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Meet Australia’s frog whisperer, Professor Michael Mahony

James Redmayne and Paulina Duran, July 1, 2021 7:00PM Reuters

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Professor Michael Mahony holds a green and golden bell frog as research assistant Rebecca Sceto looks on inside a laboratory at the University of Newcastle. Picture: Reuters media_cameraProfessor Michael Mahony holds a green and golden bell frog as research assistant Rebecca Sceto looks on inside a laboratory at the University of Newcastle. Picture: Reuters

animals

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Wading through a moonlit pond on Australia’s east coast talking to frogs makes Michael Mahony feel like a kid again.

The 70-year-old biology professor and conservationist at the University of Newcastle has mastered imitating and understanding the shrills, croaks and whistles of frogs.

“Sometimes you forget to work because, you know, you just want to talk to the frogs for a while and it’s sort of good fun,” said Professor Mahony from a pond in Cooranbong, NSW.

He is thrilled every time they call back, but fears frogs are increasingly at risk of going silent.

Australia has about 240 frog species, but about 30 per cent of them are threatened by climate change, water pollution, habitat loss, a disease caused by chytrid fungus*, and in a variety of other ways.

Professor Mahony said frogs were the most threatened of all vertebrates* around the world.

Frog whisperer Prof Michael Mahony

Over his career, Professor Mahony has described 15 new species of frogs. He has also seen some wiped out.

“Probably the saddest part of my career is that as a young person, I discovered a frog and within two years of it being discovered that frog went extinct,” Professor Mahony said.

“So very early in my career I became aware just how vulnerable* some of our frogs were. We need to be looking at our habitats and asking what is wrong.”

Frog sticks to the inside wall of a container in a university laboratory in Newcastle media_cameraA frog sticks to the inside wall of a container in a laboratory at the University of Newcastle. Picture: Reuters

Beyond working to preserve amphibian* habitats across Australia, Professor Mahony has helped to develop a cryopreservation* method to help bring frogs back from the edge of extinction by “banking” genetic material*.

“What we’ve done in the face of the problems of catastrophic* loss of species is to establish the first genome bank* for Australian frogs,” he said.

Professor Mahony has also contributed to a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature that found almost three billion Australian animals were killed or displaced by bushfires in 2019 and 2020, including 51 million frogs.

Drone view shows researchers looking for frogs at a pond in Cooranbong media_cameraProfessor Michael Mahony and his team of field assistants search for frogs at a pond in Cooranbong, NSW. Picture: Reuters

Professor Mahony’s passion for conservation has also rubbed off on his students. One of them, Simon Clulow, named a newly discovered frog “Mahony’s Toadlet” in his honour in 2016.

Some students have also taken up his technique of calling and talking to frogs.

“I’ve never been into yelling at them to find out where they are,” said University of Newcastle doctoral student and frog researcher Samantha Wallace.

“But it definitely does work, so it does pay back, especially when you’re trying to find some of these species that are really among the undergrowth and they’re not really obvious.”

Researchers look for frogs at a pond in Cooranbong media_cameraFrog whisperer Professor Michael Mahony (left) and field assistants look for frogs in a Cooranbong pond in NSW. Picture: Reuters

GLOSSARY

  • chytrid fungus: a microscopic fungus that lives in water and causes a deadly infectious disease in frogs
  • vertebrates: animals with a spine
  • vulnerable: at risk of being attacked or harmed
  • amphibian: a type of animal that lives both on land and in water
  • cryopreservation: the process of cooling and storing cells, tissues, or organs at very low temperatures
  • genetic material: parts of living thing that contain genetic information, such as DNA
  • catastrophic: sudden and great damage or suffering
  • genome bank: a place where the complete set of genetic information from a living thing is stored for possible future use

EXTRA READING

Bushfires threaten 49 Australian species

Found! Antarctic frog fossils from warmer times

Robert Irwin urges kids to go wild in their own backyard

QUICK QUIZ

  1. How many species of frogs does Australia have?
  2. What percentage is considered threatened?
  3. Which University is Professor Mahony from?
  4. How many frogs were found to have been killed or displaced by the 2019-2020 bushfires?
  5. What did student Simon Clulow name a newly discovered frog?

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CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Describe an Aussie frog
Australia has about 240 frog species – choose one to research and then write a description of what you would see if you found one in the wild. Your writing should describe the frog as well as the habitat in which you would find it. Perhaps you can even find out what sounds it makes and include that in your description too!

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science

2. Extension
Draw a diagram of a frog life cycle.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
Stretch your sentence
Find a “who” in the story – a person or an animal. Write it down.

Add three adjectives to describe them better.

Now add a verb to your list. What are they doing?

Add an adverb about how they are doing the action.

Using all the words listed, create one descriptive sentence.

Extra Reading in animals