On Saturday 17 September, Reserve Manager Sam Fischer decided to enjoy the sunset at Eurardy Reserve, Nanda Country in Western Australia, with a glass of wine in hand. As he climbed a low sandhill to find a good spot to take in the view, he noticed strange markings on the sand.
“The dune was alive with tracks from hopping mice, beetles, geckoes, and legless lizards, but one set of tracks stood out as unusual,” said Sam. “They were fresh tracks, shuffling between shrubs, and then seemingly disappearing into the sand.”
Then came an even stranger sound. A frog call, but not your classic ‘ribbit ribbit’.
Paul Doughty, Curator of Herpetology at Western Australia Museum, describes the sound as “a squelchy fart”.
While most people wouldn’t want to hear squelchy farts while they relax with a glass of wine, Sam was thrilled. He suspected that it could be the sound of a Southern Sandhill Frog (Arenophryne xiphorhyncha).
Up until Sam’s fateful encounter, there had been no recording of this frog’s calls since it was first described in 2008.
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Southern Sandhill Frogs are only around 3.5cm long with short legs and a flattened rounded body adapted for burrowing headfirst into sand. This is quite unusual for Australian burrowing frogs – most burrow backwards, legs first. This forwards burrowing is also shared with its relatives like the Turtle Frog and Northern Sandhill Frog from Shark Bay.
Southern Sandhill Frogs have a limited range from north of Geraldton to just south of Shark Bay, where it is replaced by the Northern Sandhill Frog. While they are similar to that species, the southern species are much more elusive and little is known about them.
Sam recorded the strange calls and sent the audio to Dr Doughty, along with Bush Heritage ecologists Ben Parkhurst and Michelle Hall.
“I was super excited about hearing the call,” said Dr Doughty. “Owing to its softness I had to crank it right up and then – boom – there it was! Froggers like me lose sleep over species whose calls have never been recorded, so it was music to my ears.”
Sam could see the tracks and record the call, but he was going to need to lay eyes on the animal to know for sure.
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The next night Sam set out to record the call and search for the frogs. He sat on the same sand dune, watched the sunset, and listened. The calls seemed to come from all around, but no frogs could be seen.
Listening intently, Sam inched forward in the direction of one particular call. Gently digging into the sand with his hands, Sam discovered the source of the squelchy fart. Around 5cm below the surface, just as the sand became moist, was a Southern Sandhill Frog, only slightly larger than a 50c coin.
“It caught me by surprise when I quickly uncovered a plump, little Southern Sandhill Frog! After a couple of quick photos to confirm with the experts, I returned it to the sand.”
With a funny-sounding call, and funny-looking appearance, Bush Heritage senior ecologist Michelle Hall jokingly suggested they be renamed the “Southern Sandhill Dumplings”.
“The frogs are very strangely proportioned,” said Sam. “They are built strong in the front arms to dig headfirst into the sand. Presumably, they are like their northern cousins in that they lay eggs directly into wet sand, developing entirely in the egg and hatching as miniature frogs. This eliminates the need for standing water for tadpoles and allows the frogs to live in the sandhills.”
Recording the call of these dumplings 15 years after they were first described will go a long way to understanding more about these curious frogs.
“Being able contribute towards better understanding this species is incredibly important in being able to better protect it,” Sam said. “Being responsible for looking after that population on Sunset Sandhill on Eurardy is something I am incredibly proud of.”
The call has been added to the species’ page on the WA Museum Frog Watch web page.
If you too would like to contribute towards better understanding Australia’s Amphibians, Australia Museum’s Frog ID app allows citizen scientists to submit calls for identification.