Science in hot pursuit of highland frogs

Science in hot pursuit of highland frogs

02 Jul 2008

Tom Burton welcomes a new species into the family.

Choerophryne burtoni – or Burton's Mayhay frog

Trudging through the jungle in Papua New Guinea, or tinkering with one of hundreds of thousands of exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum in America, Dr Thomas Burton has dedicated much of his life to the sticky, amphibian world of frogs – creatures widely regarded as indicators of global environmental health.

While he might try and tell you that 'there isn't really a story in it', the Honorary Scholar at La Trobe University's Bendigo campus is just being modest.

Aside from being a widely respected herpetologist – or 'herpo' as he calls himself – in his time Dr Burton 'just' discovered a few frog species, and a number of 'new' muscles in frogs, and had an amphibian ligament named in his honour, called 'Burton's Ligament'.

Recently he has had another string added to his bow – a brown, eleven millimetre long frog from Papua New Guinea that was named after him.

Dubbed Choerophryne burtoni, the frog was named in recognition for his thirty-year contribution to the study of frogs. The frog is brown, with bumpy, slimy skin and characterised by a long snout.

'The burtoni is big for its genus (family group) which is normally quite small,' he says. 'So you have this little animal with a long snout, which is probably related to helping it push through leaf litter.'

There are very few specimens of Choerophryne burtoni – or Burton's Mayhay frog to use its common name – but no one uses the common name because it isn't a frog you would typically encounter.

'They live in Papua New Guinea,' he says, 'and they call from hard to find places in terrain that you don't want to venture into. Think sink holes, fallen trees and jungle – and they only call at night when it is raining.'

Dr Burton hasn't got high hopes of seeing a live specimen of the animal named in his honour. 'I probably won't as there have only been three found so far,' he adds. Having frogs named in his honour is just the icing on his career. The highlight has been the research itself.

'Working deep in the bowels of the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the American Museum in New York was a fabulous opportunity to delve into huge, world-wide, collections of frogs and do intensive comparative studies,' he says.

'There is nothing more thrilling than the anticipation of opening a jar and wondering if the next specimen I examine will confirm what I have been thinking – or blow all of my ideas out of the water.

'When you work in a world-class museum and you want to compare some structure you have seen in one species of frog against other related frogs, you can just whip into the collections room, find the species you need and check immediately.

'It beats sending away to the museum, waiting for the parcel of specimens to fly the Pacific and clear customs.'

Dr Burton's 'hot pursuit' of frogs has taken him to some interesting places, in Argentina, the US and in Australia.

Papua New Guinea, where he was hosted by La Trobe zoologist Dr Dennis Black, was the first place overseas where he did solo field work.

'I began collecting there twenty-eight years ago, and it was a great adventure. It was pretty scary then – and the place has gotten a hell of lot scarier since,' he says.

 

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