The endangered Sloane’s froglet: how a Charles Sturt academic is leading the fight to save it

The Sloane’s froglet is a small creature in need of a huge amount of help to survive. Found in southern NSW, including in wetlands at Charles Sturt University’s Albury-Wodonga campus, these froglets have just been recognised as a nationally endangered species.

Discovered along part of the Murray River in the late 1950s by Professor Murray Littlejohn, these amphibians fell into a figurative black hole for almost 50 years.

That was until 2008, when their plight was brought to the attention of Charles Sturt University’s Dr Alexandra Knight. One of her colleagues from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage mentioned that no one had heard the Sloane’s froglets calling or recorded their sound for the best part of two decades. It had an immediate impact on Dr Knight, who is now a Charles Sturt lecturer in environmental management.

“That intrigued me and worried me because the Sloane’s froglet is a tiny, amazing, but previously very obscure froglet. So, I decided to leave my job at the Office of Environment and Heritage and started my PhD at Charles Sturt University to focus on the Sloane’s froglet.

“It was a very hands-on experience. I spent many winter months, out in the swamps, looking for the froglet. Amazingly enough, I found a really important population on our campus in Albury-Wodonga. We were really lucky to find that the Sloane’s froglet does still exist in some numbers in Albury, Thurgoona and further down the Murray River in Corowa.”

A long journey of discovery

While the frog find was fabulous, it was just the beginning of the journey.

“It’s been such a long journey. Nobody seemed to know much about this animal. Even those that study frogs all the time. I think that was because of timing. Most frogs are active during the spring and summer, so that’s when people tend to study them. The Sloane’s froglet calls, and is active in winter, so it had been somewhat overlooked.

“Not many frog surveyors want to go outside when it’s one degree! I think I was just crazy. I would get out there at 1am, sloshing around in freezing swamps.”

Dr Knight was passionate and committed – with just a dash of crazy. Having found these tiny little creatures, she set about learning more about them and filling the knowledge gaps.

“I had to do some fairly in-depth investigations into their habitat. One of the really scary things about finding them was that they actually live in wetlands and farm dams and on roadsides in areas that were being really quickly developed for suburban housing. That’s a real worry.

“It’s one of the reasons that our campus wetlands population is so important. The wetlands is home to what we call a source population. That’s a big population which can reproduce and spread out across the landscape. The team at CSU Green have worked incredibly hard to ensure that our campus is a stronghold for the species. The security that our university provides for this little frog is invaluable in what’s a very uncertain world for a lot of our biodiversity.”

Rallying support for Sloane’s froglets

After rediscovering the Sloane’s froglet and learning about its ecology, the next step for Dr Knight was to educate others about this endangered amphibian. She’s certain that public awareness teamed with education is crucial for this froglet’s continued survival. It can’t be allowed to slip off the metaphorical radar again.

“We know some Sloane’s froglet sites have been destroyed, but some have also been protected. So now, I think it’s really important to let people know about these frogs. I’ve spent a lot of time working with school kids, young adults and Landcare groups in Albury and Corowa. We hold wetland rehabilitation days and tree planting days.”

Dr Knight also works closely with a number of primary schools, helping teachers educate students on all things frogs. And she provides various environmental groups with advice, including types of plants to use to attract the frogs, where rehabilitation is needed, and designs for constructing wetlands.  

 “Everywhere I went I would talk about this little frog. But it’s difficult to see and it calls in winter when no one hears it – that made it hard to give it a voice in the community. Now we have reached that critical mass where enough people know about it and care about it. There’s a whole lot of people protecting the Sloane’s froglet. Communities have now wholeheartedly taken on the responsibility of this little creature.”

Stepping stones to survival

On board are CSU Green, Riverina TAFE, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and local governments, Landcare groups and schools. Dr Knight says even people in their own backyards are making a difference by providing “stepping stones”.

“As well as the some larger wetlands, these froglets also need smaller ponds and wetlands to move across the landscape. They need these little stepping stones to move because the Sloane’s froglets don’t stay in the one pond for their lifetime.

“Research from around the world tells us that these stepping stones or connections between the ponds, which allow them to travel and move, are just as important as the ponds themselves.

“Encouragingly, a number of people have planted little frog ponds in the backyards. Drainage lines and roadside drains which still have grass or reeds – but not curb and guttering – are also really important. In the same way we’ve started to put crossings above major roads for koalas and gliders, we need some way for our frogs to get across those barriers we put in the landscape.”

Giving Sloane’s froglets a voice

Originally a ranger in NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Dr Knight also ran a biodiversity program in the NSW Murray catchment while working for the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Now lecturing at Charles Sturt she continues to advocate for the Sloane’s froglet.

“I have the best job in the world. Our native Australian flora and fauna is unique and wonderful. As an environmental scientist I think it’s great that I have the knowledge and skills to help keep our world diverse and beautiful. I connect and work with a range of people who committed to working and thinking creatively to protect these froglets. We are all working really hard to give these creatures a voice.

“Often it’s the fluffy, larger animals that we tend to think about. But the Sloane’s froglets are little cuties. Very endearing and shy. They have gorgeous markings and the females have lovely big bellies with a blue tinge. Their chirping call sounds, from a distance, like bells ringing.”

Dr Knight also describes these tiny creatures as “battlers” who call and breed in the dead of winter.

“That is a feat of biology! They use the most energy when it’s the coldest and it’s hardest to do it. They meet their mates, lay their eggs and the tadpoles hatch when the weather is freezing. The female lays her eggs one at a time, very carefully spaced out, attached to a reed or blade of grass. How do they do it in winter? We don’t know, but it’s amazing.”

There’s still more to do

Is this froglet’s future now a little brighter?

“It is because we know something about it now – where it lives and what it needs. And people are interested in this froglet and engaging in looking after it. But, on the other hand there’s still a huge amount of development going on in the areas that the Sloane’s froglet inhabit. Their wetlands are still being destroyed – that side of the story is not so bright. Important populations, like the one at Charles Sturt’s Albury-Wodonga campus and on wetlands in Corowa are being actively protected and will be continue to be protected.”

But will that be enough for these little amphibians?

“It will allow the species to survive. But it may not be enough for it to flourish. For that to happen the whole community needs to continue to work together to ensure the stepping stones between the larger wetlands that are planned for, maintained or created.”

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