Herpetology Blog

Monday, May 12, 2014

Kinky snake.

The snake photograph above was just taken by a Lawrence resident near the intersection of Kasold and Princeton streets. The snake is clearly a black ratsnake (Pantherophi obsoletu), but why is it so kinky? Did it just swallow a string of ping pong balls? Snake expert and former KU Herpetology trainee Harry Greene offered one possible explanation: "My hunch is that it's root mimicry, a last ditch effort at crypsis--but then I've been accused of seeing mimicry everywhere!"

Friday, August 17, 2012

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.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Funny, just after I waxed cathartic about figuring out that one species was actually two, today I experienced a kind of reversal.  Shrub frogs of the genus Philautus in the Philippines are, in my opinion, nearly impossible to tell apart.  In my experience, unless you hear their mating calls, you don't stand much of a chance of being able to identify them‚ because they are so similar in physical appearance.  Then, to make matters worse, all their calls sound like "rattles‚" or "crunches."  Sometimes one species will go "Crunch!" and another will sound like "Cruuuunch," but they are  all variations on just a few themes.  It's all very confusing.

For the last several days it has been misty and wet, without steady rain.  We have encountered two apparent species of Philautus, one large and another small, with a pointy snout. I was pretty sure: the big "species," consistently has had a greenish color scheme and the little one yellow or brown. 

Anyway, today it rained.  Hard.  Everyone retreated to their tents and hunkered down for the afternoon, it poured and poured, the camp frothed up in chocolate brown mud and, as it got dark, I finally heard a new frog call nearby -- could it be one of the Philautus species?  I turned on my headlamp and crawled through the bushes behind my tent and was confronted with a pair of frogs in amplexus (the male grasping the female during mating) on the leaf of a shrub. In just a glance I realized my mistake the big frog‚ was the female and the small frog was the male and the two were actually the same species.

Sexual size dimorphism, or the discrepancy in body size between males and females, is near universal in frogs around the world.  In almost all anurans (frogs and toads), females are larger than males, sometimes strikingly so.  In a few very special groups, the males are larger than the females.  Sometimes the appearance between the sexes is so marked that even the experts get confused and name the male of a species one scientific name and the female another.  These shrub frogs fooled me for a week, but at least it finally rained and I didn't make that mistake.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Today was a cathartic day in my own personal journey in studies of Philippine biodiversity.  The story starts in 1991 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I joined my first biodiversity inventory expedition to the Philippines.  This was a great experience for a 22 year old, and my life took an immediate and irreversible turn (for the better) towards my passion for the study of life in islands archipelagos.  But more to the point: in 1991 we surveyed the southern slopes of Mt. Busa in South Cotobato Province (southern Mindanao).  The southern Philippines was a bit wild back then and a major commercial logging operation was focused on logging out the remaining huge, closed-canopy, forests along the south coast of Mindanao.  Valued at $10,000 per trunk on the Japanese timber market, the hardwood logs that came down the slopes of Mt. Busa made two Kiamba area families extremely wealthy…and changed the landscape and biodiversity of the immediate area forever.

In 1991 I took this image of a WWII MacArthur era weapons carrier truck, converted to a logging skidder, carrying out the massive trunks of the last giant trees from the lowland forests of southern Mindanao.  The environmental devastation imparted by this kind of logging is clearly evident; in this picture a logging truck drives through a small stream in a denuded area where a few days before I had collected frog specimens in what had then been pristine forest.

On that trip, justifiably convinced that all local frog populations were going locally extinct, we mounted a salvage operation and collected specimens to the very legal limit allowable by our permits.  We anticipated that no animals would survive the holocaust of large-scale commercial logging in that drainage on Mt. Busa and we did the best we could to document every resident species’ presence in the form of preserved specimens, before the record of their existence had been erased forever.

In the middle of a large series of preserved frogs, I unknowingly preserved a single specimen of what I have, over many years, come to believe is new species, still unnamed and unknown to the world.  At the time, the slight morphological differences did not impress me and I misidentified the specimen as one of the locally common species.  Years later, during my Masters work at Miami University, I showed that this one individual was genetically distinct…but I hesitated to name it because I had only that one specimen…

 Now, 21 years later—last night—I finally collected another specimen and knew in an instant what it was…as I flash backed to my memories of Mt. Busa in 1991. How could I have ever doubted myself?  This frog obviously is a new species of great conservation significance. 

