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Desert frogs resurface after months — and sometimes years — underground waiting for rain

Saskia Mabin, Sunday March 22, 2020 - 08:08 EDT
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Is this the most patient animal in the world? - ABC

It might be a leap of faith for some to learn that frogs are one of the most common species in the arid deserts of Australia.

True, they are rarely seen, as they spend most of their lives — which could be decades — burrowed underground.

They only surface a handful of times, and only when there is a significant amount of rain.

Desert ecologist Dr Bec West said they waited to hear the drumming of rain on the surface of the ground before breaking their isolation.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of these little frogs sitting down under the surface for most of the time … just sitting there waiting for their opportunity," she said.



Dr West lives at Sturt National Park in the far north-west of New South Wales.

It is one of the driest and most remote places in the state.

When 50 millimetres of rain fell over part of the park in early March, Dr West said hundreds of frogs began to emerge from the sand.

"These frogs would've been sitting down there since last May which is when we had our last reasonable rainfall," she said.

Some burrowing frogs have a lifespan of up to 20 years, but they spend most of their lives underground in isolation — lying in wait for the rare opportunity to surface and mate.



"[They] might only get to come up for three or four occasions in that 20 years, just depending on what the rainfall cycles are like," Dr West said.

"I guess they probably also should get an award for being the most patient animal in the world."

When the rain does come, it is a race against the clock to keep their species alive before water pools dry up and the frogs have to retreat back underground.

"They're one of the fastest animals in terms of their development," Dr West said.

"They've got to lay their eggs and get their tadpoles to grow into adult frogs, with the potential opportunity for them to breed themselves, before the water dries up."



Slippery creatures a sight for sore eyes

Two species of burrowing frogs have resurfaced at Sturt National Park, the trilling frog and the water-holding frog, with the latter known to occasionally feast on other frogs and tadpoles.

During dry times these frogs hibernate a metre or more below the surface of the ground, surviving in a cocoon made from layers of their own skin that holds water.

"It's a pretty rare opportunity for a desert ecologist to be able to say that they're going out 'frogging'," Dr West said.



It is not just the frogs that have reappeared after the rain.

Dr West said the sounds of bird calls, crickets, and cicadas have filled the "deadly silence" at Sturt National Park.

"There's certainly lots of things that are probably jumping up and down with as much excitement as some of the humans in this area following the rain," she said.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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