New paper: Structure and fragmentation of growling grass frog metapopulations.

PlotJust prior to Christmas, Conservation Genetics delivered us a present in the form of acceptance and rapid fire publication of a study we commenced way back in 2004. The publication process never ceases to amaze me. After years of toil collecting data, several more years of painstaking lab work, and finally the rigors of a multi-author drafting process, this paper took just weeks to go from being accepted, through proofing to online-early publication. In fact, to my astonishment, we received proofs a mere five days after the paper was accepted, two days of which were a weekend!

But back to the paper itself. In 2004 I was a shiny new PhD student, champing at the bit to decode the population biology of the growling grass frog. I began a mark-recapture study on the species north of Melbourne, and diligently went about obtaining tissue samples from each frog I captured for a later, prospective, genetics study. Two years and 800 frogs later, the opportunity arose to get that work underway. Josh Hale had just started his own PhD on the conservation genetics of frogs in urbanising landscapes, and was keen to collaborate on the growler project. Josh’s first task was to develop a microsatellite library for the species. He emerged from the lab a year later, gasping for air and 10 kilos lighter, bearing nine new microsatellite loci for our little green friends. You can read about those in another paper, found here. Josh then set about genotyping ~200 growlers from three population clusters that I sampled during my mark-recapture work. These clusters, which I prefer to call metapopulations, were distributed along the Merri Creek at roughly 5 km intervals. Each included pools along the creek, plus neighbouring wetlands such as quarries, swamps and farm dams. Josh used his microsatellite data to assess the pattern of population subdivision in this area, and to test the effect of geographic distance and urban barriers on genetic distance.

So what did we find? In short, remarkable levels of genetic sub-division. Growlers have long been thought to be highly dispersive; vagabonds that wander the landscape in search of optimal conditions. On the contrary, our genetic work indicates that while individual frogs may be able to undertake significant journeys, the majority either can’t or don’t. Josh’s work found strong genetic sub-divisions between each of the wetland clusters I sampled, and even some sub-division within population clusters. The latter is especially interesting because the distances involved are small – 2 km max. Thus, in line with our previous occupancy and mark-recapture work (described here), Josh’s genetic work suggests that the migration rates of growlers are low and strongly distance-limited.

Another important outcome was the fact that populations separated by housing estates, industrial estates or dual-carriage roads displayed relatively high genetic distances. We can infer from this that urbanisation does indeed fragment populations of growlers; something we’ve long suspected but lacked any specific evidence of. It’s not a surprising result – imagine yourself as a little green frog attempting to cross a dual-carriage highway. But it is a vital piece of the puzzle for our understanding of the effects of urbanisation on this species, and for mitigating those effects.

Where to from here? Well, now that you mention it, our molecular work continues. Claire Keely, a PhD student in the QAEG, is working on the broader genetic structure of growlers around Melbourne, the fine-scale determinants of gene flow, and the efficacy of alternate tissue sampling techniques. You can read more about Claire’s great work here. As for Josh and I, we have one more paper to go from our collaboration. It’s a gooden too – a comparison of contemporary genetic diversity in growler populations from the Merri with a now extinct population from the adjacent Plenty River catchment. Think ancient DNA techniques and pickled frogs collected way back in the 1960s. Oh yes, there’s an exciting blog post in that. Stay tuned…