Canine detective duo drum up hope for Critically Endangered amphibian

18 November 2022

On the mountain slopes of the Baw Baw Plateau in eastern Victoria [Gunaikurnai Country], canine detective duo – Finn and Kip – have been busy sniffing out Victoria's most critically endangered amphibian.

The Baw Baw Frog is the only frog endemic to Victoria, with wild populations now estimated to be fewer than 500 individuals. Climate
change and the highly contagious chytrid fungus are the two greatest threats to the Baw Baw Frog’s survival.

During the past two months, Zoos Victoria scientists have released 21 female and 21 male adult Baw Baw Frogs to carefully chosen
sites in the hope of supporting the remnant wild populations. This is only the second time captive-bred adult frogs have been released
into the wild, after being reared at a specialised, climate-controlled facility at Melbourne Zoo.

Zoos Victoria Threatened Species Biologist Deon Gilbert said the wild releases now have a secondary purpose, which could
revolutionise scientists’ ability to monitor the Baw Baw Frog in years to come.

“Zoos Victoria detection dogs are trained to safely locate wildlife in its natural environment using their incredible sense of smell,” Mr Gilbert said. “The team has trained the dogs to locate the frogs in controlled environments, but this is the first time we have been able to reinforce that training in the wild environment by having them locate recently released frogs.”

A brown Baw Baw Frog sits on a log

The Baw Baw Frog is a medium sized, brown burrowing frog found predominantly under loose soil and vegetation, in tree hollows
or root systems cavities. When males reach sexual maturity at approximately four-years-old, they call to females for a very short
two-month breeding period each year.

“Historically, when we survey for Baw Baw Frogs, we have to wait for the males to call,” Mr Gilbert said. “One of the most exciting things about having Kip and Finn here with us is that they can use their amazing sense of smell to sniff out the location of the frogs.”

Zoos Victoria Wildlife Detection Dog Officer Naomi Hodgens said the dogs are able to both broaden the time of year scientists can
monitor, as well as detect Baw Baw Frogs regardless of age and sex.

Kip, a blonde Kelpie is sniffing through the leaf litter. Behind him is the mossy root system of a tree.

“Kip and Finn are able to detect both male and female adult frogs,” Ms Hodgens said. “They are also able to detect juvenile frogs who have perhaps dispersed into the environment but are not yet calling.”

However, even with a sophisticated olfactory system, locating the elusive frog is not always an easy task.

“The low alpine temperatures combined with the Baw Baw Frog’s burrowing behaviour cause their scent to be faint, concentrated and low to the ground,” Ms Hodgens said. “The dogs have to work really hard on fine-scale searching to locate their targetst."

“When the dogs identify a Baw Baw Frog they are trained to do what we call a passive alert. It’s a sit behaviour where they indicate with their noses and eye gaze where the target is. For each successful detection, they’re rewarded with what we call a party, which is really important and usually involves toys and a game.”

Zoos Victoria’s Baw Baw Frog conservation breeding program began in 2011 and has now contributed to the release of 92 adults
and more than 1,000 tadpoles and eggs at Baw Baw.

Zoos Victoria is part of the Baw Baw Frog Recovery Program, which includes the Department of Environment, Land, Water and
Planning, Baw Baw Frog Recovery Team, Baw Baw National Park, Baw Baw Shire Council, Deakin University, Mt Baw Baw Alpine
Resort and the University of Wollongong. Zoos Victoria thanks the donors to the Wildlife Detection Dog program for their generous
philanthropic support.