Discovering Australia’s Frogs: Take the leap with Mark Sanders

June 11th, 2021

After travelling all over the country to learn about and photograph Australia's frogs, author Mark Sanders has written a field guide. We spoke to him about what went into producing this book, and his tip for first-time explorers.
Mark Sanders standing in the bright sun among red sand dunes covered in tussocks of native grasses and vegetation.

Mark Sanders exploring the central deserts of Western Australia. (Photo: Tim Faulkner)


When it comes to putting together a field guide, it helps to know what to look for, and with almost 1500 colour photographs, the Photographic Field Guide to Australian Frogs has you covered.

Author Mark Sanders has worked as a field naturalist, ecologist and fauna surveyor for over 20 years, and is a well-known wildlife photographer. He has travelled extensively around Australia to find as many frog species as he can, and after years of work he’s combined his photography with comprehensive research to create this essential guide to finding 242 Australian frogs species.

We spoke to Mark about how his interest in frogs began, how his photography helps his research and his advice for first-time explorers.


How did your interest in frogs and ecology begin?

As a young adventurous boy of just three I ventured into the woods adjacent to our house. Hours later after extensive searching by SES, police, the local football club and frantic parents I was located calmy sitting in a small rainforest gully. I guess I must have always had a deep interest in nature. Not long after, while on another one of my bush adventures, I discovered a large farm dam. Fortunately the owner noticed a young boy hanging around open water and, fearing I might drown, took me under his wing. We were immediately friends. He was a birdwatcher and every morning for the next ten years I raced down the hill to accompany him on his morning walks.

Initially only interested in birds and mammals, it was at Uni that I decided to expand my attention to include frogs (and reptiles). Today I spend considerable time looking for all manner of beasts – birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, butterflies and dragonflies. I’m also quite keen on selected flora groups such as orchids.



What inspired you to write this book?

For many decades, up until relatively recently, I felt Australia was lacking a quality frog field guide. There were good regional and state guides and some large reference books, but I couldn’t find what I wanted in a single Australia-wide guide. It was out of this frustration that the book was born. In the beginning I did not want or expect to write a complete book. I truly thought the data and images would be used by someone else, but by the time I did hear someone was producing a new frog guide I was already committed. I owed it to myself and my wife to see it to the end.


What do you think makes this book stand out among other frog field guides?

A page from Photographic Field Guide to Australian Frogs showing a series of close-up photos of the head, thigh and foot of four similar frog species, alongside a table explaining the differences to look for in each feature.

Photographic Field Guide to Australian Frogs provides comparative photos of key identification features to help readers differentiate between similar frog species. (Click to view full image)

Firstly it uses a unique approach to frog identification by blending the advantages of dichotomous keys and species comparison. Dichotomous keys, which are common in frog guides, are great when features are clear and obvious – orange posterior thighs vs. no orange, webbing between the digits vs. no webbing. They are good for quickly identifying groups of frogs which share similar characters (e.g. genera) but less useful for comparing similar species.

Separating similar species in the field is best achieved by gaining an overall impression based on a variety of subtle differences such as shape, size, behaviour, habits, call and habitat. This is referred to as ‘jizz’ and is comparative – a ‘comparatively longer snout’ or ‘brighter and more orange flanks’ are examples. This latter approach is uncommon in frog guides. However, relying on jizz or comparison for identification presents a problem – it requires prior experience or a reference for comparison. My book overcomes this limitation by providing detailed comparative photos of key identification features.

It also provides individualised distribution maps which include the depiction of geographical features, such as rivers and mountains, separating similar but non-overlapping taxa. These maps are supported by detailed text documenting when similar species overlap or abut, and even areas where hybrids have been recorded. And for those taxa where call is vital, parameters are provided such as dominant frequency, pulse rate, pulses per note and the number of notes per call.

Overall the detail provided in the guide is greater than anything similar, and this is supported by the photography illustrating real-life characters.


You’re a keen photographer – most of the photos in the book are yours. Do you think this helps your work as a scientist?

Most definitely. A picture says a thousand words, does not decay (like my memory) and is irrefutable. It has allowed me to capture details, behaviours and features that would not have been possible otherwise. Detailed photos allow the comparison of recent captures to historic images, aiding in identification or providing a better appreciation of species variation. Reviewing a good comprehensive library may reveal consistent identification characters which may have not previously been appreciated.

Photography also forces you to stop, watch and wait. To capture natural behaviours you try and gain their trust or conceal yourself. You need to learn how the individual ‘thinks’ – what motivates it, where is it likely to move and how can I use that knowledge to my advantage? You learn and understand their requirements – what species am I likely to find in this location to photograph or how do I find the species I want to photograph? There are so many lessons that can be learnt and skills garnered through photography.


Mark Sanders crouching on a gravelly red dirt plain, pointing his camera at a small reptile perched on a rock.

Mark Sanders photographing a small reptile in remote Queensland. (Photo: Ina Sanders)


How long did it take to produce this work and what sort of effort was required?

It took me so much more time and effort than I would have ever thought. When most people photograph a frog they get a nice photo sitting in-situ. Few people make the effort to get photos of identification features. This meant to get the photos I wanted – detailed images of hands, feet, webbing, posterior thighs, belly patterns, dorsal textures – I had to try and see every Australian species! That’s hard when the type of animal you’re looking for is difficult to find outside of wet periods and often species come out at different times of the year.

While my oldest photos date back to the late 1990’s, most of the photos I’ve used in the book were taken since 2008. In that 10 plus years I’ve criss-crossed our continent countless times and now photographed nearly 210 of Australia’s 243 frogs. I suspect that’s more than anyone. By comparison the research and writing took less time, perhaps only four of five years, but still a substantial endeavour!


Mark Sanders and Angus McNab each holding a large camera with extra attachments, crouched over a small frog that is sitting on the red dirt.

Mark Sanders and fellow wildlife photographer Angus McNab photographing a Desert Spadefoot frog on Ethabuka Station in remote Queensland. (Photo: author supplied)


What advice would you give to a first-time explorer using your field guide?

Do not get disheartened or discouraged, keep practicing! Starting out in any natural history ‘field’ takes time and every field has its own jargon. You may need to look up a word or feature over and over again. When I began looking at dragonflies I must have looked up ‘CuP’ about 20 or 30 times (CuP refers to particular venation in the dragonfly wing that is crucial for identification). This is frustrating but with persistence these terms stick, making it easier. Suddenly you find yourself able to hold a conversation with someone more experienced and then, if you persist long enough, you find yourself teaching others.



Cover of 'Photographic Field Guide to Australian Frogs' showing the title on an orange background, with a large photo of Lytoria tyleri above and a strip of three frog photos beneath.

Photographic Field Guide to Australian Frogs by Mark G. Sanders

Photographic Field Guide to Australian Frogs is written by Mark Sanders and is packed with his incredible photos.

Perfect for frog enthusiasts and research scientists alike, Photographic Field Guide to Australian Frogs provides the details and visual cues to make searching out in the field much easier.

The book is available to purchase from our website and from all good bookstores.