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Sky Island specialists: the hip pocket frog

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Pockets of Life: Professor Michael Mahony, from the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at Newcastle University, delves further into the sky island habitats of Australia’s cool temperate forests and uncovers a remarkable and unique frog.
The hip pocket frog (Assa darlingtoni) lives on the floor of these cool, moist high altitude rainforests which are only found on the highest peaks of the Great Dividing Range. They mate on the rainforest floor, avoiding ponds and streams like other frogs. The female only lays around eight to 12 eggs which are large and have large yolks, which feed each tadpole as it develops. The male then watches as the embryos develop and after six to seven days, the embryos start twitching inside, a signal for the male to sit on top of the eggs.

The pure white tadpoles then wriggle into slits in the sides of the male and the male carries each tadpole for some 30 to 40 days until they emerge as tiny frogs (the size of a match head) hence its hip pocket name.     
The hip pocket frog can be found in the Dorrigo highlands in NSW, further north in the Gibraltar Range and still further north in the Eastern Border Ranges at Mt Warning near Murwillumbah. It is also found in the Conondale Ranges in south east Queensland. Their numbers are secure but they are very secretive and not much bigger than an adult thumbnail and perfectly camouflaged amongst the leaf litter.
Left: Male on eggs with developing white tadpoles. Image from Michael Mahony.

They do, however, call when it rains, so bushwalking visitors to Dorrigo for example will hear the males making their staccato calls even during the daytime. The parental care of the hip pocket frog together with the very small brood size favour higher survival rates for the offspring in their vulnerable egg and tadpole stages of development. There are only four frog species in the world where male parental care is a factor (out of some 5,000 species).


A Hip-pocket Frog (Assa darlingtoni) camoflaged in leaf litter.
15 February 2008
Author LiquidGhoul


The unique but now extinct Australian gastric brooding frog is the only vertrebrate species known where the female used used her digestive tract to nurse her offspring. These were descendent species from Australia's Gondwanan past and modern day sky island dwellers. Sadly, after surviving for eons, they were only briefly known to scientists, being first discovered in the 1970s and probably extinct by the mid 1980s. When Australia was cooler and wetter, they are thought to have once inhabited the Great Dividing Range from the Clark Ranges in Eungella National Park east of Mackay to the Conondale Range some 150 kilometres north of Brisbane.

Professor Michael Mahony was interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance. Summary text by Victor Barry, September 2012

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