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.

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

Tadpole Conundrum

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 herper, cracking jokes with the mammalogist, poking fun at the parasitologist 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

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

Friday, June 1, 2012
A. Campbell

jars of specimens

Inside the herpetology collection

Specimens

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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Rafe Brown

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 herp alone with the use of a lantern, I collect specimens in groups of hunters, equipped with halogen headlamp.  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 1960.  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 1950, 1960, and 1970.

Anyone inherently interested: I'd recommend the California Academy of Sciences "Digitization and Rectification of the Brown and Alcala Philippine Collection" webpage. —Rafe


Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Rafe Brown

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

Thursday, May 10, 2012
Caroline Chaboo

After a fast paced semester, Stop Day is an exclamation point between formal classes and exams. In spring, exam week is followed by another exclamation point: Graduation weekend. This is a particularly special one as five undergraduates in my lab are graduating. KT and Joe have been here the longest, over two years.  Now they fledge, going off to the Peace Corps and to graduate school respectively. Tom, Reed, and Riley are also heading off to graduate school or research labs. So very special to see them at this great junction in life. And particularly poignant to meet their parents for the first time. We, parents and teachers, have helped them thus far on their journey and now we must take our positions in the back.

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