Three Martins, one frog

Happy New Year everyone, I hope you’ve all had a wonderful break with friends and family.

As I fly over the breathtaking Rocky Mountains and depart California bound for Colorado, following a wonderful conference about predator-prey interactions (more on that soon!), what better time for a post?

Biodiversity means many things to many people. And beyond the functional and ecological importance of species, many of us share a deep and emotional connection with this planet’s organisms. EO Wilson’s famous Biophilia hypothesis elegantly summarises this relationship and is certainly well worth the read. But the fact that we are now losing so many of Earth’s species as a result of our impacts means that these connections are being severed at an alarming rate and we are all the poorer for it. Some may argue, but on a personal level nature brings meaning to life and this is why I’m doing what I do. Importantly, it’s not my intention to solely paint a picture of doom and gloom, there is much to celebrate still. As the following personal account by Angus (my father-in-law), Jen (my wife) and Rohan (my son) illustrates, there is enormous power and joy that comes from maintaining our connection to nature.

Three Martins, one frog

Angus: After a life-time of frog research, in 1986 I joined the honoured group of scientists who have had a newly-recognised animal species named after them. “My” species is a Victorian member of a widespread group of small Australian frogs called toadlets (they look like, but aren’t really, tiny toads). Meet Martin’s Toadlet, Uperoleia martini (pronounced, please note, mar-tin-eye, not mar-tee-nee.)

Uperoleia martini, Martin's Toadlet, is a very special frog.
Uperoleia martini, Martin’s Toadlet, is a very special frog.

Jen: I can clearly remember even as a primary school student thinking it extraordinary that my Dad had a species of frog named after him. It is something I have always been immensely proud of! I think it was at some point during my own undergraduate zoology days that I asked Dad more about it and discovered that he may never have actually met “his” frog. I resolved at the time to do something about that but amidst a PhD, academic job, marriage and having children, I never got around to acting on my idea.

Close to 20 years later, it took the death of a very close family friend in late 2013 for me to realise that time is precious and I needed to put my vague plan into action. I started making enquiries, and found out that the frog is now of great conservation concern — it had disappeared from a number of previously reliable monitoring sites. It was clear that if we were going to find one, we needed to do it soon.

Three Martins, one frog.
Three Martins, one frog.

Angus: I hadn’t been aware of Jen’s feelings about Martin’s Toadlet, though I should have been, given that we have collaborated in lots of zoological work; that her husband Euan is also a zoologist and that their son Rohan, nearly six, gives every evidence of being a zoologist in the making, too. I was absolutely enchanted by her idea that we could share in a unique family moment of discovery — and fulfilment — if the three generations of Martins could together find, catch, celebrate and release a Martin’s Toadlet.

And that’s exactly what we achieved, on 18 December 2013. Jen realised that we’d need expert help to find a population of the species, and it was willingly provided by Nick, leader of the threatened fauna program in the state environmental research institute, and another Rohan, an ecologist resident in eastern Victoria. We met in the late afternoon at a spot nominated by Rohan the Elder: an old, well-vegetated fire-dam on a rough dirt track in a beautiful stretch of forest, a little under three hours drive from Melbourne. And there we waited while dusk slowly closed in: five people, ranging in age from a little under 6 to a little over 73, united by their enthusiasm, their respect for each other and for their surroundings and their sense of fellowship in pursuit of a shared goal.

Is that a frog call? — yes, but not the one we want — what about that one? — still no, but better get the headlamps ready — that’s four different calls we’ve heard now — wait! — five! – that’s the one! — very quiet, everyone — triangulate on the sound — I reckon I know where he is — I’VE GOT HIM! — can I hold him? — of course, very gently — cameras! — phones! — photos! — more photos! — enough? — OK, time to let him go — return him to the exact same spot — high fives! — bye-bye Toadlet.

Forming and maintaining connections.
Forming and maintaining connections.

Rohan (the Younger): That’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

(And perhaps he was speaking for all of us).

Uperoleia martini: As we packed up for the journey home, the little frog began to call again.