Over winter break, Herpetology curator Rafe Brown is leading a team of KU students to the Philippines. The group's research will help scientists better understand the biodiversity of the Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,000 islands.
I am a new graduate student in the Division of Herpetology in the EEB department. I am interested in studying the evolutionary history, biogeography and morphology of frogs from Southeast Asia.
This will be my first field expedition and I’m very excited. I will on this trip from December 30th, 2009 to January 21st, 2010 with several others from the KU EEB department. We will be going to Mt. Palali, in the Caraballo Mountains of Nueva Viscaya Province, in the Philippines. The purpose of this trip is collect specimens that will be used in current and future research involving the biodiversity of the Philippines.
Today I made the big hike up the mountain to our first campsite. The hike was ridiculous. Five hours of scrambling up the mountain rainforest. We started at about 200 meter elevation and ended at 1432 meters. The path was steep and slick with mud. After the first 30 minutes I thought I was going to throw up! I think that was because I was trying to keep up with the porters. Aloy, Perry and I ended up going at a slower pace that was exhausting, but doable. Despite thoughts of my legs giving out from under me midstep, I was having fun hiking through my first Philippine rainforest (my first hike in Asia, really). The rainforest was wonderful – full of trees, vines, bamboo, epiphytes, bird and insect calls, and the occasional giant, mossy boulder. Victory was sweet when I finally made it to camp covered in mud, sweat, Mt. Palali dew, and a little dash of blood.
We made the hike in five hours. The day before, the boys took eight hours. Of course, the boys had to carry their big packs for a good portion of the hike while I only had my daypack. If I had to carry my big pack, I think my heart would have exploded. I wonder if I can hire a porter to carry me down the mountain when it’s time to leave?
For future reference, here’s a quick list of our field team for this expedition:
University of Kansas — Rafe, Luke, Luis, Anthony, Brian, and me. Luis is collecting birds for the ornithology department and the rest of us are collecting reptiles and amphibians
National Museum of the Philippines, PNM — Arvin (herpetologist), Rolly (ornithologist), Josefa (mammalogist), Perry (entomologist — ants, specifically).
Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines, — Aloy (mammalogist)
Project Team — Enteng, JB, Nevong
On the last night at Barangay Maddiangat, the town officials hosted a dinner for us. I guess one of the assistants to one of the officials was really charmed by me. Peelan (sp?) couldn’t really speak English, but the officers and the Philippino members of our field trip were more than willing to pass on the message that he wanted a picture with me. Over a few bottles of tanduay and leftovers from the dinner, my conversation with the town officials took an unexpected turn near the end of the evening. It went something like this:
“Peelan here is a good man. Thirty years old.”
“Oh…ummm. That’s great?”
“Do you remember having that big green vegetable on Mt. Palali? Sayote?”
“Yes…I think so”
“Well, if you marry Peelan, you would have all the sayote that you want. He grows it on his property”
“Oh, really? Well…ummm..”
“He also drives a motorbike. You could take rides on his motorbike”
Rafe took plenty of pictures of me and the town officials and Peelan during this exchange of words. I still don’t know how serious they were about this marriage proposal. Hmm. Thankfully Peelan was carried off by his boss in a drunken stupor, so I never had to give him a final answer. Enteng was especially amused by this and said that I will be dreaming about Peelan and muttering his name in my sleep now.
Overall I thought my first field expedition was a success and very memorable. I learned a great deal about the herpetofauna of the Philippines and what’s involved in field work. It’s quite exciting and a lot of fun — a real adventure in my eyes.
I’m in Manila, flying home tomorrow on the 21st. Let me sum up my last few days at the Barangay Maddiangat. Again, cold, rainy weather resulted in poor collecting at our third and last site. We collected about 580 specimens total on our three week expedition. I think we were estimating a collection size of 600 to 800 specimens. I was really hoping to find some Draco — the flying lizard. Arvin had miraculously caught a single specimen up on Mt. Palali near the end of our stand on the mountain. We never caught any Varanus monitor lizards that were thought to be on Mt. Palali either.
