In this episode, Jodi tells Kim about her unexpected journey to becoming a scientist, the 16 species of frog discovered by her team, and the importance of frogs in the broader ecosystem.
"When they disappear we notice huge effects."
Kim McKay: Hello, I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO at the Australian Museum, and you're listening to AMplify, one of the Australian Museum's regular podcasts where we talk to our research scientists and other staff who work behind the scenes to give you a glimpse of what is in our extraordinary collection at the Australian Museum in Sydney.
Today I'm joined by one of our most fantastic young scientists, Dr Jodi Rowley. Jodi is an amphibian biologist in herpetology at the Australian Museum Research Institute. Now Jodi, welcome along to AMplify.
Jodi Rowley: Thank you.
Kim McKay: It's great to have you, because the great thing that Jodi does and she is known for are frogs. And of course we've got so many frogs here in Australia and around the world, haven't we.
Jodi Rowley: Yes, there is about 7,500 species of frogs and other amphibians that we know of around the world and a lot more that we still have yet to discover.
Kim McKay: And how many in Australia?
Jodi Rowley: Over 200 species, but it's probably going to be closer to 300 by the time we fully understand the diversity of frogs.
Kim McKay: And why are frogs so important?
Jodi Rowley: I kind of fell in love with them partly because they are just gorgeous, the eyeballs, the toe pads, these precious animals, but one of the reasons that I chose to focus on them was because they are in so much trouble. They are an important part of our ecosystem, they are food for a lot of things, and they also eat a tonne of invertebrates.
Kim McKay: So, insects.
Jodi Rowley: Yes, a really important part of our ecosystem, and when they disappear we notice huge effects. And the tadpoles actually also eat a lot of algae in rivers and streams, so when you lose one species of frog it's almost like losing two because the tadpoles come from the streams, the streams choke up with algae, the adults are gone from the land, there's potentially more invertebrates around, more potentially pest insects.
Kim McKay: So we know that frogs eat mosquitoes, don't they.
Jodi Rowley: Yes, so small frogs definitely would eat mosquitoes, and the tadpoles actually compete with mosquitoes as well, so the more tadpoles you have in a pond the less likely you are to have mosquitoes.
Kim McKay: So I have a very obvious question for you Jodi; how did you become fascinated with frogs?
Jodi Rowley: I wish I had a good answer. I actually grew up more of a city person, my parents didn't take me hiking or anything like that, and it wasn't until I did environmental science at the University of New South Wales that I was actually exposed to all this amazing rainforest, not that far from Sydney, and we went out at night and looked at streams and there was frogs…
Kim McKay: Where was that?
Jodi Rowley: Actually Dorrigo National Park was probably the place that I really got into it, although around Sydney I did spend some time in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park as well, but just to realise that these things are around you. You know, sitting inside and going to school and backwards and forwards in suburbia, I'd never really realised how much wildlife there was. And of course how much it needed conservation.
Kim McKay: So I guess those living in Sydney and going to school, you did hear frogs in your backyard maybe or around the school?
Jodi Rowley: I remember once we collected some tadpoles from up the driveway and raised them, my mum and I, boiling spinach or lettuce and raising them to adults, so I think that was probably the most experience that I had. I actually…the first five years of my life was in the city in Sydney, in Surrey Hills, so I don't think I heard that much wildlife there.
Kim McKay: No, not too many frogs in Surrey Hills probably. But what got your interest in science flaring? Because I know you did biology in high school.
Jodi Rowley: I found it easy and probably because I was interested in it, less interested in maths for example, although that has been an important part of things still, so it was important that I did do it. I was fascinated with life I guess, fascinated with how things worked, how plants…how many species there were. But I'm not one of those kids that everyone would have said that I would have been a biologist, and I kind of wish I was inspired earlier on so that I would have had more time to get good at this frog thing. But it wasn't really until I was 18 that I really discovered that it was my passion, so I sort of just happened to fall into environmental science. I thought I was going to be a graphic artist maybe, I was into art, but then I got quite a good mark at school and I thought, well, I do really like biology, I do really care about the environment. I didn't really know that much about it aside from year 12 biology. And then thankfully luck has it that I did environmental science and that's when it was an irreversible track towards what I'm doing now.
Kim McKay: So doing that environmental science degree at the University of New South Wales, was there a Eureka moment when you went, 'oh my God, frogs are going to dominate my life'?
