Please congratulate Dr. Matthew Gimmel on his acceptance of a 2.5 year European Social Fund postdoctoral fellowship to work on beetle systematics in the lab of Dr. Milada Bocakova, Department of Biology, Palacký University, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Since graduating from Louisiana State University (Dr. Chris Carlton's lab), Matt has worked as my lab manager, helping so much with my Peru project: processing an unbelievable amount of specimens, overseeing undergraduate assistants, helping to mentor undergraduate researchers in their manuscripts. Indeed, his enormous knowledge of beetles, coupled with his generosity, patience, and enthusiasm, has made him a wonderful mentor to all in our unit. Now, we must race to submit our first manuscript together — on Peru beetles, of course - before he departs Kansas for Europe.
The Chaboo lab hosted Sara López from the Ciudad Universitaria (UNAM) and the Departament of Zoology, National Collection of Insects, Mexico City, Mexico. Sara is conducting M.Sc. research on a revision and phylogeny of the genus, Ogdoecosta (Cassidinae: Mesomphaliini). Several cassidine genera have most of their species distributed in Mexico, and Ogdoecosta is one of them. Sara’s phylogenetic matrix will open new research into the biology of this little known group. We had a super time discussing morphology, characters, biology, and combing historical literature for clues of new characters, to understand how important researchers like Spaeth and Boheman defined the genus and species. Good luck to Sara in completing this important new work in Cassidinae and in becoming a badly-needed expert of the Mexican chrysomelid fauna.
The Aug. 6 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences included a large-scale analysis of bony fishes using DNA sequencing. One of the major conclusions is that tarpons, eels and their relatives (Elopomorpha) is the sister group (branched first) of all living teleosts.
Gloria Arratia, research associate in ichthyology, first published this idea in 1997 (see reference 11 in the PNAS paper). Her conclusion was based on morphology. In short, molecular analysis confirms a careful morphological analysis conducted about 15 years ago. More interesting is the fact that Gloria’s results were not widely accepted because the dominant figures in the field had championed the idea that the Osteoglossomorpha (mooneyes and bonytongues) were below the tarpons and eels on the tree. This inhibited some other ichthyologists from accepting Gloria's findings, in spite of the fact that she had the evidence and presented it clearly.
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.
After a day of rest back in Paramaribo after our Voltzberg adventure, we loaded up the trucks today and headed for Brownsberg Nature Park, which sits atop a 1500 ft. mountain a few hours drive south of the capital (no unusual transportation required...). Upon arriving at the structure where we hung our hammocks, we had a surprise: A KU Jayhawk decal on the wall! If surrounding dates are any indication, it seems to be around 10 years old.
We woke up at 4 o’clock this morning and we’re on the trail shortly before 5 a.m. We were planning to reach the summit of Voltzberg to watch the sunrise. Of course, this meant we had to hike there in the dark and there is really only one way to describe pre-dawn jungle: pitch black. If you get stuck in the jungle at night, without a light source, you better just hunker down and pray for morning because you are in for one terrifying ordeal.
After about a thirty minute hike, we arrived at the base of Voltzberg. For the next twenty-five minutes, we scrambled over slick boulders, dodged a column of army ants (which zigzagged over our path no less than four times), tried our best to avoid prickly and spiny plants (which is difficult because it seems like every tree, bush, fern, and flower is armed and ready for battle), and silently hoped that no snakes would decide to fall on our heads. Once we had cleared the tree line, the real fun began. The next stage of our ascent involved scrambling up several hundred feet of algae-coated, dew-slicked granite (which rates about a 9.413/10 on the International Standardized Slipperiness Scale). However, that wasn’t all. The slope of the mountain was steep to say the least and I swear there were times when we were going almost straight up. The combination of the terrain and the exacerbating conditions made for a climb that was mildly nerve-wracking at times.
However, we did all make it to the top and almost right as the sun was breaking through the clouds. It was a truly magnificent and spectacular thing to witness with the clouds rising over the jungle and the fiery, orange sun rising next to the adjacent inselberg.
I caught a glimpse of the mountains as I left the field team, two days ago. Over the last 48 hours Dr. Tess Sanguila and I drove back and forth along the north coast of Mindanao, visiting various government offices, having specimens inspected, and applying for export permits to ship our collections back to Kansas. Today we went back to the edge of the forest, at the closest drop-off point near our final field site, to pick up the team members. Our plan has been to transport them down to a beach side hotel where we intend to spend a few days, washing gear, cleaning clothes, sorting specimens, and getting ready for the trip back to Manila, and then Kansas by way of Japan. After a couple nights in hotels, I felt guilty picking up the crew in the clean university van. I was showered and comfortable, well fed, wearing dry clothes, a couple nights of air conditioning under my belt… they were grungy and wet, muddy and smelled like mold. Several of the students have constellations of skin infections covering their legs. No one was in a very good mood.
I had one last look at the mountains as we turned the van around and retreated down the muddy road. As I have often done in the past, I could not resist the chance to voice my vow to return (A sarcastic cross between MacArthur’s “I shall return” and Arnold Schwarzenegger “Ahhh’ll be baaaack.”).
A couple days on the beach raised most of the team’s spirits. We had great food, cold beer, air conditioning, TV and internet—luxuries most had come to crave over the last few weeks of the expedition. Reflecting on the team’s performance and endurance over the 9-week trip, I’m pretty impressed. We got through several tense logistical challenges and a few scares, braved severe extremes of cold and heat, handled a few minor medical issues, navigated the gauntlet of permitting regulations, and got along reasonably well with each other. The new information on vertebrate biodiversity of northeast Mindanao—and the biocollection documenting that diversity—represents a research and conservation resource that scientists, conservationists, wildlife managers, and students will rely on for many decades to come. What a summer…it has been a thrill to see the wild side of Mindanao again. I can’t wait until the next Mindanao field season! What an amazing, complex, fascinating and sensationally diverse island!
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.
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 Philautu 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 Philautu, 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 Philautu species? I turned on my headlamp and crawled through the bushes behind my tent and was confronted with a pair of frogs in amplexu (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 anuran (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.
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.