Research by former KU EEB/BI student Cameron Siler (now an Assistant Professor at University of Oklahoma), current student Andres Lira, and Rafe Brown recently has been covered in depth in a Science Magazine article “Genetic forensics wakes a dragon." In this study, Brown, Siler and Filipino colleagues Arvin Diesmos and Emerson Sy (National Museum of the Philippines) collected genetic samples from animals in the illegal pet market trade of a major metropolitan area (Manila) and compared traders reported origins of the species to the genotypic match of these samples from animals collected in the wild from throughout the Philippines. The authors found that virtually all of Manila’s poached animals came from a particular area (The Bicol Peninsula) where a genetically distinct lineage occurs with almost no protected area coverage. Collaborations With KU’s Andres Lira modeled the species habitat suitability and demonstrated that very little of available habitat overlaps with protected areas, demonstrating a new conservation urgency, identified with an integrative combination of forensic science, ecological niche modeling, and covert black market surveys in the back alleys of Manila. This work comes on the heels of an earlier study by former KU student Luke Welton in which trade forensics of Monitor Lizards revealed that, when asked, traders misrepresent the origins of their animals more than 50% of the time, presumably in an effort to increase the perceived value of their illegal wares. Both articles can be located at: http://www.nhm.ku.edu/rbrown/PublicationsMain.htm.
Nature recently published a feature on Rafe Brown, Biodiversity Institute herpetology Curator and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor. The article focused on his research, its connection to a controversial KU scientist from the early 20th century, and the importance of species identification for conservation.
Anthony Barley, graduate student in Herpetology at KU, won this year's American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Stoye Award for best student paper presented at this year's Joint Ichs and Herps Meeting. Barley’s paper will be published next month in the journal Evolution.
The news has been out for a while, but it's official now: Dr. Rich Glor has risen to the top as the successful candidate in our search for a new Curator of Herpetology at KU. Rich will move to Lawrence in the summer of 2013 bringing his exciting lab group and research program to the University of Kansas by Fall, 2013. Welcome to Kansas Rich!
Once, during a night time trek through a remote patch of Philippine rainforest to record frogs and collect their eggs for his doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas researcher Rafe Brown found himself alone, far ahead of his colleagues on the trail.
That’s when his headlamp died.
“I had to sit on a log for an hour in the dark,” Brown recalled. “Already, I’d spent a couple of hours trying to record all the frogs in the area, and I was pretty sure there were just three species. But when forced to just sit there and listen to them, I found that there were seven or eight different calls in the area.”
Such is the importance of sound to biologists and naturalists: It can help distinguish one species of animal from another, even when two species might look nearly identical.
That’s one reason why scientists for generations have lugged recording gear into the field, capturing all manner of animal signal, from croaking frogs to chirping insects to singing birds. Unfortunately, over the years, many hard-won recordings have moldered on back shelves of museums and offices, often in outdated audio formats, such as reel-to-reel tape.
Today, Brown is an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator-in-charge of the herpetology division of the KU Biodiversity Institute. In that role, he is helping to lead a new, $200,000 effort, funded by the National Science Foundation, to digitize, archive and make available thousands of field recordings of animal sounds at KU, and tie them with the voucher specimens that were recorded.
“In the past, if someone wanted to get a call of a recording of a species of frog from Central America that was recorded 30 years ago, it was a complicated process,” said Brown. “They’d have to contact us, and one of us would have to go back and try to sift through all the material to try and find the tape and the segment of the tape with the frog, and then record it to a cassette tape and send it to them.”
The KU researcher said the new grant would upgrade data accessibility for the Internet era.
“The idea is to take all off this ancillary material and put it online,” said Brown. “You’ll go look at the record for the frog, and you’ll see there are digital photos of it and its habitat, and then you can click on a link and instantly hear the sound that it made.”
KU is one of a consortium of 11 research institutions to digitize audio recordings through this effort. Other major contributors include the Smithsonian, Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science and the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The work at KU’s Biodiversity Institute will focus on the strength of its herpetology and ornithology collections, the latter of which is curated by co-investigator Mark Robbins.
Ultimately, Brown said the grant would speed the process of discovering, cataloging and naming species for academic researchers and naturalists. Also, many of the animal sounds will be made available to the public, helping to underscore the importance of sound to biology — and conveying the mysteries of animal communication.
