Researchers have shown how the unique genetic make-up of a group of Australianfrogs could be the key to their survival, allowing them to better withstandour harsh climate.

The team of biologists from The Australian National University (ANU), GhentUniversity in Belgium and the South Australian Museum studied a group of ninespecies of burrowing frogs, Neobatrachus. It’s the first time researchershave looked at Australia’s burrowing frogs and how their geneticcharacteristics help them survive extreme environmental conditions.

One of the paper’s lead authors, Dr Ian Brennan, says these burrowing frogsstand out because some species have four sets of chromosomes, instead of theusual two. “While this is fairly common in plants, it’s rare in animals andthe implications are not well understood,” Dr Brennan said.

“It doesn’t happen often – but here it’s happened three times in one genus.And we’re talking about three independent events; the three species are notclosely related.”

The study also found higher genetic diversity in the species with extra setsof chromosomes – known as polyploids.

“They’re transferring genetic material from one population to another at amuch higher rate than the species with two sets of chromosomes – known asdiploids,” Dr Brennan said.

According to Dr Brennan, this distinct genetic makeup could be what helps thefrogs survive in harsh climates.

“They’re able to occupy harsher environments – they’re found in the parts ofAustralia that are hotter and where rainfall is less predictable,” he said.

“We think Neobatrachus diploids might be suffering the early impacts ofclimate-induced habitat loss, while the polyploid species seem to be avoidingthis fate.”

Dr Brennan says the polyploid species are actually displaying a techniquethat’s often engineered in conservation biology to help save species that areunder threat.

“Polyploids can mate occasionally with the diploids to produce rare hybrids.From what we’ve observed, the hybrids can sometimes mate back to a polyploidand pass on genes from their diploid parent.

“Polyploids can therefore enhance their genetic diversity. It shows thatnatural hybridisation between animal species is both more common and morecomplicated than we initially thought.”

The research has been published in PLOS Genetics.

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