The Short Career of Professor Baruch

Following my meeting with the Pilcopata school director I promptly began working on my presentation for the elementary school that was going to take place the following day. Shortly after starting to create a PowerPoint with pictures and some talking points I ran into a problem. I had no idea if the kids I would be talking to knew anything about frogs, biology, or if they could even read! After thinking this through for a few minutes I decided to keep words on my presentation to a minimum and assume zero base knowledge of amphibians.  This turned out to be a pretty good assumption.

At 9am the next morning I rode to the school in the bed of the Villa Carmen pickup truck with four other volunteers. In my backpack I had my laptop and two sheets of notes. In my hand I carried a large plastic bag filled with smaller plastic bags, each containing a frog or tadpole. At this point I had absolutely no clue what to expect besides that if worst came to worst, I could always just pass out the frogs and hope I got a few back alive. Fortunately it never came to that.

My first lecture to the elementary shcool

My first lecture to the elementary school

The first class on the schedule that day was 4th grade. As I was getting ready to start, the third grade class from next door all filed into the back of the classroom carrying their chairs. Apparently their teacher heard what was going on and did not want to miss out. The combined elementary and high school had one projector for all of the classes. Having this resource available made presenting to a group of kids much easier. Even though I was quite nervous before starting my talk, the entire class was fascinated by the pictures I was showing them. As I had expected, almost none of these kids had actually seen any of the frogs in my presentation. It seemed a bit sad to me that such amazing animals lived literally right outside these kids’ houses and they were completely unaware of them. I am hoping that they will all listen to frog calls a bit more closely now and will stop and look when they see something small hopping across a street at night. When I started passing out the frogs the classroom quickly turned to mild chaos. Most of the kids were eagerly waiting for the frogs to get passed in their direction, though I did see one girl make a hasty retreat to the back corner of the room.

This first presentation went much smoother than I would have ever expected. The only exception was while I was talking about what frogs eat, everyone in the class, including the professor, began smiling and chuckling to themselves. As I later found out, the dictionary translation of the word worm, gusano, can have a different meaning when talking about reproduction… Needless to say I changed the translation for all future presentations.

My second presentation of the day also went smoothly and, after many, many questions, I headed back to Villa Carmen to work on my presentation for the high school the next day.  That evening a group of five students from the high school came out to the station looking for “the frog guy”.  These students had a project about the importance of frogs that they were going to be presenting at a science fair the next day and heard from the younger students that someone at Villa Carmen knew a lot about frogs. I answered their questions as best as I could and then took them out to a pond to search for some live frogs that they could show off. We ended up catching nearly 15 in half an hour and the group was very happy as they walked away with several bags full of frogs.

At eight in the morning the next day I made my first presentation to a high school class. I had expanded my talk from the previous day to include some threats to frog diversity and a brief overview of my research. I gave four talks in total that morning, each a bit over 30 minutes. I left the school exhausted but grateful for the opportunity and hopeful after seeing that many of the students seemed genuinely interested in the frogs of Peru!

The kids seemed to be most interested in the tadpole

The kids seemed to be most interested in the tadpole

check out more pictures from my time at the school here:   https://goneherping.wordpress.com/villa-carmen/

Leaving the Villa Carmen Bubble, and Going to School

Pilcopata school enterence

Pilcopata school enterence

When planning out the details of this project I wanted find a way to take the information I would be learning from my frog research and relate that knowledge back to the community in a meaningful way. The most obvious way to do this seemed to be to get involved with the local schools, teaching children about frogs and conservation. Looking back on these broad and lofty goals now, nearing the end of my time in Peru, I cannot help but smile at the idealism that I expressed in these statements and am sure all DukeEngagers get caught up in while proposing their projects.

As can be expected from this type of project, not everything went exactly according to plan. I was told that Villa Carmen was the perfect place to combine frog research and interaction with the community because it is located near a small town and working with the school there, and even schools in surrounding communities would be relatively easy.  While that statement was not all together inaccurate, I was not told that no researchers had actually done this sort of thing before.

Recently Villa Carmen has been trying to improve its relationship with the community and not just be its own bubble on the outskirts of town. After being on site for a few weeks I started talking to people at the station about getting involved at the school. They all agreed that this was a great idea and would be an excellent way to share the knowledge that university educated researchers bring to the station with children form a very rural part of the country, practically none of whom would continue education after high school.  We then set up a meeting with the director of the local school to talk about what I wanted to do and how volunteers from Villa Carmen can be more involved there in the future. After the meeting got delayed several times, a group of other volunteers and I met with him last Wednesday.  He was very excited about what we were proposing and, after looking at his calendar for several minutes, he asks me if I could come in on Thursday. I quickly checked my watch to double check the date, yes it was Wednesday, he was indeed talking about tomorrow. I replied the only way I could, “Si, yo puedo hacerlo.”

If I tried to relate everything that has happened since that meeting in one blog post I would end up writing an essay that no one would actually read. To avoid that unfortunate situation I will be publishing another post in the near future about my debut as a guest lecturer at the elementary school!

Pilcopata school courtyard

Pilcopata school courtyard

Encounters of the Mammalian Kind

Running in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity in the rainforest is really not all that different than running in Virginia during the summer. Or so I was thinking to myself as I was zigzagging all over the road to avoid potholes and jumping over the occasional creek. Though only moments after that thought crossed my mind, I rounded a bend in the road and watched a long black tail disappear into the bushes. As I was trying to comprehend what I had just seen, this long, thin, black mammal darts into the middle of the road and stares at me as I run towards it. This mysterious animal looked like a cross between a ferret and a house cat and before I could get a better look, it followed its friend into the brush. Upon returning to the station I looked through the camera trap pictures of all mammal sightings in the area and discovered he animal I had seen was a Tayra. I had never heard of this animal before and immediately read this Wikipedia article on it. The most important point I took out of the reading was “Tayras are playful and easily tamed”. I now had a new project for this summer.