This poor weather led to a large amount of downtime while staying at the Barangay Hall and resulted in me spending a lot of time with that group of Maddiangat kids. We played tag, basketball, hide-and-seek, and kick ball. I loved making them laugh. They sang me songs they learned at school and tried to teach me some words in Tagalog. I watched cartoons with them on the television set in the Barangay Hall. They were a great little group of kids and I absolutely loved having a chance to interact with them. One day they watched us prep specimens and they got a crash course on the herpetofauna of their town and Mt. Palali.
Words they taught me (that I still remember — after confirming the proper spelling in my dictionary):
Flower — Bulaklak
Lizard — Butiki
Frog — Palaka
Snake — Ahas
Rain — Ulan
Stone — Bato
On the 18th, we had driven three hours away to a nearby lime stone cave system in search for geckos. We only manage to bring home a tail from a single skink. Fantastic cave system, though. We were up to our waists in water for part of that little adventure.
On the morning of the 16th, we hiked down from the second camp to spend a few days herping around the Barangay Maddiangat (elevation 200m) at the base of Mt. Palali. Once again, unexpectedly cold weather at the second camp resulted in low amounts of specimens being collected — at least for the herpetologists. I think the ornithologists were doing really well the whole time on Mt. Palali. Hopefully the lower elevation of Maddiangat would have hotter, more humid weather that would result in better herping conditions.
After we arrived at the baranagy hall (where we’d be camping out of), the boys and I walked across the street to a sari-sari store and we pigged out on junk food. Sari-sari stores are little food stands that are brightly decorated with all different types of cookies, crackers, chips, sweet bread, and candy. Any single item averages about 5 pesos (about 10 cents USD). Camping across from one of these little gems of the Philippines has led to me making several trips a day to purchase and consume junk food that has fueled a sugar high that has spanned across these past few days.
At night we have tried herping at a few different locations, but sadly the most common herp in town is Bufo marinus — the cane toad. In short, it’s an invasive species from central America that people purposefully introduced into the Philippines (among other countries) to help with pest control. The cane toad, unfortunately, prefers a diet of local frog species over agricultural pests.
I have befriended a group of local kids that use the Barangay Hall as a playground. They call me Madam Allie. And now the other members of the field team call me Allie Palali.
Today was cold. Very cold. Too cold to find any herps — except one. Perry brought a tiny snake from the genus Calamaria that he found near his tent.
Up until now, I had avoided handling any of the snakes. I don’t mind holding domesticated pet snakes, but I’m still hesitant about wild snakes. I asked to hold the snake. Anthony handed it over. Rafe could see my nervousness and reassured me — “Don’t worry. Calamaria don’t bite.” Right as he said that the little snake decided to sink his vicious little teeth as hard as he could into my finger, right above the knuckle of my right index finger. I yelled out in surprise “Yes they do!”
Rafe had to pry Lil’ Jaws of Death off me. Specimen RMB 13503 actually made me bleed. So be warned — although Calamaria survive on a diet consisting mostly of earthworms, their bite can pack quite a punch. I’m currently sporting on my hand a bloody bite mark the exact size and shape of a 12 point font parenthesis mark.
Today is my birthday. It is also Linda Trueb’s birthday. I don’t know if she knows that we are birthday buddies.
So, I celebrated my birthday out in the field on Mt. Palali. It was a wonderful birthday. I always think that the food at camp is delicious, but I think the food was extra good today with chicken and rice for breakfast, beef stew for lunch and the grand finale of the biggest batch of spaghetti I’ve ever seen! And the cake! How can I forget the cake? Arvin and Rafe hiked down into town yesterday to replenish our food supply and they came back with a birthday cake for me! How lucky I was to actually have a birthday cake out in the middle of the rainforest on an isolated mountain in the middle of Luzon!
One of the town officials hiked up to join us for the spaghetti and cake. He smiled at me and said “This year you celebrate your birthday with Philippinos!...And one Mexican!”
