Coming Home to Roost: Bringing Back the Montserrat Mountain Chicken

Since 2002 once healthy populations of Mountain Chickens on both Montserrat and Dominica have been plagued by this introduced highly invasive fungal disease known as amphibian chytridiomycosi

Coming Home to Roost: Bringing Back the Montserrat Mountain Chicken

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Department of Environment in collaboration with other project partners and supporting organisations from across the globe, will be transporting twenty-eight (28) mountain chickens back to the island, arriving on Tuesday, July 9th

Montserrat's Mountain Chickens are set to return once again to the hills of our bounteous and beautiful Emerald Isle!

In another attempt to re-establish a vibrant population of Montserrat’s Endemic Mountain Chickens, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Department of Environment in collaboration with other project partners and supporting organisations from across the globe, will be transporting twenty-eight (28) mountain chickens back to the island, arriving on Tuesday, July 9th at 15:50 p.m..

The Mountain Chicken whose scientific name is Leptodactylus fallax, used to be found across much of the Caribbean, however it is now only found on the islands of Montserrat and Dominica having suffered from threats such as overhunting, introduced invasive predators and more recently a deadly fungal disease! Since 2002 once healthy populations of Mountain Chickens on both Montserrat and Dominica have been plagued by this introduced highly invasive fungal disease known as amphibian chytridiomycosis, sometimes shortened to chytrid, which is itself caused by the fungal pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

According the Zoological Society of London, (ZSL), one of the major partners in the project; “There is no known effective way of treating frogs with chytridiomycosis in the field or of eradicating the disease from the wild, which means intense, hands-on management is needed.”

However, ZSL believes that “Mountain chickens are the perfect model species from which to learn about the impact, epidemiology and treatment of chytridiomycosis and the results of this research have the potential to guide conservation measures for many other amphibian species that are impacted by this and similar diseases.”

The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is an international charity with a mission of "saving species from extinction", especially those animal species that are under-threat and overlooked with a long-term vision for “a wilder, healthier more colourful world.” They are partnered on island with the Department of Environment, together both organisations are using local and international expertise to develop a method to reintroduce healthy populations of mountain chickens to Montserrat. Mountain Chickens that in time may be the first to develop a resistance to this deadly disease that to date has caused hundreds of extinctions worldwide.

Luke Jones, a Wildlife Conservation Biologist and current Mountain Chicken Project Coordinator from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, has been working within the Department of Environment since last year, preparing for this reintroduction. Working alongside local forestry experts, with funding from organisations that include Taronga Conservation Society Australia, National Geographic (NatGEO), Auckland Zoo, Stiftung Artenschutz, Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, Terrariet Reptile Zoo and Experiment.com, he has been preparing a habitat in Montserrat for the mountain chicken. The new habitat is in the wilds but is set up to allow for close scientific management of the progress of the mountain chicken.

"We are attempting a world first here in Montserrat!" says Jones. “Although it would currently be impossible for us to remove this deadly chytrid fungus entirely, by utilising a proven method in which we can control and kill the fungus using temperature, we believe we can return the Montserratian Mountain Chicken to specially adapted areas of its natural habitat here on island.

“We have adapted the planned release site to contain a patchwork of hot and cold areas. The hot areas should act to kill the fungus and cure the Mountain Chickens of its effects, whilst the cold areas should act as spaces where the Mountain Chickens are exposed to the fungus. Over time this constant process of cure and exposure should identify individuals with increased levels of resistance, we may even see the mountain chickens develop a resistance in a similar manner to how our own bodies respond to Vaccines. In a way, this adapted habitat should act in a similar way to the vaccines you receive at the doctors, with the hot areas weakening the potency of the fungus enough to ensure the mountain chickens have time to survive, adapt and evolve to its presence and hopefully in time we will see them develop a level of immunity or resistance to it.

“If this is successful the eyes of the world will truly be on Montserrat, they will be looking to follow our example and expertise in counteracting the harmful effects of the Chytrid fungus on their own local species.”

Last year, in support of these conservation efforts and in an effort to highlight the importance of maintaining Montserrat’s unique environment, the Montserrat Legislative Assembly (MLA) voted to adopt this critically endangered Montserrat Mountain Chicken as its official mascot. The Office of the Speaker of the Montserrat Legislative Assembly is pleased that the MLA is recognised as a partner in this project and to be carrying this initiative forward. We extend our deepest gratitude to the other project partners, funders and supporting organisations and are delighted to welcome the party who will arrive with the mountain chicken.

Other project partners working in support of the project include Forestry Wildlife and Parks Division (FWPD), Government of Dominica, Chester Zoo, Bristol Zoo, Norden’s Ark and Paignton Zoo.

The team arriving with the mountain chickens will be headed by Dr Mike Hudson, Research Fellow with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Zoological Society of London. Dr Hudson works in the UK and will continue to monitor the progress of the Mountain Chicken Conservation Project even after it is established here.

Other members of the party are Nadine Wohl and Emma Michel Herpetology Keepers with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Dr Taina Strike, a Veterinary Officer with ZSL. Nicolas Eguren Cleffi, a Masters Student from University of West England who is associated with the British Broadcasting Agency (BBC) will be filming a 10-12 minute-long feature film on the Mountain Chicken release.

Over the coming weeks and throughout the duration of this phase of the project, other scientists and researchers will continue to visit Montserrat and work with the on-island contingent which includes Miss. Ernestine Corbett, Director of Environment, Forestry Technician, Mr. Lloyd (Lloydie) Martin, Mountain Chicken Field Expert Mr. Calvin Fenton (Blacka), Wildlife Officer Mr. James (Scriber) Daley and Forestry Officers, James Boatswain and Tavis Weekes and the insect team Clifdel Ryan and Charlisia Greer.