With January comes the start of Chytrid fungus disease monitoring season for the team! It’s a delight really it is! Throughout this period we conduct monthly night surveys at field sites all across Montserrat; catching and swabbing a minimum of 60 treefrogs at each site for signs of the disease, this in-turn gives us a good idea of the proliferation and distribution of the Chytrid fungus. This year we have been fortunate enough to be joined by our two new recruits Rachel and Dari! It’s a great learning opportunity for them and helps make much lighter work for the team, here is Rachel’s account of what it’s like to be out in the field through these long nights of surveying:
It was Blacka who suggested the competition. Fully secure in the knowledge that he could beat anyone who tried to match his frog-catching abilities, there was no doubt in his mind who would find the most treefrogs to swab. “Actually, maybe Dari and Rachel should team up against me, or I will win for sure” he’d said but we resolutely (and somewhat foolishly) agreed to each go it alone. To say we underestimated how difficult it is to catch treefrogs and how difficult he would be to beat, is an understatement.
The night was humid. Countless moths and katydids dotted the branches of Sweetwater, the Ghaut that for years has served as a mountain chicken release site and a constant benchmark of Chytrid infection on island. There had only been a tiny smattering of rain during the day. In other words conditions were perfect for finding minute treefrogs! More importantly, we could hear a sweet symphony of them singing in the branches above us, monotonous but calming. I felt focussed and hopeful. How hard could it be to catch more frogs than Blacka?
Free of doubts, I hiked to Sweetwater ghaut with confidence, enjoying the buzz of the forest at night- crickets chirped loudly from every side, humidity hanging heavily in the air, a distinct awareness of being in the tropics. After a few moments the team arrived at the ghaut. Silently everyone dispersed focusing on their jobs, Luke and Lotese organising swabs and equipment for the field monitoring station, Lloydie and Blacka donning latex gloves and vanishing into the shadows of the forest like wisps of smoke, with an ease of movement you only see in individuals honed and moulded by the environment they’ve spent years working in. Stepping off of the path into the dense forest, the sound of croaking enveloped me. This was a good start. I inched up the hill slowly, keeping my eyes peeled and headtorch bright, certain there was a frog calling just a few metres up the hill. Onwards I crept, step over step, slowly gaining on my prey, there was definitely one just a few more steps up the hill. This continued, the calls vanishing like wraiths the second I was certain they were just within my grasp. After a while I realised that the frogs I’d been following were not in fact low in the tree further up the hill, but actually metres up in the canopy right above me, entirely out of reach! An elusion created by the steep slopes of the centre hills around each ghaut.
Through a stroke of luck, another frog began calling somewhere to my right and I began navigating my way to it, straining my ears and turning my head this way and that to try to focus on the sound. It’s amazing how hard it is to focus in on one sound when there’s a cacophony of frogs and insects calling all around you! Eventually I stood staring into a bush, my eyes darting around, hoping the source of the repetitive high-pitched croaking would materialise. Blacka nudged me on his way past. Not saying a word, he presented his closed fist- two tiny treefrogs peered out from between his fingers, each one a tiny golden face with a pointed nose. Hiding a smug smile, he took his other fist from behind his back and revealed a second hand full of frogs- THREE this time! It was incomprehensible how he was finding them so quickly- were they jumping into his hands from the treetops?! Did he have a secret supply of treefrogs hidden in his bag? He must have seen my incredulous look, because I’m sure I heard him laugh to himself as he made his way down to the swabs.
“I’ll see you at the swabbing station very soon” I called after him emphatically, trying not to sound sheepish. But alas, by the time I’d turned back to the bush, it had fallen silent and there were no frogs in sight. Great.
(Cue montage of me triumphantly spotting frogs, quickly closing my hands around them and then having the frog spring away to become lost forever.)
After 15 minutes or so, I proudly caught my first tree-frog. I raced down the hill, ready to get it swabbed. Baffled, I saw that there were around 20 gloves already stapled to the tree, each with a frog inside (so we don’t catch the same one twice). “You’re alive!” Luke said. “You’ve actually got one?!” Lloydie exclaimed, sounding more than a little shocked. Dari was also in the queue, holding the world’s tiniest tree-frog, around 2mm long. “They’re just all over the leaf litter!” she said. How on earth she spotted them I have no idea- the tiny ones don’t even call!
At one point, I got cocky. I’d found three in relatively quick succession, so when I caught a fourth I raced all the way back to the swabbing site, ready to show the team. Proudly, I opened my gloved hand. But what did I find? Lo and behold, the sneaky little Houdini frog had disappeared! “Where is my frog?!” Clearly thinking I had pretended to have caught one, all they had to say was “That’s what they all say…”
I told the group I aimed to catch 6- a respectable number. I heard Lloydie supress a laugh as he said “You’ve got to catch number 5 first.” Time after time, Blacka passed me in the forest, a hand full of frogs and a proud grin, as I floundered about blindly. At one point he offered me a charity frog, but my sense of pride couldn’t take it- I had to catch them myself or it wouldn’t count!
In the end, I did catch 6 frogs- no more and no less! Lloydie and Blacka each caught around 20. So I think it’s fair to say that Dari and I learnt a humbling lesson that night: never try to compete with Blacka and Lloydie!