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Spencer's burrowing frog springs back to life in the wet, surviving its gruelling desert habitat

By Emma Haskin, Friday April 21, 2017 - 13:30 EST
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Blink and you would miss it, the Spencer's burrowing frog hides itself well. - ABC

West of Alice Springs you might find something hiding in the desert sands that is small and knows how to survive its long, dry spells by burying itself until the rain comes.

The scientific name is Platyplectrum spenceri, but it is more commonly known as Spencer's burrowing frog.

It is found throughout central Australia's waterways and riverbeds, and its life cycle and survival is fascinating given the harsh environment it lives in.

Susie Armes from Parks and Wildlife said the frog is a drought dodger.

"They have a pretty amazing survival strategy, given that they are amphibious so they need water around to live," she said.

"When there isn't any water, when the river bed goes dry, they burrow underneath the sand.

"They'll stay underground for a long time waiting for that rain to come back."



The normally dry sandy creek bed of the Hugh River in the West MacDonnell National Park is approximately 70 kilometres from Alice and is a spectacular drive, lined by the MacDonnell Ranges.

You would be forgiven for thinking that you had landed in the middle of one of Albert Namatjira's watercolours, driving out west with its ghost gums, subtle colours and bright blue skies.

Given the amount of rain the central region has had over summer you might still be lucky to find a few puddles of murky water lining the rough road out to Birthday Gorge waterhole.

It is in those puddles that schools of rainbow fish dart in and around, feeding on the flies and spiders that somehow appear to attain the biblical feat of walking on water.



Then, if you are lucky, you might even spy an amphibian gliding through the scene.

The Spencer's is small, brown and speckled, and Mother Nature has certainly done a good job in hiding it from its predators given its level of camouflage.

Ms Armes said their survival depends on how much food they can snatch when the rains come, and whether the male frogs can call for a mate successfully.

"You'll find some places where there hasn't been rain for a long time and in the catchment now there'll be a beautiful chorus of frogs," she said.

"They're just sitting there underneath the surface, just waiting for that nice, wet time to come back up and meet each other again."

In the dry, the frogs burrow to a depth of roughly 30 centimetres, depending on the softness of the sand.

"They will slow down their bodies and go into a state of torpor and they shed their skin as well. Kind of like a snake shedding its skin, frogs will shed their skin too," Ms Armes said.



"But what the Spencer's burrowing frog will do, under the ground, is perform a couple more sheds. It becomes this impermeable bubble around the frog which keeps all the nice moisture inside the frog's body where it needs it.

"It's a nice barrier for it to stay underground, to keep nice and moist, until the rains come back."

Precious rains brings outback to life



Summers in the Alice brings searing outdoor temperature hovering easily in the mid to high-40s which drops to below zero in the depths of a centralian winter's night.

Rain is precious.

"After a bit of rain the rapid breeding cycle starts with tadpoles going through metamorphosis," Ms Armes said.

"They start sprouting legs and their gills will turn into lungs. And you will see these tiny little frogs hopping about.

"They'll feed up on all the insects and everything around them that they can, and then go underground when it gets dry again."

While there are never any guarantees of rain in the red centre — where some years are exceptionally dry and others are not — you can be assured that lurking below the surface is the Spencer's, ready to sprout and call for a mate when the wet does come.


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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