Amphibian Research and Conservation in Southeast Asia

A staggering one-third of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction. In Southeast Asia, amphibians have been largely overlooked.

Vampire Flying Frog

Vampire Flying Frog
Photographer: Jodi J L Rowley © Jodi J L Rowley/Australian Museum

Southeast Asian amphibians are both poorly known and highly threatened. Facing the highest deforestation rate on the planet, and huge over-harvesting pressure, Southeast Asian amphibians are being driven towards an extinction crisis. At present, almost one-fifth of Southeast Asian amphibians are listed as threatened.

We still don’t even have a reliable estimate of the true amphibian diversity in Southeast Asia, with the current figures being serious underestimates, and new species being continuously discovered. For example, 31% of amphibian species known from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 2005 had been described since 1997.

For the amphibians that are currently known from Southeast Asia, we lack even basic natural history information for most species. 36% of all amphibian species recorded from Southeast Asia are so poorly known that they are listed as Data-deficient (IUCN), 11% higher than the global average.

Tadpoles are known only for about one-third of Southeast Asian amphibians, even though they are a major life history stage of most amphibians and an important determinant of the ecological requirements of species. Geographic distributions are also poorly known, with many species known only from a single location, and large areas in Southeast Asia remaining unsurveyed.

Our lack of knowledge of this highly threatened group of animals hinders even the most basic amphibian conservation in Southeast Asia (see abstract of our paper summarising the threats facing Southeast Asian amphibians here).

Amphibian Survey team

My research strives to gain a better understanding of the biology, ecology, diversity and conservation status of amphibians in Southeast Asia, and to facilitate long-term amphibian biodiversity conservation in the region.

Scientific expeditions

Central to my research are scientific expeditions to unexplored and often remote, forested areas of Southeast Asia. I work with local colleagues and students, documenting the diversity, biology and conservation of the amphibians found. Reaching sites via a combination of helicopter, canoes, motorbikes and (most often) hiking, we explore high-elevation mountain streams. 

A significant proportion of amphibian diversity in Southeast Asia is currently hidden within morphologically cryptic species groups currently treated as a single species. To the human eye, these species look almost exactly the same (or may even indistinguishable based upon appearance alone!). Therefore, to uncover the true amphibian diversity in the region, we incorporate biological, behavioural and molecular data.

During expeditions, we will record the microhabitat and behaviour of amphibians, use professional recording equipment to record the advertisement call of amphibians heard, and take DNA samples from all voucher specimens. Frog advertisement calls are species-specific and have often been used to distinguish between species that are almost identical in appearance, and, once known, are extremely useful in future surveys, allowing the identification and estimate of abundance of a species without needing to handle any amphibians. DNA evidence is increasingly useful in distinguishing and describing new species, and can elucidate evolutionary relationships and reveal biogeographic patterns.

Scientific capacity building for conservation

I believe that the training of young regional scientists is essential in order to facilitate long-term amphibian research and conservation in Southeast Asia. Since 2006, I have conducted, in conjunction with local colleagues, five amphibian biology and conservation training courses in Southeast Asia (three in Vietnam, one in Cambodia, and one in Indonesia). At each course, 12-30 regional scientists, students, conservation managers, and protected area staff attended, approximately half of which joined me on scientific expeditions for further training.

I am now focusing on the mentoring of postgraduate students, and have supervised or co-supervised postgraduate students from Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. I have strong relationships with a number of universities and institutions throughout the region, and am passionate about sharing knowledge and skills between Australia and Southeast Asia.

Amphibian training course

You can find more about my research on my Australian Museum staff profile or my personal website.

Dr Jodi Rowley , Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology
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