‘Somewhat reluctantly, the beautiful princess kissed the frog and suddenly the spell was broken, and a handsome prince stood before her. They were soon married and lived happily ever after.’
The Frog Prince fairy-tale has many variations across many cultures, but invariably the frog or toad is universally seen as toxic, repulsive and undesirable, requiring a leap of faith on the part of the princess to bestow the all-important kiss! Even the great Bard, Shakespeare, could not resist throwing a ‘toad’ and ‘toe of frog’ into the cauldron as the witches concocted a ghoulish potion for Macbeth. Medieval Europe portrayed frogs as the symbol of romantic jealousy and Milton, in Paradise Lost, went so far as to portray Satan as a toad in influencing Eve’s jealousy.
The theme in mythology generally is to portray frogs as unpleasant creatures best avoided. With all this negative imprinting shaping of our collective memories, it would not be surprising if humans all suffered from ranidaphobia (the fear of frogs). This makes it all the more remarkable to find a young woman in our midst who has made it her mission to defend these remarkable creatures.
Fun fact 1
A batrachologist is a person who studies amphibians. The term ‘herpetologist’ is also used, but this name encompasses the study of both amphibians and reptiles.
The early days
Jeanne Tarrant was born on the East Rand (home of the Giant Bullfrog, the world’s second largest frog species) and raised in Underberg in the southern Drakensberg. She completed her BSc in Zoology and Microbiology at Rhodes University, Grahamstown in 2001, and promptly left for a five-year carefree stint in the United Kingdom, which had very little relevance to her studies or her future career! The call of Africa was, however, too strong and she returned to South Africa in 2006 and enrolled for a post-graduate programme to study Environmental Management at the North-West University in Potchefstroom. Here she came into contact with what is arguably South Africa’s ‘hotbed’ of amphibian research, where the team includes Profs Louis du Preez, one of South Africa’s leading amphibian scientists and Che Weldon a leader in the field of amphibian conservation and disease research.
It did not take long for this impressive team to inspire Jeanne to specialise in amphibians and she completed her MSc (cum laude) in 2008. She opted to study the unique frogs of the Kingdom of Lesotho as her specialist subject and to this day still regards this group of specially-adapted amphibians as the most interesting of all given the high altitudes and extremely low temperatures they have had to adapt to. These extreme conditions have resulted in some unique characteristics – the Maluti River Frog for example is the largest River frog from the subcontinent, getting up to 30cm in length (nose to toes), has teeth and a protective growth in the eye to shield it from high UV.
Jeanne in the Lesotho Highlands – her favourite frog-hunting area.
Photo: Jeanne Tarrant
Fun fact 2
There are over 7800 amphibian species around the world, most of which are frogs and toads (6900+ species), 714 are newts and salamanders, and 208 are caecilians – earthworm-like creatures that live mostly underground. In South Africa, the only type of amphibians we have are the frogs and toads (anurans).
Moving back to within our borders, KwaZulu-Natal hosts the highest frog diversity in the country (nearly 70 species), but unfortunately, like most of our species, they are under severe threat with six species classified under the IUCN threat categories. The question as to why people should care about disappearing frogs is one that is, surprisingly, still asked today. Our entire planet is facing an assault on its biodiversity with an unprecedented loss of species*, mainly due to loss of habitat as a result of rapid urbanisation, pollution and global warming. Conserving amphibians has never been more important.
The proportion of species threatened with extinction globally has risen to over 40%, making amphibians the most threatened vertebrate group on earth. With over 7,800 species, we stand to lose many of them in a world that is increasingly unsafe for amphibians.
Worse still, a world that is unsafe for amphibians is unsafe for other species, not least humankind. The intensifying plight of amphibians mirrors our own struggle, as we try to protect natural resources and bring about a sustainable future for all life on our shared planet. The needs of amphibians are no different from our own, so the issues they face ─ such as inadequate freshwater management, habitat destruction and fragmentation, climate change, pollution, unregulated use and trade of species, disease dynamics in a shifting world, invasive species, and the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources ─ are extremely pertinent to us, and to all species.
Frogs are more vulnerable than most species because of their intrinsic physiological characteristics. They are universally recognised as important bio-indicators because their life-cycle makes use of both aquatic and terrestrial habitats and therefore they are sensitive to changes in both. Their sensitive semi-permeable skins require healthy environments and make them ultra-sensitive to changes in all aspects of the environments they live in. Their inability to move quickly out of a deteriorating environment often leaves them trapped, and they eventually succumb under the pressure of habitat transformation.
Fun fact 3
The word ‘amphibian’ is derived from the Greek and means ‘two lives’, referring to the fact that most amphibians spend their larval or tadpole stage in aquatic environments, while their adult stage is as a terrestrial carnivore. There are extremes to this pattern with some amphibians spending virtually their whole lives in the water (for example the African Clawed Frog or good old ‘Platanna’), while others, like our local Bush Squeaker, spend their entire lives on land: they lay their eggs in moist leaf litter, bypass the tadpole stage, and may never enter a water body.
Jeanne conducting disease screening on critically endangered Amathole toads
Frogs play a critical role in the food-chain, as they are both prey and predators, providing food to a wide array of animals, such as snakes, birds and mammals while they also consume vast numbers of insects. Some species are known to consume 1 000s of mosquitoes in a single night.
