The Victorian Adventure
It has been very long since I last updated and that is in part because there hasn't been much going on since my last update. Well, up until the beginning of April that is. So let me briefly get you up to date for the time between the last update and the beginning of April.
I went back up to Kosciuszko National Park to aid in another round of the corroboree frog clay model study. My "official" role was to be a photographer. I was to set up camera traps with clay models and see if we could capture predators on camera. I, also, was to use a full spectrum DSLR camera (can see into visible spectrum and UV - normal cameras can't do that and you need a special conversion done to the camera) to take pictures of attacked and unattacked models so that we can do visual modeling to see if there was any difference between conspicuousness of unattacked and attacked models. I was keen to try this method out as, while getting the equipment to do it costs several thousand dollars, that is far cheaper than a spectrometer which is on the scale of $10K-$20K depending on the model you get. Long term, when I have my own lab, this camera might be a viable option for me. Despite being the photographer, I was roped into placing models, which I had reservations for because the method had been changed from the last excursion to do grids rather than transects. In theory, either method is acceptable and is represented in the literature. In practice, however, grids, in my opinion, are tedious and cost more in time for little benefit for this experiment. I expressed these concerns, but it was decided to do grids anyway. So be it, I'm not the lead on this project. Without going into too much detail, I had the worst field day in recent memory (placing grids in 45F, 30+mph winds, hail, and sleet) and we had a low attack rate on our models. At the moment, I don't know what, if any, the results are. But I did get camera traps out and photos of models. All in all, there were headaches and benefits to be had.
And that, more or less, was this big event that happened since my last post. I did get to explore a little more around Sydney and went to the Blue Mountains National Park and Royal National Park, but it's been quiet since. Now onto the meat of this post, and this will be long as I'm covering two weeks of going through Victoria, so if you need to use the bathroom, I would recommend going now. The weather is finally starting to turn for the better for finding my frogs. The frogs in the genus Pseudophryne are largely fall breeders that wait for the autumn rains to trigger breeding choruses. Those were supposed to start in mid March but thanks to El Niño, they were pushed back a few weeks and were rather pathetic. I had planned my first trip into the field on April 1 to Victoria, and I was admittedly worried that I was going to be wasting time and energy when the frogs weren't calling. I obsessively checked forecasts for Victoria, hoping to see rain, but only saw sun with one low chance of rain in the ten day forecast. I decided to go and not postpone after talking to a friend who was confident that I should have no problem finding frogs despite the rain. I decided to start my 5892km trip in eastern Victoria
on the outskirts of Croajingolong National Park where I had done my clay model study last austral winter. I was quite nervous about my ability to find these frogs because they are largely fossorial, and I've never found one on my own before (I have been shown a spot where some occur, and found one there, but I haven't found my own locations). I had recordings of their calls and a general idea of where to look, but beyond that, I was on my own. After 8 hours of driving, I got to Cann River and decided, rather than rest, to start looking and see how difficult my research was going to be. Within 20 minutes of my driving down one of my target roads, I found a chorus. And with a little luck, I caught my first P. dendyi. What a relief! I should note at this point that these frogs are a real pain to find. They are easy to locate by their calls, but finding the frogs is a different matter entirely. Like I said, they're fossorial. The males construct little bowls just under the leaf litter and call in them. This helps amplify the sound. It also makes it difficult to tell where they are calling from as it, at times, causes them to throw their voices, as it were. I found the best technique for finding them is triangulation. Figure out where you think they're calling from in one direction, then move to the side and get a better idea. Doing this seemed to be pretty successful. The part I really hate about my research is that I have to euthanize the frogs I collect. I want to get information on the toxins, the stomach contents, and genetics, and simply, to do so, I have to euthanize the frogs. There is no way around it. Making matters worse is that the males of these frogs guard eggs, so if I take a male, the eggs lose their protector. If I take a female, this time of year, she is filled with eggs. It's a no win. My collection, thus, has been one individual per chorus. Generally, that individual is a male and in that case, I do my best to collect males that are not guarding eggs.
