Project GRASP

Gondwana Rainforests Amphibian Survival Program

A small frog on the back of another frog, closeup

Project GRASP

The frogs of the Gondwana rainforest World Heritage Areas of eastern Australia are unique and found nowhere else on the planet.

Southern Cross University’s Dr David Newell, ‘Dr Frog’, is heading up a project to breed and reintroduce rare Gondwanan rainforest frogs back into their natural habitat, with purpose-built breeding facilities located on Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus.

Our researchers work in very remote locations, accessible only by foot, in search of a rare group of frogs called the mountain frogs. Because the mountain frogs spend most of their lives underground, finding frogs can be like finding a needle in a haystack! That’s why our team use frog calls to find these tiny animals and also to monitor the populations remotely. Using acoustic recorders, we are able to capture thousands of hours of sound when we are not there and then apply machine learning technology to analyse the recordings and find out when these frogs call.

Australia has more than 240 species of frog. Each species has a particular call that frogs use to communicate with one another. Learning local frog calls is a great way to know what species are present.

Southern Cross University researcher Dr David Newell

[frog call] Here him? {frog call] That's a good sign that they're talking to us. 

So this is what we do when we actually go out into the rainforest where we can make their noise and they'll call back.

Frogs globally are in a lot of trouble. We've seen declines and extinctions of hundreds of species globally over the last couple of decades and two of the key causes of decline are disease and habitat loss but habitat loss associated with climate change seems to be a key driver as well.

Project GRASP is the Gondwana Rainforest Amphibian Survival Program and we're working with a couple of species that are mountain top endemic frogs that are really highly threatened because of climate change and in fact they're becoming critically endangered so we're going to try and use translocations to bolster existing populations and to reintroduce some of these species that have disappeared.

Conservation translocations is where you take egg masses from the field or you collect animals from the field and you breed them in captivity and then you look at releasing them back into the field.

Some of these these species have never been in captivity so we have successfully managed to raise some egg masses and we've got some tiny little frogs in these purpose-built shipping containers that we're going to try and breed from and re-release to the wild. So we modified these shipping containers and created like a temperature controlled environment and special flow through water facilities where we're able to maintain the temperature of the frogs and the habitats in which we're keeping them.

A frog from project GRASP

Current threats

Disease (the amphibian chytrid fungus) and climate change are recognised as key threats to amphibians and are both difficult problems to address. In the rainforests of Northern NSW, a unique group of frogs known as the mountain frogs (Genus Philoria) are particularly vulnerable to climate change. These frogs occupy headwater streams on mountain tops and are effectively stranded on ‘islands in the sky’. Predictive models show that the habitat of these species will decline markedly within the next few decades as a warmer and possibly drier habitat prevails. Population losses have already occurred and the black summer fires of 2019-20 impacted large areas of their habitat.

David Newell

Breeding program

The frog breeding labs are located at Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus, in a purpose-built temperature-controlled facility. Researchers collect eggs from the field and transport them to the breeding tanks. Here, the tadpoles hatch and grow into adults before being released back into wild habitats, in an effort to greatly increase their survival rates and bolster populations.

Two men and a computer sit on the forest floor

Strategic partnerships

We work closely with management agencies to develop on-ground conservation actions for our threatened frogs. Project GRASP is a collaboration between Southern Cross University, WWF Australia and the NSW Government’s Saving our Species Program. With additional assistance from the Commonwealth Bushfire recovery program for wildlife and their habitat, we are undertaking vital conservation actions to conserve our unique rainforest frogs.

WWF Rewilding Australia

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Saving our Species program

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Australian Government Saving Native Species Program

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In the news

Mountain frog breeding and release program leaps ahead with federal funding

A Southern Cross University project to breed and reintroduce a rare Gondwanan rainforest frog back into its natural habitat has received a major funding boost. Led by Associate Professor David Newell, the ‘Saving the mountain frog from extinction in a changing climate’ project has received grant funding worth $499,993 from the Australian Government Saving Native Species Program.

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Mountain frog Philoria kundagungan IMG_0489_credit Liam Bolitho

New mountainfrog species identified

Researchers from Southern Cross University have helped uncover a new species of mountainfrog; Philoria knowlesi, in the rainforests of the NSW-QLD border, and are now working to protect its habitat.

Since 2006, researchers have been gathering and analysing DNA from mountainfrog populations at Mount Barney National Park and Levers Plateau in Northern New South Wales, within the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, as they suspected a previously undiscovered species.

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The Mt Ballow mountain frog Philoria knowlesi. Credit: David Newell

Spate of frog deaths has scientists worried

Southern Cross University frog researchers are concerned by reports of a disturbing number of sick, dying or deceased frogs across eastern Australia.

“Reports are coming in of multiple frogs being found shrivelled and turning brown on people’s lawns,” said Southern Cross University’s Dr David Newell, a biologist with a focus on amphibian diversity, ecology and conservation.

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A healthy green tree frog (Litoria caruelea). Credit Jodi Rowley.

Frog hospital located at Byron Bay Wild life Sanctuary

GRASP will be teaming up with Byron Bay Wild Life Sanctuary to house a frog hospital for the region that will also act as an education centre. Due to the increase in sick and dying frogs, the hospital will help to mitigate the declines we are seeing in frogs within our region.

Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital
A green frog