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Dr Dennis Black, "Frogs I have known" Feb 2019

Did you see Dennis Black’s talk last Thursday? It was a cracker! Thanks to all who came out to play. Unfortunately, due to operator error, there is no video this time, so with apologies to our regional members, please enjoy this little write up instead…

The evening began at a very sociable 5:30 pm, with a small group warming the seats of the room at The Great Northern Hotel in Carlton. Families, friends and strangers fringed our table and enjoyed dinner and conversation, mostly about frogs (the conversation, not the dinner). More people and more chairs arrived until at 7:30, the room was packed to capacity. Well we thought it was, but then we managed to squeeze in a few more keen-beans after time.

I welcomed guests, introduced myself and introduced our speaker for the evening, Dr. Dennis Black. Dennis had been Honours supervisor to Frogs Vic Secretary Teisha Sloane-Lay and last Thursday it was our honour to welcome him with his talk “Frogs I have known”.

I would describe Dennis as a research scientist, academic professional and general delight. Dennis described himself as a “Treehugger, australophile and ex-yank”. He’d probably know better than I, but in truth, he’s probably all of the above. What became clear throughout the talk though, was that Dennis is an engaging speaker, interesting natural historian and caring wildlife biologist.

Dennis grew up in the US of A and told of childhood memories of inspiring Life Magazine and National Geographic articles on Australian wildlife. His obsession with “exotic” wildlife was cemented when his family was posted to Taiwan for two years and Dennis’s new neighbours included flying foxes and elapid snakes.

Dennis told of his early experiences at school with salamanders and nuns and how the two didn’t mix particularly well, much to his eternal disappointment, but to our benefit as we were treated to a photo of a Slender Salamander. Terrestrial salamanders are very common in the US and they fill a very similar niche to the little brown skinks that skitter through the leaf litter here in Australia. Dennis told of more strange elongated amphibians with pictures of Cave Salamanders, Californian Newts and plethodontid salamanders – so familiar to herpetologists of the New World, so unusual looking to Australian froggers. Dennis had studied these along with tree frogs at University of California, Davis.

Opportunity knocked in 1971 when recruiters from the Victorian Education Department offered Dennis a job teaching high school science in the Melbourne suburbs. After a year and a half of general frustration, Dennis was offered an actual ticket to work with real Aussie wildlife – a job in the Zoology Department at Monash and the realisation of dreams. Monash University in the seventies, as Dennis explained, was a hotbed of vertebrate zoology and Dennis was in the thick of it.

Dennis studied lizard brain morphology at Monash, joined the Monash Biological Society and Australia Society of Herpetologists and took part in some exciting field work and networking. Dennis showed us photos of frogs he met from around Victoria and New South Wales, some in situ, some in a toilet…

In 1980 Dennis scored a job in Papua New Guinea and spent the next three years training field and museum techniques in Port Moresby. In his spare time he apparently photographed many amphibian locals – including a white-lipped housemate. Dennis saw many frogs in PNG, including Lace-lids, microhylids and an unfortunate tree frog with a leech under its skin.

From there, Dennis went back to the USA, studied for a second BSc and started a PhD in Systematic Entomology, on the proviso that it included work in Australia…

In 1990 La Trobe Uni snapped Dennis up to teach in the Zoology Department. He completed his PhD and went to teach at the Department of Environmental Management and Ecology at the LTU campus in Albury-Wodonga. There the Australian adventure really began with expeditions around the country and even throughout the world.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Queensland deserts are not the best place to go looking for frogs, but Dennis was a participant in Royal Geographical Society of Queensland expeditions and did just that. As usual, Queensland didn’t disappoint and Dennis introduced us to the Desert Spadefoot Toad (Notaden nichollsi) with its super sticky skin secretions and superior burrowing ability facilitated by its modified feet. As research often does though, the expedition posed at least as many questions as it answered and we all look forward to finding out how these charismatic amphibians persist in such a seemingly unsuitable habitat.

Dennis was lucky enough to own a property in the Goldsborough Valley, just south of Cairns and not far from where the first Cane Toads were infamously released. The beautiful lowland rainforest was full of the wildlife that Dennis so clearly loves and even his home was filled with beautiful frogs, many of which featured in his entertaining and adventure-filled presentation.

Dennis concluded with thanking the sources of his inspiration and his parents who didn’t force him to study architecture. He also thanked Monash University and LTU for enabling his dreams and paid his respects to the First Australians who deeply know and appreciate the Australian landscape and life.

Dennis’s talk was an entertaining journey around the world and we all got to encounter some of the frogs he met along the way. As a salamander lover, it was a joy to see so many photographs of the diversity of herpetofauna and I enjoyed every amphibious tail tale.

For the frogs,

Lynette Plenderleith

Chair, Frogs Victoria.



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