I also want to mention I had quite an adventure last night. We went to a new stream to look for different species we haven’t collected yet. This stream was full of murky, dark waters and was surrounded by fields of tall grass that stirred up feelings of claustrophobia. When I had fallen behind the boys and the local guide and I was navigating this hellish stream all by myself, my knees actually started shaking I was so scared. Fears of pit vipers and God knows what else I could come across in the murky waters filled my mind (Enteng and JB brought back a good-size eel from one the streams around the camp less than a week ago). Did I mention this was nighttime and all I had for light was my headlamp? Anyway, I continued forward and finally managed to catch up with the boys and the guide. To my relief, the stream opened up to more forest-like the surroundings. We were still following the narrow stream in a single-file. Herping in a single-file wasn’t working out very well for me, being that the guide in the front was catching all the frogs, the boys in the middle collecting the few herps that the guide missed, and me in the back desperately trying to spy anything else that was missed by both the guide and the boys. And at one point, I noticed a fern-like plant hanging over the stream. I remember noticing Enteng the other night checking big leafs on plants for frogs and lizards so I decided to try the same thing. On the second leaf I pulled down, I found a skink from the genus Eutropis. I was so surprised I yelled to the boys “I found a skink!” The boys yelled back “Don’t just tell us! Catch it!” And I did! First reptile on the trip for me. Later, we proceeded to scale a waterfall that was also very exciting. We returned to camp that night with a good amount of specimens and an adrenaline rush.
I’ve discovered on this trip that one of the most satisfying things for a herpetologist is for them to spot and catch a herp. I was a bit mopey yesterday because I failed to spot AND catch a single thing the night before. The boys, trying to help out, would point out a frog or gecko to me and let me catch it. But it is much more satisfying if I actually spot it myself and make the capture on my own.
Last night I had my best night yet, spying and catching four Rana similis by myself. This was my biggest contribution yet. I also learned last night that although I can be utterly giddy with the successful capture of four Rana, nothing can satisfy the boys more than catching a snake. Definitely the “trophies” from last night’s collecting would be the two snakes. And the skinks come in on a close second on this trip for most satisfying to capture. Man, those skinks are hard to find!
Today we moved down to the lower elevation camp on the mountain (721m). The hike down was steep and slick with mud; it involved a lot of tripping and sliding. I call it “strategically falling down the mountain.”
We were all happy to move down to the lower elevation. We were all cold on the top of the mountain and aside from a handful of skinks and a single crotchety, old, one-eyed snake, we were only collecting frogs at the top elevation. I was totally content with just catching frogs, but here at the lower elevation we might catch Varanus, Draco, more skinks, different frogs and snakes — including possibly pit vipers (eep).
Right now I’m relaxing in my warm, yellow tent. We’re still on the high elevation camp. On the second night of herping I caught my first Philippine frog — an unlucky Platymantis montanus perched on a palm-like plant over the stream. I also caught some frogs from the genus Rana. Luke pointed them out to me. That was two days ago on the sixth. Yesterday was a bit dreary. My tropical field clothes are definitely not warm enough for the chilly, foggy weather we’re experiencing up at the high elevation camp. Herping wasn’t as successful as previous nights. I learned how to record frog calls that night — or at least learned the idea behind it and what’s usually involved. We had problems finding calling frogs! Oh well. I’m sure sometime in the next two weeks I’ll have more opportunities to learn to record.
Here’s what a typical day on Mt. Palali is like for me:
Breakfast of white rice + meat/veggie dish cooked on wok over campfire
Drink instant coffee
Preserve/prepare specimens collected previous night and/or
Attempt daytime herping
Lunch of white rice + meat/veggie dish cooked on wok over campfire
Drink instant coffee
Preserve/prepare specimens collected previous night while listening to boys quote Will Ferrell
Dinner of white rice + meat/veggie dish cooked on wok over campfire
Drink instant coffee or piece of candy
Go out collecting amphibians and reptiles
Return to camp and listen to boys quote Will Ferrell while we wait for others to return to camp with the rest of the catch of the night.
Snack of crackers, cheesewhiz, peanut butter, and Tanduay.