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Anangu rangers use AI to sound out toadlet croaked in mystery

Rudi Maxwell -

Aboriginal rangers are working with scientists to search for a tiny toadlet, which ecologists think might be Australia's newest frog species.

Anangu rangers from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in far northwest South Australia have found an area of about one square metre around a spring where the frogs live.

The project has been named Nganngi Kanyini -'Nganngi' is Pitjantjatjara for frog and 'kanyini' encompasses the ideals of interconnectedness, caring, nurturing and support.

The frog, a toadlet but not a true toad, is from the genus Pseudophryne and is so new it is yet to be formally named. It was first identified at the site by an ecologist in 2012.

Gathering more information about the species is a challenge.

Its tiny known range is extremely remote, and the toadlet is so elusive that most of the people working on the project have never seen it.

The hot dry climate in the western part of the lands adds to the challenges, according to APY ranger coordinator Kieran Jairath.

"This frog has only been located in this one spring, in an area about one metre by one metre," he said.

"The aquifer that feeds the spring may provide more habitat, as the frog can burrow into the moist soil that continues underground.

"There are other rockholes around that could be habitat for the species, so this project is an opportunity to expand our knowledge of where a frog like this might persist."

The rangers have been working with ecologists, APY Land Management and Zoos SA to find out more.

They took DNA samples from the tails of tadpoles that were swimming in the spring, which confirmed that the species was likely to be undescribed in the scientific literature.

The DNA matched a sample at the South Australian Museum that was collected in the early 1990s from a site 30km away across the border in Western Australia.

The older sample was not of good quality, and more DNA testing is needed to confirm that the toadlet is a new species.

To find out more about the frog and how widespread it might be, the rangers are installing small low-cost acoustic monitors to record the calls of any creatures nearby.

They will be placed at locations suggested by Anangu as possible nganngi habitat.

With multiple monitors recording for days or weeks at a time, the amount of data generated is enormous and listening to thousands of hours of recordings in the hope of picking out a short frog call that might only occur once or twice a day is not feasible.

The APY rangers are working with Dr Kyle Armstrong from the University of Adelaide to develop machine learning software and hardware that can analyse recordings and can identify the specific call of the new nganngi.

The semi-automated technology will be able to quickly analyse large quantities of audio data.

Dr Armstrong and the team are creating a custom-made device to install at the spring, providing the capability of real-time monitoring and tracking of frog activity.

The technology will provide valuable data but the core of the project is the Anangu ranger team and the local community.

The rangers will be doing the work on-country, monitoring the spring and managing the audio monitoring.

"These frogs are precious historical remnants," says Dr Steve Donnellan, honorary researcher at the South Australian Museum.

"They've been isolated from their cousins in wetter environments for two million years.

"They're hanging on by their toenails, no other species can replace them if they are lost because of their geographic isolation."

The project will include multiple generations of Anangu, with school students incorporating the project into their science curriculum and elders imparting their cultural and traditional ecological knowledge.

If DNA confirms the tiny toadlets are a new species, the Anangu will decide on a name.

The scientific name of a species comprises two parts, a generic name that defines the genus, and a specific epithet that distinguishes the species.

The toadlets have a generic name, Pseudophryne, and the specific epithet will be determined through discussions among members of the Anangu community.

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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