There may be hope for the mountain chicken.
More than five years ago, dozens of Leptodactylus fallax frogs—a species nicknamed the “mountain chicken”—were airlifted out of Montserrat and away from the scourge of a deadly fungus. Now researchers are optimistic about the future of the critically endangered amphibian.
Found only on the islands of Montserrat and Dominica in the east Caribbean Sea, the mountain chicken was once a local delicacy. It is one of the largest frogs in the world and appears on the official seal of Dominica. And what does it taste like? You guessed it: chicken.
Years of overhunting and habitat loss, as well as volcanic eruptions in Montserrat, diminished the mountain chicken population, and the species has been declared extinct in Guadeloupe, Antigua, and other islands where it used to live. In 2002, the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) devastated the population in Dominica. The fungus arrived in Montserrat in 2009, and within a year, researches estimate, it wiped out more than 80 percent of that island’s population.
The future of the mountain chicken looked grim. (WATCH: A 2009 National Geographic video follows efforts to save the mountain chicken in Montserrat.)
“At one point they thought mountain chickens were extinct on Dominica,” said Jeff Dawson, amphibian program manager at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in the United Kingdom
When the chytrid outbreak began in Montserrat, “it was kind of a shock to everybody,” said Lloyd Martin of the Mountain Chicken Recovery Project.
Dominica banned the hunting of the mountain chicken shortly after chytrid’s arrival to that island, and Monsterrat’s government did the same in 2009. “People didn’t really fuss about that, because they understood what the animals are going through,” Martin said.
As the fungus swept through Montserrat, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and other organizations airlifted 50 of the last healthy mountain chickens off the island and into zoos in the United Kingdom and Sweden, where they have been reproducing successfully.
Since 2011, four groups of captive-bred mountain chickens have been released in Montserrat. The frogs are initially tracked using small radio transmitters inserted under their skin, which eventually run out of power. The released mountain chickens joined just two known wild individuals that have survived the chytrid outbreak in Montserrat—one male and one female.
“If they can survive out there then maybe others can,” Martin said.
Captive-bred frogs are released to try and establish viable populations isolated from each other on the island, while a safety net population is kept in the United Kingdom.
The last group of frogs was released in July 2014, and when they were relocated, “the ones that they found didn’t appear to have any chytrid—all seemed to be okay,” Dawson said. “Whether that’s due to the fact that they have some level of resistance, or if it was just the time of year, or the prevalence of chytrid was low in general, we’re not quite sure.”
Mountain chickens live in steep, remote areas. Their breeding season begins with the spring rains, around April. Researchers in Montserrat are out looking for the creatures every week, but they are more successful during the breeding season. Males call out to females with deep, dog-like barks. Female mountain chickens build underground foam nests, where they feed their tadpoles unfertilized eggs.
Largely a nocturnal species, mountain chickens are inactive and hidden during the day, and are even more dormant during the dry season. (I tried to look for them in Montserrat but had no luck.)
That last release in Montserrat was followed by a severe drought in the Caribbean, with no evidence of Montserrat’s population breeding in 2015. This year’s spring rains will tell how the captive-bred population fared during the drought.
Mountain chickens seem to be doing better in Dominica. Dawson said, “there are signs—and we know from surveys done in Dominica—that mountain chickens have survived and they are breeding again.”
In Montserrat, “hopefully some of them are adapting and are able to survive in these conditions,” said Martin. “I try to stay positive because of what I see in Dominica. I think the same thing could happen here.”
“We’re going to be able to save the mountain chicken,” said Claude Hogan, Montserrat’s Minister of Agriculture, Housing, Trade, Lands, and Environment. “Protecting, conserving, sustaining biodiversity. I think that’s where our niche is.”
The chytrid fungus has been linked to the devastation or extinction of amphibians around the world, including at least 200 species of frogs.
Chytrid “is always going to be there, and it’s going to be a challenge to the frogs no matter which way you put it,” Martin said. But now the mountain chicken at least has a chance. “We should all stick together and try and save it.”
Follow Ryan Schuessler on Twitter.