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Will Australian frogs croak it under climate change?

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We hear so much these days about the human element of climate change, but what do we really know about the probable effects on Australian animals? Dr Arthur White, from the Frog and Tadpoles Study Group (FATS), puts Australian frogs under the climate change microscope.

From a frog perspective, the first component of climate change will be new rainfall patterns. The monsoonal north of the continent is predicted to have wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons. The east coast of Australia won’t change dramatically, but the rest of the continent is predicted to become increasingly arid, with droughts stretching for some 10-15 years.
The desert-dwelling burrowing frogs and the waterholding frogs will have to retreat from these harsh conditions, as will other animals and humans. There is, in fact, a biological limit on how much the metabolic rate of these frogs can be lowered and increased aridity means that these habitats will be destroyed.
Desert areas will expand, placing increased pressure on areas that contain enough water affect coastal frog species.

The second component of climate change will be temperature change.
Whilst the average temperature will rise, this will not be uniform.
Some areas will be considerably hotter that others causing a consequent rise in the rate of water evaporation.
Less water means shorter breeding seasons and this will particularly affect coastal frog species.

For mountain-dwelling frog species, like the Corroboree Frog, the consequences of temperature rise will be more dramatic.
These frogs have evolved in order to survive in near-alpine environments, but will be headed for extinction when the sphagnum and mosses die out, thus destroying their breeding sites.

Above and left: Three mountain frogs (Pseudophryne dendyi, Kyrranus kundagungan and Philoria pughi) that are likely to be lost through global warming (along with Corroborree frogs).
Below: Nyctimystes is a sensitive rainforest frog species that is likely to greatly contract its range with global warming.
All photos are from Arthur White.
The final component of climate change is a rise in sea levels.
Here, the predicted rise in levels is being revised upward and is likely to be far more significant than the modest prediction formerly of about 10-20 cm in 30 years.


However, even a moderate rise will have significant effects on some coastal species.
For example, the Wallum Frog lives in environments that are within one kilometre of the sea. These habitats will be forced further inland as the sea level rises.
Unfortunately for coastal frogs, these areas are already heavily occupied by agricultural and urban development, creating less scope for the frogs to relocate.

Arthur White believes that long-term planning for climate change needs to consider the effects on all species.
He stresses that it will be community action that will spur the need to establish land habitats for frogs and in the long term, it is only the purchase of suitable land that will enable some species to survive climate change. However he is concerned that only iconic species such as the Corroboree Frog may attract sufficient attention to be assisted. 
The effect of climate change on frog sources of food, insects, is also not really known.
It seems that unless actions are begun now, there are many frogs that will croak it.

V.B. December 2009

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