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Mountain frog breeding and release program leaps ahead with federal funding

Mountain frog Philoria kundagungan IMG_0528_credit Liam Bolitho


23 May 2024

A $500,000 grant will boost a Southern Cross University project to breed and reintroduce a rare Gondwanan rainforest frog back into its natural habitat.

The endangered Mountain frog Philoria kundagungan faces extinction from climate change and introduced species, particularly pigs, in its increasingly shrinking and isolated ‘sky island’ home within the Gondwana World Heritage listed national parks of northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland.

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.

[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.

“These frogs are incredibly slow-growing and take up to four years to reach sexual maturity, so it’s vital we’ve received this support from the Commonwealth to continue our work.”


In making the announcement on the International Day of Biological Diversity, the Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek acknowledged the efforts of Dr Newell and others.

“This funding is about supporting the dedicated scientists, conservationists, and passionate local community groups right across Australia who are working hard to save our precious native plants and animals,” said Ms Plibersek.

Associate Professor David Newell has established purpose-built breeding facilities located on Southern Cross University’s Northern Rivers campus.

“The funds will support our continued efforts to save the endangered Mountain frog (Philoria kundagungan) from extinction. We are breeding mountain frogs in a dedicated animal facility named Project GRASP,” said Dr Newell.

“Despite their habitats being well-protected within World Heritage listed National Parks, the frogs are increasingly threatened through climate change and pigs. The drought and subsequent Black Summer fires have resulted in localised extinction of populations.”

Mountain frog Philoria kundagungan lays eggs IMG_5691_credit Liam Bolitho
Breeding success: mountain frog Philoria kundagungan lays eggs in the GRASP breeding facility (credit: Liam Bolitho).

Dr Newell and his team are working closely with National Parks staff from NSW and Queensland to protect remaining areas of habitat. Philoria kundagungan occupies headwater streams on mountain summits of the Gondwana rainforest. These frogs are effectively stranded on ‘islands in the sky’.

“With existing support from the NSW Government’s Saving Our Species program and WWF Rewilding Australia, we have successfully managed to breed frogs in the facility — a world first! — and hope to undertake our first releases into a predator-free areas later this year,” said Dr Newell.

“These frogs are incredibly slow-growing and take up to four years to reach sexual maturity, so it’s vital we’ve received this support from the Commonwealth to continue our work.”

Islands in the sky concept diagram credit Sophy Millard
Islands in the sky: little pockets of distinctive habitat that animals adapt to (concept diagram credit Sophy Millard).

Mountain frogs are small, about 30mm in length, and spend most of their lives underground. The University’s amphibian research team uses frog calls to find them and acoustic recorders to monitor populations remotely.

“The funds will allow us to purchase and deploy additional audio recorders for our field sites,” said Research Fellow Dr Liam Bolitho.

“These devices are used to collect thousands of hours of sound recordings that we analyse using machine learning (AI) approaches in order to monitor if our releases are successful.”

Mountain tops form what scientists call ‘sky islands’ or ‘islands in the sky’: little pockets of distinctive habitat that animals adapt to; in this case, cool, high-elevation rainforests with very high rainfall. Each mountain top is separated from another by a ‘sea’ of lower-altitude habitat that is unsuitable for mountain frogs.

The genus Philoria has evolved over millions of years with the isolation of these forests and frogs are threatened because of their small ranges and specialised habitat needs.

Alongside husbandry efforts, the most important conservation action for this species is to maintain the condition of their current habitat. Predicted lifting of the cloud base under climate change, increases in frequency and intensity of droughts, heatwaves and severe fires are likely to severely impact habitat suitability.

Learn more

Project GRASP

Extensive range contraction predicted under climate warming for two endangered mountaintop frogs from the rainforests of subtropical Australia published in Scientific Reports

Habitat loss for the mountain frogs under a changing climate: interactive story map

Media contact

Sharlene King, Media Office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or [email protected]