I don’t know when the last time was that KU offered a field Herpetology course. Months ago it was decided that this would be a good year to correct for this absence. Our goal: to collect local amphibians and reptiles from different regions of the state to bolster our genetic resources at the BI.
On May 19th, 12 would-be herpetologists set off on a grand expedition across the state. First stop—Konza Prairie Biological Research Station in the heart of the Flint Hills. This unique tall grass prairie ecosystem reserve boasts a diverse community of amphibians and reptiles, amazing views, and is home to a herd of about 300 bison.
Our first two days at Konza have been outstanding! Next stop—Wilson State Lake in the Smokey Hills region of Kansas (Russel Co.)
The Biodiversity Institute was well represented at the 7th World Congress of Herpetology held on August 8–13 in Vancouver, Canada. Among the 1700+ delegates from 41 countries were Rafe Brown, Bill Duellman, Linda Trueb, KU undergraduates, our new curator, Dr. Rich Glor, and 19 former herpetology students who had received PhDs at KU between 1974 and 2012. Among them was Dr. Joseph R. Mendelson III (PhD, 1997), now president of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.
Usually, your close relatives resemble you. Or at least they have the same number of limbs.
Not true, however, for Brachymeles lukbani, a species recently discovered by Cameron Siler, one of the museum's graduate students in herpetology. This critter (which has lost its limbs through evolution) looks like a snake but is actually a skink — a type of lizard. The genus Brachymeles has a diverse membership.
"They have the full suite from limbed to limbless, from working limbs with five fingers to no limbs at all," says Siler.
But this makes the lizards an excellent group for studying how and why limb loss occurs. Brachymeles lukbani "swims" through rotten logs and undergrowth, looking for food. In that situation, possessing limbs might not be very useful, or even counter-productive.
Siler's research has increased the museum's holdings of skinks, making it a leader in skink research
Caiman latirostris — a crocodile
Some of our specimens, recently discussed in our post about specimens as snapshots in time, take on a unique role after entering the museum's collections. Certain reptiles, amphibians and fishes undergo a process called clearing and staining, which helps scientists look into the critters.
After being turned translucent by a digestive enzyme called Trypsin (found in the bellies of many vertebrates including us), dyes are added. Bones and hard tissue are stained red with a chemical called Alizarin, and soft tissues are highlighted by adding Alcian blue.
The contrasting colors help scientists study the morphology - the skeletal and skin structures - of an animal. As an example, they prove especially useful for studying frog skulls, which undergo a peculiar dance of morphological change as frogs mature.
Inside the herpetology collection
A jar of snake specimens
Most of the museum's reptile, amphibian and fish specimens are kept in jars, along with ethanol to preserve them. These collections contain nearly one million specimens that provide vital information to biologists doing research in areas ranging from evolutionary patterns to locomotion to conservation. Here are some interesting facts about our collections:
1.We try to keep the fluid collections in relative stasis in regard to temperature and humidity. The goal is 65 degrees F and 50% relative humidity. In practice, however, the temperature is fairly steady but the relative humidity varies quite a bit.
2.The oldest specimen in the herpetology collection is Ceratophrys aurita, KU 98129, collected in Brazil in 1863. It, however, is an exchange specimen. The oldest specimen collected by a museum affiliate is a Thamnophis elegans from New Mexico, KU 2408, collected in 1880. The oldest specimens collected in Kansas are two copperheads and a massasauga from Franklin county in 1888. The history of specimen collecting for these collections has been steady ever since. There are 60 specimens collected prior to 1900.
3.The specimen with catalogue number 'KU 001' is Alligator mississippiensis. The specimen is on display in the panorama at present for the Adopt-A-Specimen exhibit.
4.The sheer volume of ethanol used in the collection is impressive. We have a 1795 gallons for amphibians, and about 1875 gallons in large specimen tanks. The reptiles utilize about 1500 gallons. That's a 5,170 gallon capacity for reptiles and amphibians. Double that in fishes, and add a touch for the others. For everything together, 12,000 gallons total is a reasonable estimate. Of that, a substantial amount of space in the jars is taken by specimens and air, so we would actually have about 8,000 gallons of 70% EtOH (ethanol) in the wing. That's about 5,600 gallons of Ethanol (about 102 drums), significantly less than a typical residential swimming pool.
A major Midwest snowstorm during the Christmas holiday delayed the 36-hour journey for our intrepid herpetology team, but we eventually made our way from snowy Lawrence to the Kansas City airport. The very long plane trip to Manila included a layover in Minneapolis and a layover in Japan.
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.