A full moon shone through the tree-tops, and apart from the hooting of a distant morepork, and the autumn cricket symphony, not even the careful movements of the four silent searchers disturbed the peace of the forest.
Then a hushed excited exclamation came from Charlotte: “I’ve found one – it’s a baby!” The other seekers carefully stepped across the lines of coloured string which separated them, and gazed at a perfect, tiny jewel-like creature, smaller than the size of a thumb nail, half hidden beneath a frond of fern, the first find of the night.
A baby Archey!
This is how the two researchers from Auckland Zoo, on their annual visit to monitor our resident Archey’s, began their silent night of seeking for these precious creatures – living fossils – which are among the world’s oldest frogs, and almost unchanged since their 150 million- year- old relatives flourished here.
There are now only two populations left in the world, and one of them survives here in the protected forest where I live. Two zoologists, specialists in frogs, have just been here for four nights monitoring both frogs and our rare striped and forest geckoes. Sara, a resident and our own indefatigable discoverer of so many frogs and rare geckoes, and an expert at both detecting and recording them, organised the searches.
Using coloured string Sara has measured out into four sections a ten-metre square grid on her property. She and the experts from the zoo re-visit this site just once a year to check on the frog population, as to do so more often would be too invasive. (Our friends from the zoo also return four times a year to count and measure and monitor the rare geckos which live here).
By searching the same area each time, they are able to assess the size of the Archey’s population and hope eventually to discover whether it is thriving or declining, as sadly 43 per cent of all such creatures are declining in this country.
Finding these tiny and elusive creatures is challenging. They are usually hidden by fern fronds or leaves, and as in the case of the first find of the night, are often so tiny they are almost invisible. Their camouflaged colours vary from mottled greens to rich browns and pale sandy markings. However, the eagle-eyed team are now experienced enough to spot them.
When they do, they use a surgical glove when holding the frogs so as not to contaminate them, and a separate glove for each frog. They mark and number where they found the frog, and gently slip the tiny creature into a see-through plastic bag, giving it the same identifying name. The bag is then pinned to a nearby tree, until the search is ended, when they are all gathered up. The time, temperature, weather conditions and GPS co-ordinates of each frog’s whereabouts are also recorded.
Back at base, each frog is carefully placed within a protective canvas square, and photographed using mirrors, so as not to disturb the frog, yet capturing all angles in a single shot. It’s then moved to be weighed on very sensitive scales, and then measured. When this careful record has been completed, the frog is taken back to where he was found.
Archey’s frogs don’t need water like most frogs, and produce their tadpoles in a gelatinous sac. When they’re hatched, the male frog carries the froglets around on his back until they have full metamorphosed. The minute exquisite froglets we saw were complete.
To watch the dedicated researchers carry out their painstaking task – first finding their quarry using their torches in the dark forest, then carrying out the incredibly detailed and meticulous procedures laid down by the Department of Conservation (DOC) was so impressive. Anyone handling these precious creatures must have a license from DOC to do so.
Beginning the search at nine o clock, they ended at six in the morning. They did this for four nights, as well as searching, finding, recording, measuring and going through the whole procedure with the rare Coromandel Striped gecko which also survives on the estate.
Geckos are slightly easier to find since they are bigger, and they are just as beautiful. Like the frogs, each one has different markings so they can be recognised from one monitoring session to the next. They have the same sort of protuberant eyes as the frogs, and like the frogs too, tiny exquisite little fingers on their feet. Geckos also have ‘sticky’ feet: their toes are covered with microscopic hairs that allow them to climb sheer surfaces and even walk upside down across a ceiling.
As a somewhat ignorant observer, I felt so privileged to see these rare and ancient creatures who live amongst us as they have done for milleniums, and who are struggling to survive with so many enemies like rats, stoats, possums etc who feast on them. Our predator control programme is absolutely vital to their survival, and our whole community is dedicated to the government’s hopeful policy of a predator free country. Our residents also continue their commitment to our precious wild life with their constant checking and setting of predator traps all over the forest.
To be there with the little research team – even for only one night – gave me such a profound insight into the richness of our environment, not just the Archey’s and geckos, but insect life which included spiders with beautiful markings as they spun their webs, long legged ones picking their way delicately through the fallen leaves, millipedes which curled into a tiny round ball looking like a large blue-berry, young wetas, and the background of crickets serenading us.
As I write, I look out on a peaceful vista of trees stretching across to the top of our forested mountain range. I watch green silver eyes feasting on insects clinging to the bark of the karaka tree beyond the veranda, and watch the tiny grey warblers and black headed tits flitting among the foliage, looking for lunch, and green finches perching there. Bell birds sends their melodious notes floating across the green valley, and it’s hard to realise that I am in fact sitting here in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, the worst such destruction of species for 65 million years, and one of the most significant extinction events in the history of the earth, according to scientists.
They point to the disappearance of billions of plants, insects, animals, reptiles and amphibians all over the planet, saying the Sixth Mass Extinction has progressed further than we thought. It’s caused by over-population, loss of habitat, hunting, use of poisons like pesticides, climate change, pollution and in some cases, as in the case of NZ’s Archey’s frog, by disease.
There are so few of our frogs left here that they are number one on the list of endangered species, which is why we are guarding and monitoring and cherishing them. Just as saddening is the knowledge that in the last fifty years tigers, for example, have declined from 50,000 down to three thousand – a thought that fills me with terror at the thought of losing them all soon.
Scientists fear all big cats will be extinct in less than a hundred years, and point to lions as a symbol of what has happened to our world. They remind us that lions used to live and roam all over Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East right up to north-western India, and yet now, there are only small parts of Africa and tiny populations in a few other places.
While hunting and habitat loss is behind the loss of so many creatures like the big cats, over-eating is the problem that most frogs face! In the US alone, three million kgs of frog meat are imported every year. This is roughly 26 million frogs – mostly from India, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Germany, France, the Netherlands and Africa are also keen on eating frogs’ legs. Luckily for them, our Archeys are too small to be a tasty morsel for homo sapiens – (if only we were truly homo sapiens).
It’s easy to feel discouraged when facing a global event of such momentous proportions, and one which in the end could mean our mass extinction too. And when it is such an enormous and profound happening, we can only fall back on the only thing we know – love. By loving and reverencing every creature, plant and sentient being we can feel at least that we are doing something positive. Giving in to despair or hopelessness is not the answer. Nor is burying our heads in the sand.
The words of a children’s hymn printed in 1864 which my grandmother taught me, come into my mind.
We are bidden:”… to shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.
……….. all around
Many kinds of darkness in this world abound:
Sin, and want, and sorrow—we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.”
So yes, I will light my candle in my small corner.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I’ve always been keen on cakes that require very little effort, and I’ve used this one several times recently, and it’s never let me down. All you have to do is stir all the ingredients together and bake – no beating, creaming, or separating! The ladies from the Zoo loved it when they came for afternoon tea!
Grease a cake tin and line the base with grease-proof paper. Set the oven to 180 degrees. In a large bowl, tip 100gm of melted butter, a generous 100 gm of brown sugar, three eggs, a 100 gm of self- raising flour, a 100gms of ground almonds, a tsp baking powder, four tablespoons of milk, and a table spoon of honey. Mix them all together thoroughly, tip into the cake tin, and bake for just over 35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clear.
I wanted a slightly bigger cake so I increased everything by a gram, and added another egg. I also made lemon butter icing using the juice and grated peel of a lemon. The cake did n’t last long!
Food for Thought
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”
JRR Tolkien This favourite quote seemed like the most appropriate one for this blog.