mountain chicken

 

The mountain chicken frog (Leptodactylus fallax), once a staple dish on the Caribbean island of Dominica, is now on the brink of extinction, prompting urgent conservation efforts.

Historically, this frog, known locally as “crapaud” (the French word for toad), was considered Dominica’s unofficial national dish.

“When I used to cook it, I would just cut it and put it into a broth,” says Alain Mellow as he sits selling fruit and vegetables in Roseau, the bustling capital city of Dominica.

Elderly locals like Mr. Mellow, who is in his 70s, fondly recall its taste, akin to chicken, and believe its nutrients have contributed to their good health.

Various culinary methods were employed to prepare the frog, with some preferring it in stews and others favouring it fried to a golden brown.

The frog’s significance to the island is underscored by its depiction on Dominica’s national coat of arms, reflecting the country’s rich biodiversity, which has earned it the nickname “the nature island.”

However, anyone visiting Dominica’s restaurants in the past two decades might not recognise the mountain chicken frog as a delicacy.

Kenasher Valmond, who works at a caf√© in Roseau, the island’s capital, has never tasted the frog.

“I’ve never seen it,” says Ms Valmond, who is in her 20s. “I just heard people speaking about it.”

This shift is largely due to chytridiomycosis, a devastating fungal disease that has critically endangered the species.

“In a span of a year-and-a-half we lost almost 90% of the mountain chicken population in Dominica,” said Jeanelle Brisbane, a wildlife ecologist in Dominica.

“It was one of the fastest amphibian declines on record in our history.” That has led to the frog now being listed as critically endangered.

In April, Ms. Brisbane and her team from Dominica’s forestry division and the NGO Wild Dominique searched for the elusive frog. Despite not disclosing the exact location to protect it from poachers, the team eventually spotted a mountain chicken frog by a riverbank, illuminated by their headlamps.

This frog, one of the world’s largest, can weigh up to 1kg (2.2lbs) but has been severely impacted by the chytrid fungus, which began affecting Dominica around 2002.

The mountain chicken frog is also struggling on the neighbouring island of Montserrat.

“The disease got to Montserrat as well and completely wiped the species off the map,” says Andrew Cunningham, the deputy director of science at the ZSL.

Fortunately, some frogs were placed in captive breeding programs before their populations dwindled.

Professor Cunningham notes that chytridiomycosis has likely caused the extinction of over 90 amphibian species globally, making it a significant threat.

Before the fungal outbreak, harvesting mountain chicken frogs was a thriving industry in Dominica, with up to 36,000 frogs hunted annually. The population was further decimated by Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 and Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“Our forests have essentially grown silent because of the absence of the mountain chicken voice, it was a huge part of our soundscape, of what put us to bed at night,” Ms Brisbane says.

In response, several organisations, including the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Dominica’s forestry division, formed the Mountain Chicken Recovery Programme.

A recent population count revealed only 21 frogs remaining in the wild in Dominica, although researchers believe the total number might be slightly higher, possibly not exceeding 30.

“They were one of the apex predators on the island, so losing those has potential ripple effects in terms of pest control,” says Benjamin Tapley, a Curator of Herpetology at ZSL.

In a positive development, six mountain chicken froglets were born at London Zoo in March, the first successful breeding in five years from frogs brought from Montserrat.

Another hopeful sign is that some surviving frogs in Dominica appear to have developed resistance to the chytrid fungus, though this resistance has not been observed in Montserrat’s frogs, which now exist only in captivity. Research continues with a network of zoos worldwide maintaining around 200 mountain chicken frogs in captivity.

Despite these efforts, the future of the mountain chicken frog remains uncertain, with conservationists working tirelessly to prevent the extinction of this iconic species.

“We need to now figure out how we can get the genetics from these frogs and integrate them into the whole population, so that we can have the hope of reintroducing all these frogs into the wild,” Ms Brisbane says.

Dominica’s culture and heritage are deeply rooted in its natural environment, according to Ms Brisbane, so “it’s not just saving a frog, it’s saving ourselves”.

 

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