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
Rafe Brown

Dog

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.

Randy

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 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 (Danau plexippu) 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 (Calliophi intestinali). 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’ Dwarf Snake Calamaria lumbricoide.

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’ Dwarf Snake. —Rafe

Saturday, June 9, 2012
Rafe Brown

Camp

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.

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.

Saturday, June 9, 2012
Rafe Brown

CampPhilip

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.

Monday, June 4, 2012
Rafe Brown

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.

Tadpoles

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