I ended up finding 6 P. dendyi without too much difficulty, thankfully. I decided only to collect ~6 individual per location (which were roughly 100km apart) in an effort to get broad sampling and not get biased by one area. I also collected 2 Crinia signifera as part of a project for one of my committee members in Mississippi. I had to process these animals shortly after collection in an effort to halt digestion. I ended up collecting two additional P. dendyi (a male and a female) to take pretty photos of the following morning as well as to get scientific photos (with the aforementioned DSLR). Those two were released after their star treatment. And then I was off to the next location 100km away near Lakes Entrance. There, I should be able to find both P. dendyi and
P. semimarmorata. I spent the day scouting possible roads to drive along, listening for calls, and then waited for dark when I would go out to collect frogs. Like the night previous, I found it easy to find frogs, but this time I found only P. semimarmorata (and Crinia, but they're ubiquitous). Pseudophryne semimarmorata are weird for the genus because they are pretty dull dorsally (common in many species in the genus), but on their bellies, they have the typical black and white reticulations found throughout the genus and bright red arms, legs, and chins (only visible ventrally), the latter trait being unique to this species. And man is it bright! It perplexes me as to why a frog that lives underground would need such bright coloring and have it only on their bellies. That is a question I really want to answer but will probably have to be sought after my PhD. And the same deal as the night previous where I collected two animals for the star treatment and processed the rest. At this point, I was feeling pretty confident that all of my concerns about wasted time were not necessary, but whenever you start getting overconfident, life has a way of putting you in your place. The next spot was near Toongabbie, a spot where P. dendyi occur and they are very yellow. I wanted to find these frogs last time but had no success. I was reasonably confident that that would not be the case this time around because of my success the previous two nights. Unfortunately, this area was significantly drier than the other places and after driving over 100km listening for frogs (on roads I'm sure the car rental company would have issue with), I didn't hear a single frog calling. It wasn't until I got to my campsite that was on the edge of a dried swamp that I heard a few feeble calls from the swamp. At this point, it was about 48F and the frogs were not excited about that. The single noted calls might be spaced minutes apart which made triangulation frustratingly difficult. In the end, the frogs were in sphagnum mounds, but I couldn't find a single frog. I was bound to have some nights where I wouldn't get my quota, I was just disappointed that it happened with Toongabbie. Again.
When I choose my sites, I had the general idea that they should be approximately 100km apart. I should be able to collect 5 or so frogs from each spot for each species that occurs there and be able to get my quota allowed by my permit. After Toongabbie, I was a little worried that the trend of dry areas would continue and my sampling would not be as thorough as I would have hoped. Indeed, after I left Toongabbie, I went to Geelong where, on quick examination, I realized that it was like pre-desert and far too dry for frogs. Driving to the one reserve I hoped to find frogs, I actually saw dust clouds pop up. Rather than waste a day, I decided to keep going and start on the Great Ocean Road which goes from Geelong along the coast to Warrnambool and is one of the spots recommended to go as a tourist to really see the landscape of Victoria. I went half way to get to the Otways which are the mountains on this jut of land. As before, I went out at sunset and
tried to find frogs. Unfortunately, as before, I didn't find any. It was just too dry. I went to two waterfalls during the day in hopes of doing some long exposure photography. The waterfalls, for all intents and purposes, were completely dry. That night, however, I got some much needed rain, which did get other frogs calling, but not the species I was looking for. While the range maps do indicate that the frogs should be in the Otways, public records show a lack of records in the area, so it's possible that there aren't Pseudophryne there, wet or dry. So onto the next spot: just east of Portland.
This allowed me to complete the drive on the Great Ocean Road and see the rest of the southern coast. And is it magnificent! Most of the coast is comprised of sheer limestone cliffs that rise 100 feet above the ocean. It's also known as the Shipwreck Coast because so many wrecks happened in the settlement period and gold rush of Australia. The sea has carved this coast into exquisite beauty that
photos really cannot do justice. The other reason to take the Great Ocean Road was to get my koala. I did not see a wild koala the last time I was in Australia, and every time I mentioned it, people would say that they're everywhere in Victoria, and specifically, on the Great Ocean Road. And that proved true when I saw a few tourists on the side of the road taking a picture of something. I quickly stopped and saw a koala happily munching on some eucalyptus. That was not the only one I saw. I ended up seeing half a dozen more along the road as I drove to Portland. This next area was supposed to be on the edge of a good concentration of Pseudophryne semimarmorata, so I was a bit more hopeful that I wouldn't lose out of another day's sampling. Unfortunately, despite the rain of the night before, the frogs were not calling, so another shot day. The following day, I moved a little further west
to Dartmoor, which should be right in the center of this distribution. If the frogs were here, I should find them. It look a while and it was much harder than eastern Victoria, but I did finally find frogs here. All Pseudophryne semimarmorata and interestingly, they looked somewhat different from the ones I found at Lakes Entrance. The red patches of the LE frogs where instead more yellowish-orange in these western frogs. It makes me curious if there will be any differences in toxin content between the populations. I'm glad I was able to get such distance populations because if there are any differences, I'm more likely to find the in the far edges. At this point in my trip, I had to make some decisions. It is obviously much drier than I was expecting and finding frogs far more difficult west of Melbourne. The second half of the trip was planned to be a northern loop in hopes of getting some high elevation frogs. With it so dry and sampling so sparse, I decided that I would probably be better to concentrate my sampling where I know there are frogs and that conditions are favorable rather than gamble for good conditions. I would try a couple more northerly populations, but otherwise head back south and east to increase my sampling there. So the plan now was to go to the Grampians followed by Bendigo, and then head to Toongabbie and work backwards from there sampling in between where I had already sampled.
