This Conservation Week, Auckland Zoo is delighted to share that thanks to our amazing community of supporters, we’re helping conserve some of Aotearoa and the world’s most extraordinary and threatened amphibians.

Our Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund 2021 Small Grants programme has recently awarded grants to seven projects working to conserve amphibians in Colombia’s Amazon basin, the forests of Guatemala, Madagascar, the Philippines and Indonesia, and here in Aotearoa!

We chose to focus on amphibians for this round of grants in honour of the late Professor Phil Bishop who tragically died in January following a short illness. Phil was head of the University of Otago’s Zoology Department, an absolute amphibian champion and a leading light in amphibian conservation worldwide.

“We’re really thrilled that one of the two successful New Zealand projects is Phil’s own passion-project - developing and testing a conservation dog named Holly to survey the highly cryptic and enigmatic frogs of Aotearoa,” says Auckland Zoo’s Head of Animal Care & Conservation and herpetologist, Richard Gibson.

Frog detection dog Holly

“Holly, a young Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, was Phil and his wife Debbie’s dog. A dream years in the making for Phil, both he and Debbie were training Holly for this role when Phil was taken ill. Now Debbie, with fellow project team member, Otago University Master’s student Tegan Murrell, are continuing to progress Holly’s training, which includes using Archey’s frogs from Auckland Zoo and on loan to the university’s Zoology Department to assist with this project.

“Excitingly, Holly will become Aotearoa’s first ever frog detection dog. The project aims to improve the monitoring and surveying of Leiopelma (NZ endemic frog species) to grow our understanding of these frogs’ distribution to progress their future conservation management,” says Richard.

Tegan Murrell explains that the Nova Scotia breed is “very intelligent and trainable due to their strong play drive, which makes Holly an ideal candidate for scent training”.

“We have just purchased GetXent tubes that are made of inert polymer, which when held in contact with your targeted scent, will absorb the available scent. These tubes can then be taken out and used for training in the field.” 

As the video with this story highlights, in November 2020, Dr Bishop and wife Debbie took Holly to the Mahakirau Forest Estate in the Coromandel – home to two of the three endemic frog species. Much to their delight on her second day, Holly “found a New Zealand native frog all on her own!”

While Holly won’t begin working with wild populations of Archey’s frogs until she gains her full certification through the Department of Conservation’s Conservation Detection Dog Programme, she’s already showing she’s got what it takes.

Debbie Bishop says: “Holly’s training, with the assistance of Tegan, is progressing at a very pleasing steady pace. It won’t be long before we’ll be looking to do field trials with her, very exciting!”

The second local project to receive an Auckland Zoo grant for advancing the conservation of Aotearoa’s endemic frogs is a Massey University long-term monitoring programme of Hochstetter’s frogs on Aotea (Great Barrier Island).


Frog detection dog Holly

Video credit - Annie Robertson, postgraduate student of Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago

“Our own endemic frogs – Archey’s frog (Critically Endangered), Hamilton’s frog (Endangered) and Hochstetter’s frog (Vulnerable), like all amphibians, have a giant impact on the planet’s functioning ecosystems,” says Richard.

“Amphibians are bio-indicators of the health of our planet. They play crucial roles in the food chain as both predators and prey and are also a great untapped repository of natural chemicals and medicinal potential, so we need to do all we can to ensure their survival!

“While there is now an alarming 43% of amphibian species threatened with extinction, it’s really heartening to see so many passionate conservationists working to ensure a future for these incredible animals, as our New Zealand and successful international projects show.”

Thank you!

Auckland Zoo is a not-for-profit conservation science organisation passionate about its mission to bring people like you together to build a future for wildlife. Every time you visit, you’re joining us in conservation efforts here at the Zoo and out in the wild across Aotearoa and all around the world – so thank you!

Auckland Zoo and Archey’s frogs 

Auckland Zoo maintains and studies the world’s only population of New Zealand’s endemic Archey’s frog in human care. Over many years, the Zoo has refined husbandry and environmental conditions to breed this enigmatic frog. This has increased our understanding of the biology of this species, which helps inform conservation planning, and provides us with another tool in the conservation ‘toolbox’ should their status in the wild decline further.

Auckland Zoo Ectotherm keepers support Department of Conservation (DOC) surveys and monitoring of wild populations of Archey’s frogs in the Whareorino and Pureora forests in the western and central North Island.

International projects

Colombia’s moorland frog (Atelopus pastuso), Amazon Basin

The home of the remarkable moorland frog is the high-altitude swamps (1500 – 2,500m) of Colombia’s Amazon basin, where this amphibian is on the brink of extinction. Climate change (rising temperatures), habitat destruction (mainly due to mining gold, silver, and emeralds), and the chytrid fungus disease (introduced and spread through human activities) are all contributing to the devastation of the moorland frog’s population.

Our Auckland Zoo grant will assist the Fuverde Foundation with community education, the active conservation of the frog over a 12km2 protected natural area, and communication to seek, and hopefully gain, further investment in conservation in the area.

Guatemala’s Finca Chiblac salamander (Braytriton silus)

The Critically Endangered Finca Chiblac salamander lives in the cloud forests of Guatemala - home to a stunning diversity of endemic, rare and critically endangered species of plants and animals.

Despite its critical status, this salamander has not been studied for conservation purposes. Our Auckland Zoo grant will support an experienced researcher and conservationist to integrate conservation actions through workshops with local indigenous communities and applied research in the Brava Lagoon landscape, Nenton, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. It will also facilitate conservation of this species through the active involvement of the Q’anjob’alan-Chujean Mayan communities of Guatemala.

The Philippine’s Guttman’s stream frog (Pulchrana guttmani)

The Guttman’s stream frog was feared extinct for 28 years, until its rediscovery in 2020 in the Allah Valley Watershed Forest Reserve in South Cotabato Province in the Philippines.

Information is now desperately needed about it to help inform policies for its conservation and protection. With the help of our Auckland Zoo grant, researcher Kier Mitchel Pitogo will be able to progress important baseline studies of the species, that will identify research needs and enable conservation action.

The project will also engage with local communities and run a public awareness campaign to help generate support and commitment from other stakeholders to improve amphibian conservation in this region.

Indonesia’s Trilaksono’s bush frog (Chirixalus trilaksonoi)

The endangered Trilaksono’s bush frog is endemic to West Java, Indonesia, where it’s currently known from just three locations, all of which are modified agricultural landscapes, such as rice paddies.

Major threats to this beautiful enigmatic yellow frog are habitat destruction (conversion of its habitat for agriculture and urban development) and pesticide use. At the moment, current knowledge about this species distribution and ecology is insufficient for developing effective conservation measures to reduce its extinction risk.

Our Auckland Zoo grant will help facilitate the critical work of mapping this frog’s current distribution, identify important populations and habitat requirements, establish a baseline for future monitoring, and develop a conservation management plan.

Madagascar’s Harlequin mantilla (Mantella cowanii)

There are at least 365 endemic frogs in Madagascar! Among them is the very striking harlequin mantella, one of Madagascar’s most threatened. Assessed by the IUCN as Endangered, it is restricted to just four locations where there is little of their tropical forested habitat left.

In 2018 a national planning workshop led to the launch of an action plan for this frog, outlining high priority research and conservation actions

With the help of our Auckland Zoo grant, work can now focus on surveying three key sites; Antakasina, Itremo and Fohisokina. The goal is to confirm the presence of the harlequin frog at Antakasina, estimate its abundance at Itremo, and carry out habitat use (by this frog) at Fohisokina. Importantly, our grant will also help build capacity for local site managers to monitor frog populations long-term.