After decades of biodiversity work, so many species discoveries, years of contributions to conservation efforts and student training, I reflect back on so many arguments with my fellow “conversation” biologists on the topic of faunal collecting and the age-old tradition (standardized by Linnaeus) of preserving specimens for describing and documenting biodiversity.  Some individuals, understandably abhorring the killing of animals for any reason, frequently speak ill of the practice of collecting and preserving specimens for science.  They argue that it is no longer necessary, that it is unethical, or that scientists may actually contribute to extinction of a species by removing a few individuals from the gene pool. Given the unceasing pace of habitat destruction brought about by logging, mining, and gradual conversion of forest to agriculture, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the real threat to biodiversity is habitat loss, not occasional specimen preservation by scientists. We can debate about all the possible causes, but at the end of the day the fact remains: when we cut down the forest, the organisms that depend on it will go extinct. If we cut down all the forest in an area in rapid succession, there is little to no chance for survivors.  

For my part, I’m reminded of how important it is to document biodiversity assessments with vouchered specimens.  I’m relieved that I unknowingly collected and preserved that large series of frogs in 1991, before their population’s extinction at the hands of the loggers.  We now know that there once was a population in the previously forested area, which has now been converted to scorched, arid, grassland.  And in the process we discovered a new, unknown species, albeit by mistake.  It has taken me 21 years to convince myself of its distinctiveness, but today I am vindicated.  And another population (in a protected area) has now been identified, with positive prospects for the continued survival of the species.  Finally, the Philippines now has 110 + 1 species of amphibians.

Monday, July 9, 2012


My new hero is our field camp assistant, Pedro, a.k.a “Baba.”  Every day or two Baba brings me a couple of animals: a miniature forest rat, a bird, a giant water bug, a sail fin lizard, snake eggs from inside a log; whatever he finds.  Invariably he proudly presents the new catch on the end of some plastic string and we communicate in grunts and gestures because he speaks only Bisaya and a local indigenous language and I speak only English and Tagalog.  Baba is very adept at setting snares that put our fancy field gear to shame.  He has produced more species of mammals than all of the rest of us combined…but the best part is his enthusiasm for each variant he finds.  Baba uses his 2-foot, extremely sharp, bolo (macheté) for everything: cutting paths, fixing his sandals, opening cans of food, fixing snares….one popular camp joke goes like this.  “Hey do you know what Baba uses to comb his hair?  A bolo.  Do you know what he uses to scratch his back?  A bolo…Do you know what he uses to brush his teeth?  A bolo!”

Today Baba brought me a folded leaf with a very strange creature contained within…as I carefully unfolded the leaf and got a glimpse of its contents I thought, “OK Baba, thanks for the worm….wait, is that a centipede?  Ah, I know: it’s a blind snake…wait, no way!  Is that a Dibamus??!”

Dibamus are some of the most enigmatic and poorly known lizards in the world.  They certainly do not look like lizards.  They are legless and unless you get a close look at their head (and see eye spots and their mouth), you might mistake them for a worm.  Modern herpetologists have debated their evolutionary affinities for decades.  They are seldom collected in the Philippines and, according to current taxonomy, Philippine populations are grouped under a species that extends from Asia to New Guinea (an arrangement that I find extremely unlikely, suggesting to me that this specimen is unknown to science).  It’s only the second time that I’ve seen Dibamus in the archipelago…what a thrill!  Thanks Baba!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

River from the air

Half way through our expeditionary celebration of a century of KU Herpetology in the Philippines, I left the team on the beach near Gingoog City, in Misamis Oriental Province, Northern Mindanao.  After Mt. Hilong-hilong, some much needed R&R—plus a chance to clean and dry moldy clothes and tents—was just what the doctor ordered.  As I travelled back to the states for a brief hiatus, I again reflected again on how different my experience is compared to that of KU Professor E. H. Taylor, Father of Philippine herpetology.  When he first travelled to the archipelago a century ago, he put down roots and stayed in a small village called Bunawan for several years.  A hundred years later, I regularly zip back and forth, sometimes for just a few weeks.  Reaching these same remote locations that Taylor studied in 1912, in just a matter of days, is still something that still astounds me; I still cannot quite believe how much bigger his planet was than mine.

