Nganngi Kanyini – listening out for a new species of frog
Anangu Rangers lead the search for a new species of frog in the APY Lands.
In the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the far north-west of South Australia, a small spring provides precious water in an arid landscape. Around this spring, an area of around one square metre is the known habitat of possibly Australia’s newest frog species – so new it has not yet been formally named.
Aṉangu rangers from the western APY Lands are leading a project to learn more about this tiny and elusive amphibian using a combination of new technology and traditional knowledge, funded by a Grassroots Grant from the Alinytjara Wiluṟara Landscape Board.
The project has been named Nganngi Kanyini. Nganngi is Pitjantjatjara for frog, while kanyini is a word that encompasses the ideals of interconnectedness, caring, nurturing and support.
The frog, a toadlet from the genus Pseudophryne, was first identified at the site by ecologist John Read in 2012. In 2020, Claire Hartvigsen-Power, with Zoos SA at the time, began leading a research project and developed a management plan for the species.
Dr Caro Galindez-Silva, Ecologist with APY Land Management, worked with other ecologists to find out more. They took DNA samples from the tails of tadpoles that were swimming in the spring water, and testing confirmed that the species was likely to be undescribed in the scientific literature.
The DNA matched a sample at the South Australian Museum that was collected in the early 1990s from a site some 30km away across the border in Western Australia. The older sample was not of good quality, and more DNA testing is needed to confirm that the toadlet is a new species. Confirming a new species would potentially mean the frog would be protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
“These frogs are precious historical remnants,” says Dr Steve Donnellan, Honorary Researcher at the South Australian Museum. “They’ve been isolated from their cousins in wetter environments for two million years. They’re hanging on by their toenails. No other species can replace them if they are lost because of their geographic isolation.”
Gathering more information about the species is a challenge. Its tiny known range is incredibly remote, and the toadlet is seldom seen, so elusive that most of the people working on the project have never seen it.
“The western APY Lands is dry and hot,” says APY Ranger Coordinator Kieran Jairath. “There’s not a lot of water around, much less than you would find further east. This frog has only been located in this one spring, in an area about one metre by one metre. The aquifer that feeds the spring may provide more habitat, as the frog can burrow into the moist soil that continues underground. There are other rockholes around that could be habitat for the species, so this project is an opportunity to expand our knowledge of where a frog like this might persist.”
To find out more about the frog and how widespread it might be, the project will deploy audio monitoring devices called Audiomoths. These small, low-cost acoustic monitors can be placed in the field to record the calls of any creatures nearby. They will be placed at locations suggested by Aṉangu as possible nganngi habitat.
But recording is the easy part – with multiple Audiomoths in place for days or weeks at a time, the amount of data generated is enormous. Listening to potentially thousands of hours of sound recording in the hope of picking out a short frog call that might only occur once or twice a day is not feasible, so the APY rangers recruited Dr Kyle Armstrong from the University of Adelaide.
Dr Armstrong will work with the APY team to develop machine learning software and hardware that can analyse recordings and can identify the specific call of the new nganngi.
The semi-automated technology will be able to quickly analyse large quantities of audio data extending over thousands of hours. A custom-made device created by Dr Armstrong and his team will be installed at the spring, providing the capability of real-time monitoring and tracking of frog activity.
Technology is helping out, but the core of the project is the Aṉangu ranger team and the local community. The rangers will be doing the work on-Country, monitoring the spring and managing the audio monitoring. The project will also embrace multiple generations of Aṉangu, with school students incorporating the project into their science curriculum and Elders imparting their cultural and traditional ecological knowledge.
An important focus for the Aṉangu will be deciding on a name for the species. Species are named using a convention known as binomial nomenclature. The binomial name of a species, often referred to as its scientific name, comprises two parts: a generic name that defines the genus, and a specific epithet that distinguishes the species. Well known examples include Tyrannosaurus rex and Homo sapiens (humans). The newly discovered frog species currently only has a generic name, Pseudophryne. The specific epithet will be determined through discussions among members of the Aṉangu community.
Beyond the generations of Aṉangu in the APY, this tiny frog is also making other vital connections, with a two-way ranger exchange program planned with the Wiradjuri and Walgalu rangers from NSW, who are working on their own frog project. The distinctive and endangered corroboree frogs are also from thePseudophryne genus and are related to the new nganngispecies.
Rangers from the APY Lands will visit south-eastern New South Wales to see how the corroboree frogs are being protected. Wiradjuri and Walgalu rangers will then travel to the APY Lands in return.
An Aṉangu-led project featuring a new species, new technology, and cultural exchanges spanning half a continent – Nganngi Kanyini is an exciting story for the people of the APY Lands, amphibian enthusiasts and for anyone who is curious about the incredible creatures that live in the Australian outback.