Dominica, holding the distinction of being the sole country in the world with a wild population of the Mountain Chicken, stands on the brink of losing its unique wildlife heritage as only approximately 30 of these giant ditch frogs are left on the island, teetering on the edge of extinction. In response to this critical situation, conservationists from local, regional, and international spheres are urgently sounding the alarm, calling for immediate action to preserve the last remaining population of Mountain Chickens–once considered the nation’s unofficial national dish.
Jeanelle Brisbane, a Wildlife Conservationist and Ecologist at the Forestry, Wildlife, and Parks Division, emphasized the significance of the year 2022 for the team. During this period, they embarked on a crucial expedition to the sister island, Montserrat, collaborating with global partners to devise a conservation action plan for the endangered Mountain Chicken.
A pivotal outcome of this collaboration was the realization of the need for population data to inform decision-making. Consequently, a comprehensive survey was initiated, aimed at conducting a population census, identifying threats, determining the species’ locations, and collecting genetic samples. This ambitious project involved the participation of 28 individuals from 13 organizations and 12 countries, spanning from regional neighbors like Anguilla to more distant locations such as Chile and Latvia.
Executing the survey demanded extensive planning, energy, and human resources, spanning five months. The fieldwork unfolded over 46 consecutive days, from June to August 2023, with teams working tirelessly from 7 pm to 4 am. During the survey period, 23 frogs were discovered across Dominica, primarily concentrated in two strongholds. Notably, 18 of these were found at one site, while five were identified at the other. The recorded figures included 13 adults, two juveniles, five babies, and three individuals whose age classification remained undetermined.
Site one was estimated to have between 17 to 44 individuals total, with an average of 25, while site two ranged from four to 27 individuals, indicating a potential eight frogs. Cumulatively, the survey results indicated a 95% confidence level that there are only 30 Mountain Chickens remaining in Dominica.
Crucially, Brisbane highlighted that this is not a consolidated population but rather dispersed groups on opposite sides of the island.
How did we reach this point?
In the pre-1500s era, the mountain chicken was once widespread throughout much of the Eastern Caribbean chain, extending from neighboring islands like St. Kitts down to St. Lucia. Fast forward to the present day, and this frog, capable of reaching sizes up to 1kg, is now confined to Dominica and Montserrat.
The eradication of the Mountain Chicken in countries such as St. Kitts, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Lucia began in the early 1800s with the introduction of the mongoose into Martinique. The invasive species then spread to other islands, leading to a further decrease in the early 1900s.
After its extinction in these islands, Brisbane highlights that the consumption of the animal gained popularity rapidly. A 2022 survey conducted for a management plan revealed that between 8000 and 36,000 frogs were hunted annually in Dominica’s forests before the chytrid fungus emerged.
Adding to these challenges was the volcanic eruption in Montserrat, resulting in a significant reduction in the population. However, the primary factor contributing to the mountain chicken's eradication can be attributed to the soil-borne infectious fungal disease known as chytrid, which arrived in the early 2000s.
Since the introduction of the disease, responsible for the extinction of several other species, it marked the fastest observed decline of a species (the Mountain Chicken) occurring within 18 months. Over this brief period, more than 80% of the amphibian population was completely wiped out in Dominica.
Actions taken to preserve the Mountain Chicken Frog
In response to the rapid decline of the mountain chicken in both Dominica and Montserrat, global partners mobilized efforts to preserve this species, which graces the Dominica’s Coat of Arms.
As leaders on the world stage combating the disease affecting this top endemic predator, the team developed methods to treat the frogs suffering from the illness, achieving the first successful elimination of the fungus from a wild population.
“No other species in this world has managed to successfully eliminate chytrid from the population. Dominica and Montserrat actually lead in the world stage when it comes to conservation of amphibians, especially against the battle of chytrid,” Brisbane highlighted.
“We’ve identified genes linked to resilience. So the frog still gets sick, similar to how we do when we get the flu, but they are bouncing back, because of this genetic resilience that they are developing over time,” she added.
The initial strategy involved creating an institute facility at the Botanic Garden and sending mountain chickens to zoos across Europe, from Sweden to the United Kingdom.
A two-pronged approach was also taken. In Dominica, the focus was on researching the wild population’s survival, understanding threats, and mitigating them. While in Montserrat, live interventions took place in a semi-wild enclosure, where the first successful eradication of chytrid from wild living frogs occurred.
Over time, research has indicated that the Mountain Chickens in Montserrat are unable to thrive without human intervention, relying heavily on conservationists providing them with antifungal baths. However, the situation differs in Dominica, where the local frogs have demonstrated greater resilience.
In 2019, a scientist from the Zoological Society of London conducted research in Dominica, swabbing the animals and identifying distinct genes in the frogs of both Dominica and Montserrat. The study revealed a group of alleles potentially responsible for the Dominican frogs’ ability to persist in the wild and maintain their resilience.
What’s Next? Calls for immediate action
In the present day, while some Mountain Chickens are still succumbing to chytrid, additional threats from human activities are exacerbating the challenges faced by this nearly extinct species. Brisbane points out that human actions, such as chemical dumping on farms, clear-cutting of land, illegal dumping and burning, poaching, and irresponsible land use, including construction without proper information, are intensifying the pressure on Mountain Chickens.
The invasive Cuban tree frog and the prevalence of feral dogs, cats, and rats are also significant contributors to the decline of the species. Moreover, recent extreme dry weather conditions during the summer have led conservationists to theorize that the hotter, drier conditions drove the frogs closer to water sources, increasing the risk of roadkill. This unexpected threat was not considered for over two decades, and two frogs were found dead during the survey period.
As such, Brisbane emphasized that the next step is to utilize the survey information to prioritize conservation interventions. This involves identifying suitable habitats for Mountain Chickens, proposing protected areas strategically, and understanding the population better by exploring historical sites. A joint conservation action plan between Dominica and other islands will also be developed, recognizing the interconnectedness of the ecosystems.
Regarding the creation of a sanctuary, she disclosed that it could be situated on either public or private land. However, before moving forward, crucial details need clarification. This includes its development and whether it will mirror Montserrat’s setup. Once all necessary information is gathered, the team aims to expedite efforts, evaluate fundraising requirements, and establish legislative, policy, and guideline prerequisites. The objective is to make substantial progress within the upcoming year.
For his part, Luke Jones, Caribbean Programs Manager for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, noted that despite the concerning narrative surrounding the Mountain Chicken’s path towards extinction, there is a current sense of hope. He stressed the need for a protected area not only for Mountain Chickens but also for other critically endangered animals in Dominica such as the iguanas and Sisserou parrot.
Regarding the absence of the frogs in partner zoos, the experts explained that maintaining them in their native region, like Dominica, is more feasible due to synchronization with the natural climate. Looking ahead, the conservationists aim for annual surveys with regional support and encourage community involvement. The conservationist calls on community members to report Mountain Chicken sightings, as community outreach has previously led to the discovery of frog populations not seen in over 15-20 years.