Jodi Rowley: I think it was that first time when I went to Dorrigo National Park and went out at night and saw things like these giant barred frogs. Frogs, I don't know, they almost look like they're not real. Like how can this thing with red eyes and purple thighs and…you know, how can that thing the real? Because it's kind of also quite harmless, it can't really attack you or do anything like a lot of animals and that's probably why a lot of animals like to eat them and rely on them for food. So it was a combination of thinking that they were the most amazing gems in the forest, and then realising how much trouble they were in and that they needed us, they needed people to figure out what's going on and try and stop their declines.
Kim McKay: So it's because of course their habitat is being encroached by development, but also I would assume the impact of climate change? Is that having a significant impact on our frog populations?
Jodi Rowley: We know that it is affecting frogs around the world, but there's still a lot of research that needs to be done. So they are one of the first animals to be responding to climate change, and we are noticing it most in temperate or montane areas where things are starting to breed at different times of years because frogs are so seasonal and usually they'll start breeding when the snow melts in Europe, they are getting earlier and earlier, and so things are starting to change in that respect, and it is having some quite big consequences, but also particularly for mountain species that like cool wet conditions on the top of the mountain, if things start changing there then it's going to tip the balance not in their favour.
Kim McKay: So as well as studying frogs you have to be quite outdoorsy Jodi, because you're up there climbing mountains looking for them, aren't you, in the middle of the night.
Jodi Rowley: I am, and I might not be the best person for that because I'm really bad at sleeping in. So it's always this where I'm out looking for frogs until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, climbing around the forest, not worrying too much about leeches or mosquitoes or things like that, and then waking up after I've been in bed for three or four hours, oh no, I'm up again.
Kim McKay: Up again. And the frogs have all gone off to sleep by then of course.
Jodi Rowley: Yes, if I was a better frogger, I would be able to sleep in.
Kim McKay: A frogger, I love that term, so you're like Queen Frogger out there.
Jodi Rowley: Yes, we go frogging, that's the term.
Kim McKay: Isn't it great. I know you've done a lot of work in Southeast Asia and you've discovered quite a few new frog species too. Can you tell us about those species?
Jodi Rowley: Okay, so at the moment my colleagues and I have discovered 16 new species of frog from Asia, so primarily Vietnam. So after my PhD, which I did up at James Cook University, on frogs, as you would expect, around that time the Global Amphibian Assessment came out and it highlighted how much trouble amphibians where in, and at that stage it was more than one-third of amphibians threatened with extinction, and it's more than that now. And how much Southeast Asia was a black hole in terms of our knowledge, but we suspected that it was very high diverse city of amphibians and a very high threat. So I thought, right, I can be most useful, I'm moving to Cambodia. So I moved over there, started working with some amazing local colleagues, and I initially wanted to do conservation ecology, I'm going to figure this stuff out, but I didn't know what I was looking at, and no one knew. There were these amazing new species of frog that we were just coming across, and it's very hard to do any kind of conservation or ecology work, try and save the frogs, if you don't know how many frogs and where they are, so that's where it started.
Kim McKay: So who helps you in Southeast Asia when you go frogging?
Jodi Rowley: I'll work with, depending on where I am, universities and museums from across the country and Cambodia, Vietnam. So I've got some really great colleagues. And part of what I started doing when I first started working there, which was really important, was to do training courses in amphibian biology and conservation and get a bunch of new students and then do obviously capacity building, training parks, getting masters students, getting PhD students so that we work in teams, and I'm not the only one doing the job, so we all doing together to try and discover the biodiversity. And that has resulted in so far 16. There's another quite a few coming up soon as well.
Kim McKay: So some of these frogs you've discovered, they are brilliant colours, they are bright green and they have green blood, is that right?
Jodi Rowley: Yes, so some of the frogs are absolutely amazing. One of the first frogs that I discovered that became famous was the vampire flying frog, and that's probably got to be one of my favourites.
Kim McKay: Why did you call it the vampire flying frog?
Jodi Rowley: Well, it's a type of flying frog, so it's adapted for life in the trees, it has huge hands and feet with webbing, and it spends most of its life in the trees, it doesn't need to come down, it breeds in water filled holes within the trees themselves. So it was definitely a flying frog, it was brick red, a beautiful little frog, and although I didn't realise how cool it was until I found the tadpoles in these tree holes, looked at them back here at the Australian Museum under a microscope, and instead of having the normal mouthparts which are little beaky things that aren't super impressive in tadpoles, they had curved black fangs sticking out of their mouth. So I instantly knew that this was not normal, this was something that's pretty amazing. And I emailed the world's tadpole expert, who is a retired professor in Mississippi, and he replied in all capitals. So we decided, right, it's probably the most unusual tadpole in the world, and therefore we are going to name the frog after it, so that's why it is the vampire flying frog or Rhacophorus vampyrus.
