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Pond ponderings

Over the past week or so, a colleague who lives in East Cornwall has been in touch with some questions regarding his garden pond and its inhabitants. He only built the pond (pictured)  fairly recently, and I know that he and his wife get a huge amount of pleasure from just observing all the wildlife attracted from the open countryside the pond edges. It  now also supports a large population of common frogs, toads and newts. He ‘communes’ with the pond every day, sometimes several times a day, just watching what is going on in it. He has told me that he finds it extremely therapeutic, and I can certainly identify with where he is coming from.  It really is amazing to hear how the building of a wildlife pond in your garden can have such a positive  impact on not just the wildlife but also people’s wellbeing, and its something that more and more people are interested in doing. In this post, I thought I would cover two aspects of having a pond and include some of the photos he kindly sent me. The first is clearly how much benefit a pond can provide, and if you would like to hear more and read how to actually build a pond, I attach a PDF from Natural England you can download and which I hope you will find of interest: Garden Ponds

The second thing I would just like to mention is a problem that is adversely affecting some frog populations in the UK,  and which can be very distressing for amphibians and pond-keepers alike. Over the years there have been many reports of frog mortalities in ponds throughout the country and of amphibians suffering from various infections and viruses.  Although some of these reports fit with frogs having typical symptoms of a prevalent ‘Ranavirus’, other reports have not. Such has been a problem in my colleagues’ pond, where adult frogs have recently been found very emaciated and largely immobile, hanging motionless in the water with their legs outstretched, or showing signs of red sores on the skin (Pictured). It’s absolutely gutting to see such things, particularly when there is little you can do help.

Although the death toll has now abated, he wasn’t at all sure what he should do, particularly with there being healthy looking tadpoles and newts also in the pond at this time of year.  The advice he was given was not to remove the tadpoles and newts to try to protect them, as this might spread the problem. It is now a week later and it looks as though the tadpoles and newts are looking healthy and he has even found an adult frog that seems totally unaffected.   Although I am somewhat familiar with symptoms of the Ranavirus, this particular case remains unclear and has left me wondering what exactly it is.  My colleague contacted ‘Froglife’ who proved extremely helpful. They are currently looking into the problem and I know they are also collating data on such cases, including having a Frog Mortality Project focusing on Ranavirus outbreaks. For more information on this, and to report any new cases, please see :


P.S.  Please don’t let such reports put you 0ff from having a pond in your garden – I am sure all those who do, including my colleague, will certify the extraordinary rewards!


Living dangerously

Last night I gave a talk at a Sci-Bar in Bollington, Cheshire. It seemed to go down pretty well, and I must admit that from my point of view it was fantastic to engage so positively with all who attended. One of the questions I was asked at the end of the talk was: how dangerous are poison-dart frogs?

In the answer, I refered to the Golden Poison-dart frog, Phyllobates terribilis,  the most dangerous of all amphibians and a frog with enough poisonous toxins in its skin to kill 20,000 mice or 8-10 humans. Is this frog dangerous? I should say so!

This species, which hails from a small area in Colombia is the most toxic frog known – wild-caught specimens are definately as deadly as any venomous snake. The frog, first described in the 1970’s, is quite large for a poison-dart frog, growing up to 50mm. The toxins in its skin, which it develops from it’s insect diet, acts as supreme defence from predators and is also used by indigenous people to treat the darts they use in hunting and warfare. Most other species of poison-dart frog are much less dangerous than P.terribilis, but there are similar species which live within the same area of South America which are also extremely toxic, such as P. bicolor and P.aurotaenia. These related species also look extremely alike.

In the Vivarium at the Manchester Museum we have integrated several collections, and one particular display highlights the use of poison-dart frogs by humans.  In the clip below you can see show how we display P.terribilis/bicolor specimens from our live collection alongside artefacts from our ethnology collection, and listen to Stephen Welsh, our Curator of Anthropology, clearly explaining how the related artefacts are used.

