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Anagu rangers play key role in researching rare species of frog

Dechlan Brennan -

A frog species so rare that it's yet to be named is the focus of a project combining new technology and traditional Aboriginal knowledge.

In the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the far north-west of South Australia (SA), a small spring measuring less than one square metre is the known habitat of the tiny creature, originally a toadlet from the genus Pseudophryne.

Funded by a grassroots grant from the Alinytjara Wilurara Landscape Board, Anangu rangers from the western APY Lands are leading a project called Nganngi Kanyini - Nganngi being being the Pitjantjatjara for Frog, and Kanyini being a word that encompasses the ideals of interconnectedness, caring, nurturing and support - to find more about the tiny amphibian.

APY Ranger Coordinator, Kieran Jairath, says the area where the frog potentially exists is hot and dry.

"There's not a lot of water around, much less than you would find further east," Mr Jairath said.

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

After being identified on APY Lands by ecologist John Read in 2012, Claire Hartvigsen-Power, then with Zoos SA, started leading a research project in 2020, developing a management plan for the species.

An ecologist with APY land management, Dr Caro Galindez-Silva, along with other ecologists, attempted to find out more by taking DNA samples from tadpoles. The samples taken confirmed species was likely to be undescribed and undocumented in current scientific literature.

There was a possibility of a DNA match with a sample collected close to the border with Western Australia in the 1990s and housed at the SA Museum, however the the earlier sample was of poor quality and additional testing is needed to identify a difference between the two.

Honorary researcher at the SA Museum, Dr Steve Donnellan, said the species are "precious historical remnants".

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

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

Due to the isolation of the environment gathering information about the creature is difficult.

The tiny range of their habitat is remote, and the toadlet is seldom seen. So much so, most members working on the project have yet to see it.

Small, low-cost audio monitors - known as Audiomoths - will be placed in areas suggested by Anangu rangers as possible nganngi habitat.

However, the difficulty of capturing a specific sound over a period of days means the data collected is large, with thousands of hours of audio gathered whilst potentially only revealing a short frog call once or twice a day.

With this deemed unfeasible, APY rangers have turned to Dr Kyle Armstrong from the University of Adelaide, who is working with the rangers to develop software able to analyse recordings that can identify the specific call of the new nganngi.

The semi-automated software will be able to analyse significant quantities of data and a custom-made device - created by Dr Armstrong and his team - will be installed at the spring to provide real-time monitoring and tracking of frog activity.

This technology is working in partnership with local knowledge - both from the Anangu ranger team, as well as the local community.

The rangers will monitor the spring and audio equipment on-Country, whilst students will embrace generations of Anangu culture by incorporating the project into their science learning, with Elders handing down cultural and traditional ecological knowledge.

There are also future benefits to the project, with a two-way ranger exchange programme planned with the Wiradjuri and Walgalu rangers from NSW, currently working on their own frog project - the distinctive and endangered corroboree frogs, related to the new nganngi species.

The name of the new species will be determined through discussions with members of the Anangu community.

If confirmed as a new species, there is the potential for the frog to be protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

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