Kim McKay: So what is that moment like when you're sitting in the lab after having been on an expedition and you're looking down the microscope and you see something like that? It must be extraordinary.
Jodi Rowley: Yes, I guess there's two different kinds of discovery moments, there's the one when you are in the forest in the middle of the night with the headlamp, you hear some strange call from a frog you've never heard before and you get really curious, maybe it's something that is new, and you see something and you know it's new at that moment and that is an amazing discovery.
But the second kind of discovery and probably the more common kind of discovery is back at the museum when you get in the DNA lab or you're looking at a frog under a microscope and it's a Eureka moment, a-ha, I've proved it, this is definitely something that no one has ever seen before. It might look quite similar to some of the other frogs you've seen, so you don't make the discovery until you look at all the evidence and that's here.
Kim McKay: At the moment, I know you've been off on an expedition in New South Wales for the Australian Museum, looking at some new potential frog species and their habitats. Can you tell us about that expedition?
Jodi Rowley: So this expedition was just focused on New South Wales, and probably many people are surprised to know we don't totally know the diversity of frogs even within New South Wales, and we don't really know where all the species are distributed, and we don't know if there's any hidden diversity. So there are, I've already mentioned, a lot of frogs that kind of look similar, really similar, to the point in New South Wales that there are frogs that I can't tell apart just by looking at them.
Kim McKay: Because you can actually identify a frog though by the call, not by its appearance.
Jodi Rowley: Exactly. So there were two particular species that we were looking at on this trip. We were looking at many and just trying to get a handle on the diversity across New South Wales, but we spent a lot of time in the dark with our call recorders trying to get the little voices of these frogs. There's two leaf green tree frogs in New South Wales that are actually impossible to tell apart, and the one way…you have to wait until they call. So you can be in a stream, you're like, I don't know, it's one of them, I can see it, I can look at it, but it's not until you actually hear the little voice of the frog, and they've got completely different calls.
Kim McKay: So I think you went up in a helicopter, didn't you, was that fun, looking for these frogs?
Jodi Rowley: That was just before Christmas, another expedition in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park as part of a bush blitz. That was amazing. So Oxley Wild Rivers is very topographically diverse national park with all these gorges, and it's really remote and inaccessible, and it was identified as a part of the world where we had really no knowledge of the frogs, very little understanding. So in order to do a biodiversity survey of the area, and I was just one part of it, I was the frogs, there was also fish and other museum scientists there, we got to get helicopters to remote inaccessible places, and so that was a lot of fun. So we were helicopter frogging.
Kim McKay: Helicopter frogging, I love the concept. And now Jodi, just one last question. I want to ask you about cane toads because we all know they are pests but they are frogs by species, yes?
Jodi Rowley: Yes, so one of the most common questions I get asked is what's the difference between a toad and a frog. And the answer is very little…
Kim McKay: Just their name basically.
Jodi Rowley: Yes, so there's 50 different families or 55 different families of frogs and toads and true frogs and true toads are just one of those, so it doesn't accurately describe the amazing amount of diversity. They are pretty much the same thing, which is why they are so hard to get some kind of control because if you do something that is going to harm a cane toad then you are likely to also harm our frogs because they are not that different.
Kim McKay: So those cane toads are heading south, aren't they.
Jodi Rowley: They are, and actually, doing my PhD in Townsville I was quite familiar with the cane toad but it's been a while working closer to Sydney, but now we went up all the way to the border and just seeing how abundant they are, it was actually a bit of a shock again.
Kim McKay: Yes, it really is. And is that climate related or is it just that this species is on the move, that they are proliferating?
Jodi Rowley: Yes, the latter, although I'm sure climate change actually won't work in a good way and it will probably facilitate them getting into places where they might not have been to in the past.
Kim McKay: Well, Jodie Rowley, it's been an absolute delight to talk to you about frogs. We're going to do more frogging chatting to you later about some of your work overseas and really dig deeper there. But thanks very much for joining us today on AMplify.
Jodi Rowley: Thank you.