Stephen also has a great blog focusing on living cultures which you might find of great interest. Check out his latest related post – ‘Darts anyone?’ at: http://mancultural.wordpress.com/

Weather warms ups, but toads remain cool!

Well, it’s looking like spring has finally arrived, and in Manchester yesterday we had the first rays of sun for such a long time. Faced with the first real   opportunity of getting out to see some local reptiles and amphibians, I jumped at the chance 🙂 It was such a beautiful day –  and so good to be in the countryside! Clean air, singing birds, and also the sound of…..Toads! I was joined by my assistant Matt, and later his good friend Carl Corbidge, who had taken time out especially to show us his favourite ponds. Cheers Carl, much appreciated.

As the bright evening sun was losing its heat, we arrived at one particular pond and were met with a really wonderful sight, and sound. Breeding toads! Bobbing up and down in the water to their own chorus, it was a sight to see. Although they are one of our most common herps, I still really love to see common toads. They have such characters. I must sound like a real geek, but anyone who appreciates different types of frogs will know exacly what I mean. Toads are cool.


Not only water-holding frogs get wet appetites!

It has many years ago since I visited Australia to search for frogs. However, recently my interest in Australian species has been completely re-kindled due to correspondence with like-minded biologist and enthusiastic fellow frogger, George Madani. George, who is affiliated with the University of Sydney, has a real passion for wildlife and seems to spend many hours on some great adventures in search of rare frogs. He has recently been enlightening me on some of the absolutely amazing species he comes across and it’s definitely wetting my appetite for go out and join him in the field. George’s knowledge of his subject is extensive, and some of the labs he is working in focus on Arid Zone Ecology, with their main study site being the Simpson Desert. This is home to some really interesting frogs, such as the termite eating, glue exuding, Notaden nichollsi. How cool would it be to find that species! Another species George has also been lucky enough to come across and photograph is the famous water holding frog of the Australian deserts, Cyclorana platycephala (pictured above). Apparently, these can remain underground for years awaiting drought breaking rains, and when the rains arrive they emerge and are in their element. Coincidentally, they appear to have a large grin on their faces! 🙂

I very much look forward to hearing George’s latest news, and only recently he was telling me that he had just returned from an 11 day trek in the remote south-west of Tasmania. Embarking on a 160km hike through some of the county’s most scenic and pristine areas, the highlight of the trip was finding and photographing the rare and endemic Tasmanian Tree Frog, Litoria burrowsae (pictured here). What a beautiful species. I only wish I could have been there to share the wonder.

In an effort to escape the winter cold, George is now planning on heading into the desert and the remote Kimberly region in the North West of Australia. I can’t wait to hear back how he gets on and i’ll be sure to keep you updated as George reports back.


Astonishing new amphibian predator!

Image of Balatro spp. Copywrite: Universidad de zoologia

I just felt I should write a short note regarding the amazing discovery highlighted in the recent press about the tiny venomous Cephalapod, (Balatro mensis mensis) that has been found predating on treefrogs. It is increadible that no-one has ever filmed or photographed this creature before. As people will know, many frogs are threatened by a variety of factors, including climate change, pesticides and de-forestation. Surely this tiny, tree-dwelling, killer octopus is the last thing they need. Since the findings were published there have been several new reports from the small area it is known to populate.

Apparently, these tiny chocolate-brown predators have evolved a waxy secretion to enable them to spend some of their time out of water and can climb really well. They have good eyesight and are very cunning in how they catch their food, which consists mainly of tree frogs. They sit in wait and then when an ususpecting frog lands nearby they let out a blood-curdling scream and jump on the poor frog’s back. They then invenomate the frog through the skin, turn the frog over so as to get to the soft underside and then devour it. It can kill frogs 5 or 6 times its own size and can increase the scream it lets out depending on the frog’s size. Amazing! Above is the famous spanish picture of the small brown Balatro spp (a male specimen) feeding on a treefrog. Why anyone would want to save these or similar species is beyond me, but for further information on other unusual tree dwelling Octopus species please see: http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/

Below is a video clip of me with a related species off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica: