It’s always interesting to see how people adjust to life in camp when first arriving in the field. I am particularly intrigued by what appeals to new students—what interests them, which animals they like, what questions develop. It’s a finer point, but these initial impressions can have a profound impact on someone’s life. It is that passion for the organism that not only has the potential to inspire someone to take up a career in biology, but which may also sustain them for five or six years of graduate school or whatever higher training they may undertake.
This year, as we embark on the 100th year anniversary of herpetological collaboration between the University of Kansas and the National Museum of the Philippines (actually titled the Philippine Bureau of Science when Dr. E. H. Taylor first travelled to the archipelago in 1912), I am accompanied by a new student, Kerry Cobb, who has just earned his bachelor’s degree from KU and has been excitedly looking forward to this trip (his first time out of the States) for the last several months.
Kerry is already an accomplished field biologist who has done very hard-core, months-long, back-country fieldwork on salmon ecology in major parks in the western U.S. He wasted no time fitting right in to the group social dynamic of our all-Filipino field team, going out every night to catch amphibians and reptiles with the herpers, cracking jokes with the mammalogists, poking fun at the parasitologists for their study of very gross things, and in general staying amused and in good spirits. On our second day he discovered that the nearby river was full of tadpoles and went back to his tent with a purpose, produced a pair of swimming goggles, and spent the next couple of hours swimming back and forth across one of the larger pools. He then triumphantly came back to camp with several goldfish bags of tadpoles and spent another hour or two sorting the larvae into batches corresponding to species. A day later, after he had time to think about it a bit, he did the math and perceptively pointed out that although we had encountered six or seven species of frogs in the area, there were nine species of tadpoles present in the site. What could be going on here?
As it turns out, the idiosyncratic reproductive cycles of the various frog species present at any given site and time is always in flux. Clearly there were two or three additional species breeding here a month ago, and while we have not yet encountered the adults, we know they were here because of the presence of their larvae in the river. Perhaps the adults have dispersed back into the forest at this point, may have gone under ground or up into the tree canopy…we just don’t know. “Well, how do we identify them?” Kerry asked, “And are there any published papers that we can use to key out the tads?” Unfortunately, the state of knowledge of vertebrate biodiversity is so underdeveloped in this part of the country that those kinds of resources do not yet exist. The best we can do is sort the tadpoles to apparent species, preserve a few of each kind for future studies back in the museum, and take tissue samples for subsequent DNA identification. When we get back to the lab in several months, we can sequence the DNA of all the adults and tadpoles for a common gene fragment. Then we can match them up and identify the tadpole of each resident species….but the mystery tads will remain a mystery until an adult (possibly from another part of the island, or the next island over) can be sequenced and matched to their genotype. Doing this systematically for the country, trying to match all the larvae with all the adults (there are more than 110 frog species in the Philippines), would be a great first step for a graduate project and constitute a major contribution to Philippine herpetology. Hopefully a bright student with a passion for tadpoles will emerge. I can see the first kernel of curiosity in Kerry; hopefully someone like him will be inspired to take on the Philippine tadpole challenge. —Rafe
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.
As I pack for our trip (tomorrow) to the Philippines, something very interesting occurred to me: right now is the one century anniversary of KU herpetological expeditions to the Philippines. KU professor Dr. Edward Taylor first arrived in Manila in April-May 1912, exactly 100 years ago. It's very interesting to reflect on how much has changed over the past 100 years…personally, my experience is obviously quite different from Ed's. He spent months on a schooner, on his way to Manila (through Singapore), and my trip will take 30 hrs (through Japan). His supplies were packed in a wooden crate; mine in a cordura duffel bag. He collected herps alone with the use of a lantern, I collect specimens in groups of hunters, equipped with halogen headlamps. More importantly, our collaboration has advanced conceptually so far, surpassing I suspect, Taylor's wildest imagination of the future before him.
Another interesting fact: on this trip, we will target Mt. Hilong-hilong in northeast Mindanao, an historically significant site that was first surveyed by Angel Alcala and Walter Brown in the early 1960s. Our data and observations will constitute poignant comparisons to their formative earlier work, enabling direct quantitative analysis of temporal variation across sampling efforts (most notably, with an eye for impacts of land use and climate change). The results are sure to be astounding! All data we gather will be turned over to Dr. Alcala for comparative purposes with his many earlier surveys in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
Anyone inherently interested: I'd recommend the California Academy of Sciences "Digitization and Rectification of the Brown and Alcala Philippine Collection" webpage. —Rafe
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.
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 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
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.