Reptiles and amphibians, they are just like us

9 SEPTEMBER 2022

Reptiles and amphibians, they are just like us

Frogs can sing, lizards live in a tight family unit and what animal is a turtles biggest threat? How are these animal facts improving our ecosystem?

  • Reptile and amphibian research reveals characteristics that mirror human behaviour
  • Charles Sturt academics said these behaviours are crucial for our ecosystem to survive
  • This research will be presented at Henty Machinery Field Days, to be held from Tuesday 20 to Thursday 22 September

It was not Mozart, it was not The Beatles, and it definitely was not Beyonce. Did you know that it was frogs that invented song?

And male frogs competing for the affection of a female sounds like something from a Disney movie, but trust us, it is real.

Associate Professor in Ecology in the Charles Sturt School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences in Albury-Wodonga, Skye Wassens, is conducting research into the habits of amphibians.

The Murrumbidgee Monitoring, Evaluation and Research (MER) Program consists of a multidisciplinary team of spatial scientists, environmental chemists, ecologists specialising in fish, frogs, turtles, waterbirds and water dependent mammals and environmental water managers.

The program aims to find positive ecological outcomes in managed river systems and the teams work might change the way you think about the animal kingdom.

They have not only highlighted some quirky facts about frogs, turtles and reptiles but they have gained a greater understanding of how these animals, and their behaviours, contribute to our ecosystem.

Professor Wassens said ancient amphibians were the first vertebrate to evolve vocal cords and vocal communication. Only male frogs call and females typically choose males on the quality of vocal performance.

Male frogs have three distinct calls – ‘I’m here’ to broadcast to females in the area; ‘go away’ to other males in their calling space, and ‘I love you’ as a courtship call when a female is close by.

“As females choose the males with the best calls, males will compete for the calling positions that have best acoustics, they will also try to chase off smaller males that might try to court females that they have attracted,” Professor Wassens said.

“Some frog species, such as barking marsh frogs, have muscled arms that help them ‘sumo wrestle’ a competitor out of their space.”

And it seems as though lizards are not that far removed from humans. Some lizards, particularly tree and water skinks, have complex social relationships.

Some species live in a ‘nuclear family’ with parents and offspring while others live in large family groups with multiple generations.

Professor Wassens said this type of living arrangement helps younger lizards to develop survival techniques to thrive.

“Living in a family group can help provide protection from predators and can also supports social learning, where younger skinks can improve their hunting ability by watching older more experienced members of their family,” she said.

And the surprises in the animal kingdom keep coming. Did you know that the biggest threat to turtles is foxes?

turtleFreshwater turtles bury their eggs in sandy soil near water. Foxes’ sense of smell allows them to sniff out the nests, which they dig up to eat the eggs.

“In many areas, foxes take more than 95 per cent of turtle eggs, meaning that very few young turtles are produced,” Professor Wassens said.

“As a result, the turtle population is ageing and, in many areas, there is not enough young individuals joining the population to replace those that die, leading to declining populations.”

These animals not only provide interesting chat for the office water cooler, but they are crucial to our ecosystem.

Frogs and lizards consume a vast number of insects and are food for birds of prey and native animals. Turtles devour carrion, the decaying flesh of dead animals, and consume vegetation to help maintain the health of our waterways.

“Frogs and reptiles are beautiful, interesting and engaging little animals with complex behaviours and interesting social lives,” Professor Wassens said.

There are numerous things landowners can do to ensure the safety and protection of amphibians and reptiles.

Many lizards rely on coverage of fallen timber and rocks. Leaving old logs and rocks the size of bread plates in place or providing alternate housing in more convenient locations can help protect reptile species.

Almost all frogs prefer fish-free waterbodies so keeping dams free of fish and maintaining vegetation around the edges can help.

Turtles are common in agricultural areas. Freshwater turtles can take 10 years to start breeding and, like seas turtles, they must leave water to lay their eggs. Controlling foxes is the best way to help turtles.

“Our work has many benefits helping communities and governments mange water resources and wetland habitats to maintain a healthy environment and protect biodiversity,” Professor Wassens said.

Professor Wassens will give a presentation on this project as one of the Charles Sturt researchers that comprise a packed three-day program at the University’s site at the Henty Machinery Field Days from Tuesday 20 to Thursday 22 September.

“Many farmers are passionate protectors of the environment and I am looking forward to hearing people’s stories and sharing ideas,” she said.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Associate Professor Skye Wassens, contact Nicole Barlow at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0429 217 026 or news@csu.edu.au

Photo captions: A giant banjo frog spotted at Yanco Creek during surveys in 2021 and a broad-shelled turtle caught during monitoring at Wanganella swamp in the Yanco Creek system in February 2022. Photos by Anna Turner

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Animal and Veterinary science Charles Sturt University