Monday, July 9, 2012
Rafe Brown

Worm

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!

Monday, July 9, 2012
Rafe Brown

Worm

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 Dibamu??!”

Dibamu 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 Dibamu in the archipelago…what a thrill! Thanks Baba!

Sunday, July 1, 2012
Rafe Brown

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?

Sunday, July 1, 2012
Rafe Brown

Bunawan River

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 Misami 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?

Friday, June 22, 2012
Caroline Chaboo

Our Perú 2011 expedition and field course was very rewarding, with the research and creative products, and the lovely exhibition in the KU Spencer Art Museum, http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/exhibitions/39-trails.shtml. We are still experiencing wonderful outcomes one year later. Today, some of us participated in a panel discussion as part of an outreach program with 32 high school and community college teachers from around the U.S.A. The ‘Peru and Amazon Educator Workshop’ was organized by KU’s Center of Latin American Studies and the Spencer Art Museum. After each of the Perú team members spoke about the experience and answered audience questions, we met with these enthusiastic teachers in our exhibition. We touch so many students through their teachers being made aware about insects, biodiversity science, interdisciplinary education, Amazon conservation issues, museums, and the amazing country that is Perú.

Thursday, June 21, 2012
Rafe Brown

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
Rafe Brown

Hubble

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

Monday, June 18, 2012
Rafe Brown

Hubble

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
Caroline Chaboo

Caroline Chaboo, Riley Wertenberger (KU undergraduate), and Josh Cunningham (Haskell U. undergraduate) led an outdoor insect discovery class for the Stepping Stones, Inc. school, Lawrence KS, on June 7, 2012. Fourteen 7-10 year old school kids and their two teachers were armed with insect nets and large vials and shown how to net and sweep sample insects in the Rockefeller Prairie, KU Field Station. The kids were excited to catch, study, and release a wide variety of live insects and learn a little about the prairie ecosystem.

Friday, June 15, 2012
Rafe Brown

Girl with DogRandy

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. Marite (“Tess”) Bonachita Sanguila, an instructor at the nearby Father Saturnino Urio 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