatch researcher and full-time frog expert, Dr Michael Mahony explains how Earthwatch volunteers have been paramount in the study of the Hip-Pocket Frog.
"The study of the biology of the Hip Pocket Frog is a part of the Earthwatch Australia's Vanishing Frogs program and the filming for the BBC program relied on the knowledge resulting from the fieldwork conducted by Earthwatch teams," Dr Mahony says.
"If we had not studied the animals and known when and how they mated, and how males picked-up their young, it would not have been possible to do the filming," Dr Mahony states.
There are several unusual things about these tiny creatures, measuring in at a mere 30mm, which Dr Mahony and his team were keen to learn more about.
The male Hip Pocket Frog [Assa darlingtoni] keeps its young moist by carrying them in its skin pouches. About 10 eggs are laid in a large mass of jelly on the ground in late summer. The male approaches hatching tadpoles and allows them to wriggle up onto his back and into hip pouches where they remain for about two months before emerging as tiny frogs.
"The primary scientific interests in the Hip Pocket Frog relates to two features of its biology. The first is that this frog has parental care for its young. This is very rare among frogs. The second is that it is the male who looks after the young and not the mother. Once again this is exceptional. In most animals that display parental care, the female has the role of caring for young."
"From a scientific perspective we are interested in how parental care has evolved, and why the male ended up with the job. What are the natural features that lead to this behaviour and of course its consequences?"
"At this stage we can study the consequences more than the steps that led to the behaviour. Unfortunately, we cannot go back and trace evolutionary steps that lead to a final behaviour," Dr Mahony says.
Dr Mahony explains not much research has been done on this species due to the difficulty of locating them in the short time frame they call – usually only an hour on dusk – and is grateful for volunteers’ help.
"We are also interested in the Hip Pocket Frog because it is uniquely Australian. It occurs only in high altitude rainforests in the Gondwana World Heritage reserves and since it occurs at high altitude it is potentially threatened by climate change."
"The research that we have conducted has been supported by many Earthwatch volunteers, and the story of this amazing frog, and all that is needed to even find it, made the filming possible for the BBC series," Dr Mahony says.
In closing, Attenborough states; "Reptiles and amphibians are sometimes seen as simple, primitive creatures. That's a long way from the truth. The fact that they are solar-powered means that their bodies require only 10% of the energy that mammals of a similar size require. At a time when we ourselves are becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which we get our energy from the environment and the wasteful way in which we use it, maybe there are things that we can learn from 'Life in Cold Blood'."
To take a glimpse at the life of the Hip Pocket Frog, see episode two, "Land Invaders" which explores the world of amphibians, of which there are some 6,000 known species. You’ll see a great sequence of tadpoles squirming into the pouches of a male and then birth of a young.
Using thermal imaging cameras, episode one, "The Cold Blooded Truth" documents how leatherback turtles use their insulated body fat to regulate their bodies. Earthwatch volunteers can help scientists monitor these large living reptiles on Earthwatch’s Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles expedition.
The Life in Cold Blood series is currently airing on Channel Nine, Mondays at 7.30pm.