Of course, today Bunawan is not so remote.  As I landed today in Butuan City on my return flight to re-join the team (now in the mountains above Cagayan de Oro City), I was afforded a breathtaking view of the mouth of the Butuan River and the eastern arc mountains of Mindanao in the background.

When Taylor arrived at the same spot a century ago, it was by ship.  I can only imagine what the Port of Butuan was like back then, how much slower-paced life was for everyone here.  A hundred years ago, Taylor spent several days negotiating passage up river and then travelled by smaller boats inland to Bunawan. He described the trip in exotic, dreamy terms; there was a lot more forest back then and the only means of travel was by riverboat. A hundred years ago there were no roads to Bunawan.

Stationed in the small village where he was tasked with teaching in a small government-run school, Taylor began his herpetological explorations in his free time.  His first publications describing new species appeared in the Philippine Journal of Science a few years later.  This year’s expedition is, yes, as always, geared towards discovering new species and documenting resident biodiversity.  But also we hope to “rediscover” many of the species that Taylor first named 100 years ago.  Only a few herpetologists have searched for many of these in the past century, often with limited success.   Now that there are paved roads to Bunawan, my excitement necessarily combines with my anxiety about the loss of forest over the past century.  With so much of that original habitat now converted to rice fields, palm plantations, and pineapple groves, just how many of Taylor’s species are still around?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I’m proud to say, a few days ago at Camp Putik, I fell for the oldest trick I the book.  Million of years of evolution and selection pressures exerted by predators have produced many flavors of harmless animals which avoid predation by “mimicking” noxious, toxic, foul-tasting, or venomous co-distributed species.

Thus, back in Kansas, the harmless Regal Frittillary Butterfly (Speyeria idalia) are the same brilliant shades of red and brown as the toxic Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and birds apparently cannot tell the difference and avoid eating them both.  The “mimic” benefits from the predator education on the part of the “model.”

Of course individuals of the mimic species (the harmless beneficiary of this trick) and the model (the species that packs the dangerous punch) are not actually engaged in conscious or active mimicry strategies.  Rather, it’s the predators who are born with innate, evolved, “instincts” to avoid brightly colored “warning” patterns that exert selection pressures by eating the harmless, drab colored individuals and avoiding the brightly colored ones.   Thus, the brightly colored variants disproportionately pass on a greater proportion of their genes to the next generation and, through time, the population as a whole becomes more brightly colored—and “mimics” the venomous model.  This all according to the famous Batesian Mimicry hypothesis of evolution of aposematic coloration.

In any case, last week as we enjoyed a few sips of rum late at night in camp, a brightly colored, banded snake crawled past our feet through the mud.  At a glance, I identified it as a Philippine coral snake (Calliophis intestinalis).  We very carefully captured it with sticks and gloves and only after it was in the bag did we realize we had before us the harmless example of Boie’s Dwarf Snake Calamaria lumbricoides.

I don't mess around with venomous reptiles.  In contrast to what you see on TV, most herpetologists who study venomous reptiles avoid touching subjects, never pin snakes behind the head and hold them in their hands, and in general, don't take chances.  In my book, every snake-wrangling cowboy made famous on the Discover Channel is living on borrowed time; eventually the odds will catch up with all of them. Given that handling venomous reptiles is part of my job description, I’m determined not to be a snakebite statistic…I lost a friend ten years ago to a krait bite in Burma, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.  Meanwhile, I have to admire the exquisitely precise coral snake mimicry achieved by Boie’s Dwarf Snake. —Rafe

Monday, June 18, 2012


Transportation in the rural Philippine countryside can be a challenge.  Getting away from the city centers, through the agricultural areas of the lowlands, and up to the foot of a mountain requires multiple stages of transportation from bus, to jeepney, to four-wheel drive truck, and eventually to local village Hubble-hubble motorbikes.