“Species are making sounds to mark their territory, to attract mates, to scare away predators, to call to their offspring, and even in some cases to send signals to other species,” Brown said. “And there are things that people still debate. Why do birds sing at dawn? Are they marking their territory? Are they happy that the sun is up and making noise because they can? There still are questions about why organisms make sounds, sometimes in a context that we can’t really understand.”
The project, which will fund several new positions for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, should run through 2017. - Brendan Lynch
William Duellman, curator emeritus of herpetology, and herpetology curator Linda Trueb were invited to be plenary speakers at the IX Congreso Latinoamerican de Herpetologia in Curitiba, Brazil, 17–22 July 2011.
Duellman’s presentation was “Eggs, embryos, and evolution of marsupial frogs,” whereas Trueb’s talk was “Form, function and phylogeny & diversity of microhylid frogs.” Both talks were for one hour.
Among the more than 1000 attendees at the congress were eight former graduate students from the Division of Herpetology in the Biodiversity Institute at KU.
An international team of researchers has completed the first major survey in Asia of a deadly fungus that has wiped out more than 200 species of amphibians worldwide. The massive survey could help scientists zero in on why the fungus has been unusually devastating in many parts of the globe-and why Asian amphibians have so far been spared the same dramatic declines.
From 2001 to 2009 to the present, an international team focused on Asia has surveyed more than 3,000 amphibians — mostly frogs — from 15 Asian countries, sampling skin from the undersides of frogs to attempt to detect the lethal fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (or “Bd”).
Rafe Brown of the KU Biodiversity Institute led the Philippine component of the study. Together with colleagues from the Philippine government and the National Museum of the Philippines, the team sampled skin from more than 1,000 specimens of the country’s 105 species of frogs. Some of the findings for this small island country were alarming.
It is possible that Asia, like the Americas of 20-30 years ago, may be on the verge of a chytridiomycosis epidemic, which could cause a cascade of species extinctions throughout the region. The group thinks that such an endemic, if about to occur, could be initially triggered in the Philippines.
“The prevalence and intensity of Bd infection is much higher (in the Philippines) than anywhere else in Asia,” said Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State University. “Bd in the Philippines today looks similar to Bd in early outbreaks in California and South and Central America.”
The team found that the prevalence of Bd across Asia was very low, appearing in only 2.4 percent of the frogs. The Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea were the only countries with any Bd infection. But, as Arvin Diesmos of the National Museum of the Philippines emphasized, infection intensity was very high in some Philippine populations -- approaching the level that has caused die-offs in American amphibians populations.
“This study is extremely interesting but has amphibian biologists in the Philippines very concerned,” said Brown.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” said Mae Diesmos of the University of Santo Tomas (Manila) and a collaborator on the publication. “What is badly needed now is a massive study focused on the Philippines to determine the extent and distribution of the chytrid fungus, and to determine which amphibian populations may be at risk of extinction.”
The research was published this week in the journal PLoS ONE.
Herpetology graduate student Cameron Siler is this year's recipient of the Kennedy Award by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. The award is for the best student paper published (for 2011) in SSAR' Journal of Herpetology. The award includes a cash prize and a generous credit that can be used towards the purchase of SSAR publications, including herpetology journals and books.
The exciting scientific discovery was fried and served with tomato and lettuce on the side.
At least that’s how Biodiversity Institute graduate student Jesse Grismer first heard of a species of lizard heretofore unknown to scientists — it was featured on the menu of a restaurant in the remote Ca Mau province of southern Vietnam.
Grismer and his father — a herpetologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. — jetted to Vietnam in search of the unknown lizard based on a lead by a fellow scientist and family friend, Ngo Van Tri of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.
“He’s a real go-getter,” Grismer said of Tri. “He knew that I was working on Leiolepis for my master’s research. He took it upon himself to go to southern Vietnam. He went down there and collected a large series of these things and sent me tissue samples and also the specimens. They looked just liked the females of an already known species that existed there.”
But Grismer found it odd that all of the specimens sent by Tri were female and deduced that they were not commonplace Leiolepis reevesi. He sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of the tissue samples Tri had collected and demonstrated these lizards were more closely related to known asexual species of Leiolepis and not the known sexual species. After closely examining photos and specimens of the lizards, Grismer and his father determined that the lizards being served a la carte were likely new to science.
