A former DJ from South East London is taking on climate change, habitat loss and looming species extinction with the help of a device dubbed the Froggotron. It may sound like something out of Austin Powers, but the Froggotron is real – and could genuinely help save frog species in the wild.

The ground-breaking research is being carried out at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in Devon by Wayne Edwards who, remarkably, left school at 16 with very few qualifications but is now working on his PhD thesis.

The subject of his work – and the Froggotron – is the golden mantella, a highly-specialised tropical montane frog species from Madagascar. The island is one of the world’s amphibian hotspots with some of the world’s most threatened habitat. Mantella aurantiaca is a fascinating example of convergent evolution with South American dart frogs – although they have evolved independently, both metabolise toxins derived from the insects they feed on as protection from predators.

Wayne: “We know very little about this species apart from what threatens it. We know what sort of habitat it lives in, but we don’t know why. We don’t know what it is about that habitat that is vital to the frogs. We need to collect fundamental information about how it uses its habitat. Without this knowledge we can’t say exactly what sort of habitat we should protect, recreate or translocate the frog to in order to save it from extinction.”

Born in Lewisham, Wayne was animal mad as a child, but an urban comprehensive in the 1980s was not the best place to cultivate his interest in the natural world. He’s been a push-bike messenger, waiter, apprentice stonemason and a digger driver – but now he’s conducting a cutting-edge study into mitigating habitat loss and climate change. The study has taken a new direction for this sort of research and is the first of its kind in the world.

The Froggotron is unique. Designed and built at Paignton Zoo, it’s actually no more than a condensed plastic fibreboard tank measuring around a metre on each side – but it’s what you do with it that counts. Wayne: “Each unit is thermally stable – inside we can vary “rainfall”, humidity, light, temperature, substrate and the number of frogs. We can monitor the frogs 24 hours a day as each unit is fitted with miniature cameras linked to digital video recorders. It means we can look at the differences in the way the frogs behave under different sets of conditions. So, for example, we can place one set of frogs under conditions we would expect to find presently on the forest floor where they live in Madagascar. We can then place another set of frogs under different conditions, allowing us to estimate how they will respond to climate change. It would be impossible to do this in the wild. No one is doing anything like this anywhere else in the world.”

Wayne has eight Froggotrons in the Zoo’s Amphibian Ark conservation centre. The facility, opened in 2010, is home to the largest collection of threatened Madagascan species in Europe; it also has the space needed to conduct the study. “We knew what we needed – the units were designed and built here at Paignton Zoo. My PhD supervisor came up with the nick-name. They might be described more properly as modular climate-controlled units or climate/choice chambers – but Froggotron has stuck!”

The results of his work will be passed on to project partners in Madagascar who are looking for areas in which to create or restore habitat and breeding ponds. Association Mitsinjo and Madagasikara Voakajy are already producing captive-bred mantellas suitable for reintroduction. “With our help they will be able make informed judgements about substrate, light levels, ground level temperatures, plant species, canopy cover and leaf litter.”

Wayne moved to Torbay in 1988 “with £100 and a bag of clothes” and started to make a living as a DJ. In 2003 he and his wife put their house on the market and spent a year travelling in North America, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia and India.

Although he was animal crazy as a child, this year proved pivotal. “Every country we visited had serious issues where wildlife was concerned, tropical places weren’t what I had imagined them to be, with endless rainforests - on the contrary, forests were usually damaged, fragmented and bordered or split by agriculture, towns or cities. It was during this time away that I started to think about what it was I really wanted to do with my life. When we came back in 2004 I applied to the University of Plymouth, was accepted and began a full-time access course. I had a crash course in statistics, biology, chemistry, scientific writing and analysis!”

After that came a wildlife conservation degree and a volunteering role with Paignton Zoo’s research department, helping to collect data for a PhD student. His first degree was followed by a Masters in Zoo Conservation Biology, run jointly by the two institutions with which he was already involved, Paignton Zoo and the University of Plymouth.

He spent three years working up a viable PhD proposal and was finally accepted by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, with one of the world’s foremost experts on amphibians, Professor Richard Griffiths, agreeing to supervise the research:

"This initiative is an excellent example of how collaboration between zoos, universities and field conservationists can provide real ‘added value' for conservation,” says Professor Griffiths. “The Froggotron has been constructed very cost-effectively, with design input from all parties involved - congratulations to Paignton Zoo for having the imagination to make this happen. The data it will generate may be crucial to our understanding of how best to manage this Critically Endangered species in the wild."

“Here in Devon we’re thousands of miles away from the problem,” acknowledges Wayne. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. What we do have at Paignton Zoo is the expertise in animal husbandry and scientific research. If I can’t stop climate change or habitat loss, I can – with the help of my partners and backers – try to learn something new that will help save frogs in the wild.”

Why is the work so important? Mike Bungard, Paignton Zoo’s Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates and a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Amphibian Specialist Group, is very clear on this: “Climate change is the biggest single threat to biodiversity. Amphibians are in trouble, and Madagascar’s amphibians are in BIG trouble. I believe we have a moral obligation to help protect biodiversity - this is part of Paignton Zoo’s contribution toward meeting that obligation. Golden mantellas will die out in the wild unless we act now. Unique research like Wayne’s allows zoos to directly support conservation and bridge the gap between captive endangered species and their wild counterparts. We need to do this.”

A lot of organisations are watching with interest, including the IUCN Climate Change Group.

The first stage of Wayne’s work is being funded by ATASS Respect, the not-for-profit arm of the ATASS Group, a pioneering company operating in the areas of research, sport and education technology. Vanessa Cobb, from ATASS Respect: “We are funding this PhD work because it falls in our area of interest - climate change and social responsibility.” It’s hoped that someone else will come forward to underwrite the rest of the research.

Wayne’s world is frog-shaped now and for the foreseeable future. He’s quite happy about that. “The physiology of frogs means that they are intricately linked to their environments - they react to changes in temperature, rainfall and humidity quickly in order to prevent themselves drying out. The golden mantella is Critically Endangered - it is also a mountain species, which means it will be among the most threatened by climate change, and changes in temperature and rainfall – coupled with habitat fragmentation - give it limited scope for dispersal to more suitable areas – essentially, it cannot escape.

“This species is small, diurnal, breeds without too much trouble and is relatively easy to keep in large numbers in captivity. Frogs are also likely to display many of their natural behaviours in captivity. I really believe that there is a good chance of a successful outcome - and the template for this project could be used to help other species.

“It’s a real privilege to work with some really interesting people and some really amazing amphibian species. I’m actually helping to save an iconic Malagasy species from extinction - it doesn’t get better than that really, does it?”

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