Did you know that the English popular colloquial use of the slang term “Boondocks” (as in the 1965 Billy Joe Royal hit song “Down in the Boondocks”) originated with U.S. service men in the Philippines?  During the first part of the last century sailors adopted use of the Tagalog word “Bundok,” (meaning mountain) and applied it to any place far from civilization. 

As I said, getting in and out of the village is accomplished via Hubble-hubble, an expertly driven motorcycle with two wooden platforms attached to each side, and a two-foot long stick for a kickstand.  The platforms can each support three people, and together with the two or three people who sit on the seat behind the driver, it is not uncommon to see six to ten people riding a single motorbike.  Of course with my added weight, five people are the limit—and even then the back tire is nearly flat.  Hubble-hubble drivers have superhuman balance and driving skills, and they drive back and forth with a car’s weight on two wheels all day long.

I wonder what folks back in Kansas would think of us hubble-hubbling in the Philippine boondocks? —Rafe

Friday, June 15, 2012


As the centennial KU Philippine expedition continues, we are all continually impressed by the abilities, incredible hospitality, and hard work ethic of our collaborators and local field counterparts.

Our primary collaborator, Dr. Marites (“Tess”) Bonachita Sanguila, an instructor at the nearby Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan City, has taken charge of all logistical details for supporting the field crew.  This amounts to numerous massive shopping trips per week, responding to all the miscellaneous requests from the field team, and coordinating our activities with the village head, tribal chieftain, municipal authorities, provincial administrators, police, military, and nearby townspeople.  It's important that everyone knows we’re here, are aware of what we’re doing, and gets an opportunity to voice any concerns they might have about a bunch of foreigners coming to their home town.


Tess has an admirable way of making everyone feel at ease, even during difficult negotiations and discussions of delicate topics like local politics, jurisdiction and land access, permitting, and security in the area.   Even the village dogs have taken a shining to her (no small feat: dogs in rural areas here are more “scavenger” than they are “pet”).

Randy, the son of the Datu (the head of the indigenous peoples’ group with tribal jurisdiction over our study area) is a strong personality with a confident, direct, and strikingly vociferous demeanor. 
He has taken charge of organizing the porters (it takes 20-30 people to move our gear up and down the slopes of the mountain) and local guides.  He definitely has their well being in mind and he is not afraid to tell us when their needs are not yet quite met.  Making sure everyone is happy and well fed is priority number one! —Rafe

Saturday, June 9, 2012


From the coast of Agusan Del Norte, Mt Hilong-hilong looks pretty tame.  “Hilong” means “nose” in the local dialect….I guess if you squint, the peak looks a bit like a face in silhouette with a prominent nose.  

Down at low elevation it is hot, arid, and dry near the north coast of Mindanao Island.  The skies are clear, the sun is out; definitely good conditions for trecking up this mountain.


Up on Mt. Hilong-hilong, a different story is unfolding.  Below the forest canopy, only a little sunlight reaches the ground.  The forest floor is saturated and in just a few days’ time the comings and goings of 20 field biologists have turned our kitchen (and the rest of the camp) into a frothy soup of brick-colored mud. Eventually our guides attempted to put down a floor of saplings, but I can soon see the poles slipping under the mud….

It’s a good thing that everyone has rubber boots.  “putik” translates to “mud” in Tagalog, so Camp Putik was quickly coined and universally adopted by our field team. 

A few days later my right ear and side of my head has begun to sting and itch incessantly.  Some scaly, itchy thing is spreading around on my neck as well.  As it turns out, I have been infected with some sort of tropical fungus; it’s now responding well to fungicide and showing signs of retreating—but how gross is that?  Can you imagine having Athletes’ Foot on your ear? -Rafe

Five days later, the team departs Camp Putik (with an amazing collection of specimens, several species new to science, and fantastic new data on the startling high resident biodiversity) and heads for the blissfully hot and dry lowlands.  First order of business: wash the mold off everything, do laundry and dry out tents, get as much mud out of our gear as possible, and visit the local university clinic for an infusion of fungicide.  It turns out three more people have broken out in strange rashes and can’t stop scratching.