“We came to the conclusion that Tri had found a population of new asexual species,” said Grismer. “We were headed out there to collect some geckos for my father’s research and we figured we’d just make another pit stop with Tri to collect these lizards — we just had no idea what it would entail.”
Tri had informed Grismer and his father that the remarkable lizards were to be found on the menu at a particular restaurant in the Ca Mau region on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
After landing at Ho Chi Minh City airport, Grismer and his father embarked on a harrowing eight-hour motorcycle trek southward, calling ahead to the owner of the restaurant to reserve the remaining supply of lizards. But at the end of the journey, the KU researcher and his father were met with disappointment.
“We get there and — I can’t blame him — he had a bunch of customers come in and he was like, ‘Oh well,’ and he cooked them all up and sold them,” said Grismer.
So the restaurant owner put the Grismers and Tri in touch with locals who were able to help the scientists find more lizards. After collecting enough specimens, the scientists were able to consume a plateful of the species, too.
“We went back to the restaurant and he actually had more,” said Grismer. “So we ate some of them.”
Grismer said the taste of the new species is “nothing like chicken.”
“It’s a taste that — unfortunately — only a herpetologist could relate to,” he said. “I can only describe it in a herpetological context, it tastes like a bag of wet lizards.”
Further research into the lizard confirmed for the KU researcher that the population of lizards were indeed new to science.
“When we got back to the lab, we were able to lay out all the other known asexuals, including this new one, and then laid out a set of morphological characteristics, then created a key to diagnose if from other populations,” Grismer said. “It turns out that there are some really unique characteristics that separated this from all the other asexuals. On top of that, it’s geographically isolated. It’s the only asexual species in southern Vietnam.”
Because the Grismers were the first to describe the new species, they also had the chance to name the newfound species. They chose to honor their “hard charging” Vietnamese colleague Tri by christening the new species Leiolepis ngovantrii.
Although Grismer is near the beginning in his scientific career, he’s already taken part in describing and naming 19 or 20 new species.
“It’s always an extraordinary thing to find a new species,” Grismer said. “You’re finding a new lineage of life that’s never been seen before. I don’t think anyone would turn their nose up at that.”
A new legless species of lizard has been discovered from the Philippines by an international team of biologists, including Biodiversity Institute scientists, working together with the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Although the new species looks and lives like a snake, it is technically a lizard.
The new species, called Lukban’s Loam-swimming Skink or Brachymeles lukbani in its scientific name, is 5-6 inches long and about 0.2 inches in diameter around the body. It spends most of its life underground, where it moves around by burrowing its body in soil.
A single specimen of the legless lizard found at Mt. Labo in Camarines Norte province was known to biologists as early as 2006 but it was only in June 2008 when an expedition by a team from the University of Kansas, DENR and the National Museum went to the same locality yielded more specimens. The official description of the species appears in a recent issue of the internationally recognized scientific journal Copeia, which is published by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.
Cameron Siler, a Ph.D. student at the Biodiversity Institute and lead author of the species description, says the discovery of a limbless lizard from the Philippines is very exciting but not entirely new. According to Siler, three other species of lizards in the same genus are limbless, two of which are found only in the Philippines.
The legless lizard from Bicol is only one of 15 species that Siler is describing from the genus Brachymeles, the subject of his doctoral dissertation. “As a result of surveys we have carried out throughout the Philippines I expect the number of known species of lizards from this genus to more than double in the next few years,” he says.
Dr. Rafe Brown, Curator of Herpetology at the Biodiversity Institute, says “In the world of reptiles, limbs have been lost independently several times across the evolutionary tree. The most widely known instance is the case of snakes but limblessness is known in several genera of lizards.”
The new lizard species is known only from Mt. Labo but Siler says further surveys are needed to determine if it is found in other parts of the Bicol peninsula or in the rest of Luzon.
“These lizards are very secretive that they escape notice of local residents. Local people either don’t recognize them or confuse them with snakes and worms. Quite often people don’t even have a local name for them,” Siler adds.
The lizard was named after General Vicente R. Lukban (1860-1916), a Filipino freedom fighter who was born in Labo, Camarines Norte, where specimens of the new species were collected.
Mundita Lim, Chief of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, says “This discovery underscores the idea that so much of our biodiversity, from giant, fruit-eating lizards to tiny legless ones, remains undocumented.” According to her, the forest on Mt. Labo is being declared a Critical Habitat under the Wildlife Act, which will give government protection to the site.