When I left the following morning, I decided, since I was on the border, to go into South Australia and visit Tantanoola Caves. This served two purposes. First, assuming the rest of my plans work out, I should have hit every Australian state on this trip. Send, I needed some time to kill and I haven't been to any caves while here. I'm glad I stopped at what essentially appeared like a tourist trap pit spot on the side of the road. It may be that, but the caves, which were small, were pretty magnificent. They were easily the most decorated caves I've been in. Unfortunately, they were tourist-ified I that they were made wheelchair accessible and had sidewalks throughout the cave. They also had lighting thorough the cave, which at first I didn't care for, but it did help with dramatic lighting for photos. For a spot that I decided to go on a whim, it turned out to be a pretty cool stop. And then I was off to the Grampians. I decided to stay at the Rockland Reservior which sounded like there should be water, and thus, frogs, there. When I got there, however, it was bone dry. The campsite I had chosen was right next to the reservoir and had a boat launch. When I went to the boat launch, however, I didn't see any water for as far as the eye could see. This wasn't going to work, so I decided to leave and try a spot on the southern part of the Grampians mountains and then access the eastern side which, looking at satellite imagery, looked far more promising. Unfortunately, it too was far too dry for frogs.
The following morning, I wanted to see some of the Grampians which are a rather curious feature on the landscape. They are a mountain chain that popped up in the middle of no where. They also happen to be one of Victoria's most popular national parks. And where there are mountains, there are waterfalls, and I was aching to do some waterfall photography. I got up quite early in an effort to avoid the weekend crowd and because I had a long drive to Bendigo later in the day. If I was to see this park, I'd need several hours to do so. I started out at Silverband Falls which, after a 5 minute walk which brought me to a completely dry stream bed, I turned around without even going to the falls, knowing that they, too, would be dry. My second shot was MacKenzie Falls which were advertised as being a year-round waterfall. It is also one of the most popular spots in the Grampians. But I got there largely before the crowd and could take my time photographing the falls. There maybe was not as much water flowing over the falls as in other times during the year, but I actually like that because you can better see the features of the falls rather than a complete curtain of water. Still with time, I decided to continue down along the river to a second fall, Fish Falls. This waterfall was much prettier and more photogenic. I spent quite a bit of time photographing the different levels of these falls before calling it and heading back to my car and then onto Bendigo.
I wanted to check out around Bendigo because supposedly high yellow Pseudophryne bibronii can be found around there. Like with the Toongabbie frogs, I really wanted to get these high yellow frogs because they are so different from the rest of the range. However, when I got to my campsite, it became blatantly apparent that I was unlikely to find my quarry. Bendigo, too, was very dry. I held onto hope that the recent rains left some moisture, but in digging through some very deep leaf litter, it was completely dry throughout. And as I would have thought, when I went out at night, I didn't hear any frogs calling, even though the habitat looked suitable. Another bust. But hopefully, from here on out, my successes will increase. Starting with Toongabbie the following day. Third time's a charm, right?
It was a long drive to go from Bendigo to Toongabbie but I decided to camp in the same spot that I did before because I heard frogs calling in the dry swamp adjacent to the campsite but I was unable to find them last time. I also wanted to scout areas where I may find the infamous Toongabbie frog. After doing that, as the sun went down, I started in the swamp. Persistence netted me two Pseudophryne semimarmorata which was great (wasn't sure what was calling there - could have been either P. semimarmorata or P. dendyi), but not my target. I headed to the mountains closer to Toongabbie. I drove for perhaps 5 kilometers without hearing a thing and was ready to call the road a bust when I heard a loud chorus of Geocrinia victoriana calling. Generally, where these call, so do Pseudophryne, so I got out of the car to investigate. Initially, I only heard G. victoriana but then I heard the distinctive, single note of a Pseudophryne. This was the moment of truth as this was most likely to be the Toongabbie frog. And after a great deal of searching, I found the culprit which was the frog I was hoping for! As I collected the first one, two more started calling, so I found them as well. And the distinction between the three frogs was quite striking. They had more yellow than the P. dendyi further east, but they were rather different from one another. When I drove further up the road, buoyed by my success, I ended up finding 4 more, also somewhat variable. This trait is particularly exciting for me as a color evolutionary biologist.
The following day brought me to Cape Conran which was supposedly the furthest east P. semimarmorata occurs. This would be particularly good to sample because then, I'd have samples from two extremes of this species. Unfortunately, I was not as successful as I was hoping (I should also be able to find P. dendyi in this area). After a bit of work and a lot of driving, I ended up finding 4 P. semimarmorata which was better than nothing.
I must admit that the lackluster success of the previous night did not give me great confidence as I headed further east, basically where I started this whole trip. I did have success the first night and my next site was only 50km away from there up in the mountains a bit, but the night previous left me worried because I saw plenty of spots where frogs should be calling, but didn't hear any frogs. Was it going to be the same for this mountain area? On the plus side, the campground I decided to stay at was beautiful and secluded right next to the Ada River
(a stream, really) and had tons of animal life around it. My hopes for a successful night came when I heard the distinctive one note call right in front of the campground latrine. I didn't know what to expect here because I was at higher elevation than the first night, and at higher elevations, P. dendyi tend to have greater amounts of yellow. When I uncovered the calling male, however, it looked just like the lower elevation individuals. Interesting, nonetheless. The night ended up being my most successful, collecting 9 P. dendyi in a couple hours. I needed a good night like this one. And after that, I headed back to Sydney for a brief respite before heading onto Queensland!