The human factor
Accepting the scientific and de facto status and possible ultimate demise of amphibians has been a relatively easy part of Jeanne’s work because she is, after all, a scientist and there are volumes of research on this issue. What distinguishes Jeanne from many of her peers is that she has recognised the role of society in determining the fate of frogs. This has led her to focus on the development of programmes that not only make the public aware of the problems facing frogs, but also mobilise them into action to ensure long-term sustainability and protection of the species. A key feature of Jeanne’s work has been her extraordinary commitment to not only identify areas where specific frog populations can be protected, but also work with the public in innovative and exciting ways which have significantly increased the attention the species receive.
On completing her PhD in Zoology at the North-West University in 2012 she joined the Endangered Wildlife Trust where she has been responsible for initiating and managing the Threatened Amphibian Programme (TAP), which has as one of its main objectives: ‘Drive social change to promote behaviours that support sustainable natural resource use to the benefit of amphibians and their habitats.’
It is within this context that the paths of Jeanne and Kloof Conservancy have crossed, as we join forces to promote and run the Back-to-Nature Frog Days. These events have become the most regular and popular of the conservancy’s Back-to-Nature educational series, with up to 300 people attending. Advocacy and education are important aspects of the conservancy’s mandate and this is best achieved through partnerships where the conservancy provides the logistics, marketing and local infrastructure while the ‘technical partner’ provides subject-specific expertise. Jeanne has enthusiastically embraced this concept and has been an amazing partner to work with, not only through bringing in EWT’s considerable resources but adding a big dose of infectious passion, which has helped to convert many sceptics to see frogs in a different and positive light.
Jeanne at a Kloof Conservancy event
Fun fact 4
The world’s largest frog is the Goliath Frog, which lives in western Africa. They can grow to be over 30 cm long and weigh over 3 kg. The South African Giant Bullfrog is the second largest species in the world.
Jeanne’s commitment to promoting frogs to the general public led to her writing a book specifically aimed at children. My First Book on Southern African Frogs was first published in 2015 and has proved a popular introduction to the species not only for children but adults as well. It is published by StruikNature and covers 55 species, together with a CD of their calls. There is also an App based on the book that includes all the sounds as well as games and puzzles.
Jeanne has also been instrumental in cataloguing the species for the Conservancy, which prior to her thorough work was limited to a known list of about 14 species. This is now up to 25 species. Together with Nick Evans from KZN Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, she has been recording sites for the endangered Kloof Frog in our area. Highlighting these sites in the Upper Highway has been an important task in protecting this species from habitat loss as once landowners understand and accept the presence and value of the species they are more inclined to take action by adapting their gardens and streams to help protect them.
The endangered Kloof Frog
Egg-clump of the endangered Kloof Frog, Natalobatrachus bonebergi
Fun fact 5
A group of frogs is called an army.
Jeanne and her team have also been instrumental in ensuring the survival of another endangered species, the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog. This critically endangered coastal species was believed to be close to extinction, mainly due to habitat transformation.
Jeanne’s efforts to identify and protect habitats has led to significantly improved chances of survival for this rather special species which was first identified by herpetologist Martin Pickersgill in 1978 in the area around Mount Edgecombe. That area is now severely transformed, and the population there is likely extinct. Jeanne was responsible for the co-development of the Biodiversity Management Plan for this species, which was gazetted by the Minister of Environmental Affairs in June 2017 and is the first such plan for a frog species in the country.
The Pickersgill’s are particularly elusive as they are tiny, quiet and fast. To complicate things further, they live in dense reed beds deep within wetlands, so getting to them is not a simple task. Add to this the fact that frogs are active mostly at night, and you have a real challenge on your hands!
The endangered Pickersgill’s Reed Frog
These are the sorts of challenges that Jeanne relishes, but which have also put her into tricky situations, such as when she was investigating the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog as part of the environmental assessment for the proposed dug-out harbour at the site of the old Durban airport. On one occasion she was stopped by a SAPS patrol and it took some convincing to explain to the officer in charge that a woman on her own in the middle of the night in a ‘dodgy area’ was there to do research on a tiny frog!
Fun fact 6
Frogs produce a number of chemicals in their skin, including hallucinogens, glues and anti-microbials, to ward off infection and stop other animals from trying to eat them.
Possession of Colorado River Toads is illegal in California due to the popularity of ‘toad licking’. These toads produce a powerful hallucinogen called bufotoxin.
Jeanne’s work has been recognised not only within South African but also by organisations outside the country. The Rainforest Trust is an internationally respected NGO which focuses on the purchase and protection of land to conserve threatened species, working across tropical Asia, Africa and Latin America. In 2017 the EWT was awarded the Threatened Amphibian Programme ‘Program of the Year’. In their citation for the award the Rainforest Trust’s Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Officer, James Lewis, stated:
‘The Threatened Amphibian Programme has been a leader in amphibian conservation efforts in South Africa, helping to not only raise awareness of the plight of these incredible creatures but also implement vital conservation actions needed to save them.
What Jeanne and her team have been able to accomplish is really very special. Jeanne has not only found species thought to have gone extinct, but she is also engaging thousands of people in the protection of amphibians and really making a difference to the lasting survival of highly threatened species. She is an inspiration to myself and many others in the herpetofauna conservation world.’
In the introduction to this article, the interlinking of the fate of frogs and humans through mythology was highlighted as an integral part of human existence. It is not too remote a possibility to conclude that, as quoted on one of Jeanne’s bumper stickers, ‘without frogs we all croak!’ Jeanne is leading the way to make sure this does not happen for both humans and frogs – a true member of the Eco-impi!
*What kind of world do we want?, IUCN, December 2008 (Updated Jan 22, 2010)