Found a frog? There’s an app for that

Finally, the day you frog nerds have been dreaming of is here – the third dataset from the FrogID project has just been released, meaning that there are now 272,000 records of frogs online and free to access.

This is thanks to more than 16,000 citizen scientists across Australia, who have used the FrogID smartphone app to log where and when they heard a frog call, along with recordings. This new data – collected throughout 2020 – doubles the number of frog sightings recorded using the app, up from a total tally of 126,000 last time.

According to Jodi Rowley, the curator of amphibian and reptile conservation biology at the Australian Museum, this volume of data would be impossible to obtain without citizen scientists.

“Even in a 100,000 lifetimes, I probably couldn’t even collect all the data that’s been gathered by people across Australia,” she says.

Hand holding a phone in front of a river
FrogID app in the Northern Territory. Credit: Jodi Rowley/Australian Museum

“We’re at the time in the world we need to do things fast, and we need to get a really rapid understanding of what’s going on so that we can make the best decisions for future generations. We need the data now and the only way we can do it is to have an army of people across Australia pitching in.”

Why is it important to study frogs?

Frogs are a vital part of Australian ecosystems and a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for environmental change.

“We’ve already lost at least four species of frog and dozens more are threatened with extinction,” Rowley says. “Remarkably, we don’t even know how many species of frog we have in Australia, with six frog species new to science identified in just the last year!”

To collect more information to better understand and conserve them, FrogID was launched by the Australian Museum in 2017. The free app can be used to record frog calls and geotag their location.

Every single recording is listened to by one or more frog experts from the Australian Museum, who identify the species and notify the app user who submitted it.

That’s time-consuming, Rowley explains, but not in comparison to sending experts out roaming across the country.

“A lot of the recordings are from places that would be incredibly challenging for biologists to get to. In the drier parts of Australia, frogs will call very unpredictably immediately after rain…but by the time a frog biologist got there, they’d probably have done their dash and gone back underground.

“So we really need people who are out there already.”

Two frogs on top of each other on a tree branch
Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris) in NSW. Credit: Jodi Rowley

What is the data used for?

This data is used to map the distribution of frog populations, including the locations of threatened species. It’s also uploaded to the FrogID website for everyone to access; on their interactive map you can see all frog call submissions, and even filter by council area and species to see what’s been spotted in your neighbourhood.

This information is especially useful for land managers figuring out the right places to conserve, as well as researchers, who use it to understand the impacts of everything from bushfires to urbanisation.

The data also provides a baseline to get to the bottom of the mass frog die-off observed across the east coast of Australia last year.

This new data release is pre-die-off, spanning up to the end of 2020, as there’s a lag due to time-consuming data cleaning. But by the next data release at the end of this year, we should have a better long-term understanding of what might be impacting these frogs.

“The longer you can go, the better the understanding you can get of impacts of any kind of environmental change or any kind of event,” Rowley says. “There’s a real need for this long-term dataset on frogs, and there’s nothing in the world like this.”

After its third year, the FrogID database comprises a third of all frog records in the entire country. The plan is to run it for at least 10 years to look at the impact of climate change on frogs.

So what frogs did citizen scientists hear in 2020?

The top three recorded frog species in 2020 were the Common Eastern Froglet (Crinia signifera) at 50,000 records, followed by the Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peronii), Peron’s Tree Frog (Litoria peronii), Eastern Dwarf Tree Frog (Litoria fallax), and Spotted Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis).

Frog in dark forest with bulge under its neck
Screaming Tree Frog (Litoria quiritatus). Credit: Jodi Rowley

The records also poured in for two new, very loud frog species in eastern Australia – the Slender Bleating Tree Frog (Litoria balatus) and the Screaming Tree Frog (Litoria quiritatus). These were only scientifically described and named in a paper last year, helped along by calls submitted by FrogID users.

Plus, the new data includes a single sighting of the tiny Wollumbin Pouched Frog (Assa wollumbin), found in the rainforest in New South Wales, as well as a record of Tusked Frogs (Adelotus brevis), a single population of which was recently rediscovered after vanishing in the 1970s.

Sightings of other critically endangered species have been reported, but records of the most highly threatened frogs are not included in the dataset. In fact, the exact location of any species is only given to within approximately 11km, to avoid disturbance to frogs or their habitat.

Damp frog clinging to leaf
The Common Eastern Froglet (Crinia signifera) is the most commonly submitted frog to FrogID. Credit: Jodi Rowley

Rowley notes that sometimes recordings pick up critters other than frogs – crickets are common, but more and more often people are recording cane toads.

“Especially in WA,” she says, “where [app users] actually haven’t heard [cane toads] before and they’re just moving in with each successive wet season. We hope it will help us better understand the impact of cane toads as well, because there’s been very little work on the impact of cane toads on frogs.”

But it’s not all about the research

When listening to audio recordings, Rowley says she loves to hear people enjoying being in nature.

“Because it’s an audio recording, we do get to hear little kids being excited and their parents telling them, ‘Shh’,” she says.

“That’s one of the unforeseen benefits of this project. I was very much interested in this data… But it’s not just that – it’s a connection that people are getting with the frogs across the landscape, which I think is so important for us continuing to live on this planet.

“We need to fall in love with the things around us so that we can fight for them.”

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