Lingnan spawns a new natural history collection



For such a relatively small place, Hong Kong enjoys a high level of biodiversity. There are at least two contributing factors that enable populations of species to develop separately: the SAR’s location on the border of tropical and sub-tropical zones, and the fact that the territory is made up of a number of islands.


The Romer’s tree frog (Liuixalus romeri) was once thought to be on the brink of extinction, and nearly all the surviving populations of the species are found solely in Hong Kong. The heaviest concentration of this small amphibian had been located on the island of Chek Lap Kok off Lantau. But when the decision was taken to build the new Hong Kong International Airport there 30 years ago, the resident Romer’s tree frog population was translocated to habitats on Hong Kong Island and the New Territories.


Pursuing his interest in the phylogeography and population genetics of amphibians and reptiles in Asia, Professor Jonathan Fong of Lingnan University’s Science Unit began a two-year research project focused on these frogs in June 2019. Professor Fong is working in collaboration with fellow Science Unit faculty Professor Sung Yik Hei, and has received HK$1.09 million worth of funding from the Hong Kong government’s Environment and Conservation Fund.


The twin goals of the project are captured in its title, Building a Natural History Collection of Hong Kong’s Amphibians for Conservation and Education, with a Case-Study on the Endangered Romer’s Tree Frog.


It may seem ironic, but an important way to help ensure the long-term conservation of endangered animals is via a longitudinal process of killing and preserving samples of that species. Building a library of specimens taken over time enables researchers to see what was living in a certain place at particular moments in history, and the ways in which factors such as climate change are affecting animal populations. Such collections are rare in Hong Kong, and with the creation of a natural history museum in Hong Kong forming part of the government’s Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, Professor Fong is looking to begin the process with his work on amphibians. This collection will be held at Lingnan and will be available to researchers around the world.


As is commonly the case when collecting samples of amphibians and reptiles, Professor Fong has to go out at night to catch animals by hand. For example, Romer’s tree frog breeds in short-term water pools, and the wet seasons of spring and summer are the times when they are easiest to find.


The second goal of the project is to show the ways in which these types of collections can be useful. The genetic diversity of the collected Romer’s tree frog specimens will be assessed to determine the overall health of the species since its translocation. The DNA of separate populations will be compared to see to what degree they have diverged, and the data findings can then be used to formulate strategies to help preserve the species. In general the more diverse a species is, the healthier and more resilient it is.


To know more about Professor Jonathan Fong's research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.