The amazing diversity of life in this region continues to astound me. While I have yet to see a jaguar in the field, the station has used camera traps mounted on game trails in the forest to document four of these large cats that routinely visit the property; along with ocelots, pumas, tapirs, peccarys, giant armadillos and a host of other large mammals.

A picture of a Tayra taken by one of the station's camera traps

A picture of a Tayra taken by one of the station’s camera traps

My next mammal encounter was our soon to be July 4th dinner. The Volunteer Coordinator at the station had decided that the best way to celebrate our nation’s independence while living in the Peruvian jungle was to have a pig roast. Starting with a live pig. At about 1pm he rolled into the station with our dinner walking around the back of a pickup truck. From there I helped with every (well, almost every) step until it reached the dinner table. I will spare the public some of the more graphic pictures of the preparation process, but I was taking mental notes incase this is something I ever need to do in the future. For example, did you know a hammer and machete are key tools in the process of preparing a pig? After three hours of roasting over a low fire, the pig was finally ready to be served. The moment it was moved from the fire to the sitting area, the entire population of Villa Carmen descended onto the roast like a flock of vultures; picking off pieces with bare hands and collectively receiving quite a few burnt fingers.

The final result of the pig roast

The final result of the pig roast

While possibly not the most traditional 4th of July, with the lack of fireworks and all, this is one Independence Day I will surely never forget!

Cancer Curing Frogs and Coral Snakes

You know how they say “everything is bigger in Texas”? Well I have never been to Texas, but I can tell you with certainty that everything is bigger in the tropics.  I have seen beetles the size of sparrows, humming birds the size of  blue birds, bamboo trees as thick as midsize oaks, moths that could pass as bats, and spiders that are larger, harrier and just more intimidating looking than I ever wanted to see. Every day I encounter species of insects, birds, reptiles, flowers and trees that I had not seen the day before.

To relate this back to my project, over the last three weeks we have found around 30 different species of frogs. My favorite so far have been the three species of poison dart frogs we have captured. There are just over 50 known species of frogs in the area and my goal is to create the most complete as possible field guide of amphibians for the station before I leave. This will help future researchers have a better understanding of amphibian biodiversity in the area, as well as provide another resource the station can use to cater towards ecotourists. The reason I was so excited about the dart frogs, besides their amazing photogenicity, is because we are sending one preserved specimen of each species to a scientist researching the chemical compounds in their skin. He has been looking into using the toxins from frogs in cancer medications. The compounds in skins of Dentrobates, or poison dart frogs, have been under heavy investigation in recent years to determine if they may have medical uses. The genus Ameerega, which is found in this area, has not been studied for this purpose before and we are very excited to see if the frogs we collect could help further the development of cancer treatments.

Ameerega macero

Ameerega macero

To round off a very species rich few days, the other night as I was sitting in the lab, someone outside gives an alarmed cry of “SNAKE!!!” The computer room and laboratory empty out as everyone goes to check out the source of this commotion. And right there, slithering into the tortoise pen, was a 4.5-5 foot long coral snake. After telling everyone to keep their distance, I followed the snake at a “safe distance” and preceded to take as many pictures as possible and then make sure it meandered its way off of the path so it couldn’t hurt anyone. Coral snakes rarely cause fatalities due to their small mouths making it challenging for them to envenomate people. Still, locals often kill coral snakes and look alike harmless snakes on site out of fear and misunderstandings.

Coral snake: Micrurus obscurus

Coral snake: Micrurus obscurus

With several weeks left in the field, I cannot wait to see what the jungle has in store for me next!

First week in the field

I have now been at my project site for a little over a week and every day presents more opportunities and experiences than I would have thought possible. As a quick recap of the research portion of my project, I am testing amphibians in the area for the presence of chytrid fungus, a disease that has been one of the leading factors in worldwide amphibian declines and extinctions. We are intensively looking for frogs right now in order to get 200 samples by June 26th so we can send them in to get the first batch of results. These results will tell us if the disease is present in the area, which it has been in the past, and what species seem to be carrying it the most. We have already noticed a reduction in the presence of one species of toad, Rhinella margaritifera, compared to what had been reported in the past. We have sampled several specimens of this species and the first round of test results will hopefully give us some indication of whether the fungus is present in this species.

Rhinella margaritifera

Based on preliminary observations, there seems to be a decline in Rhinella margaritifera populations

Frogs in this region are most active right before sunrise and right after sunset. I have not yet worked up the motivation to lead a 5-7am search, though one will happen at some point this week. So far, all of our surveys have been at night. The standard night survey for frogs is from 6-10pm. This means walking to where you want to start the survey by 6 and then searching along a trail or road for four hours trying to find frogs, and then tuning around and walking all the way back to the station. This searching method definitely has its ups and downs. On one hand, we often come back with ten or more specimens of several different species and we have the rare opportunity to transverse the Amazon jungle at night, which is an awe inspiring experience in itself. On the other hand, there are times when you have little or no success in finding frogs, your feet get extremely tired and the batteries in your headlamp, back up headlamp and back up back up flashlight all start to die. Ironically all three of those things happened in the same night.

Our other option for finding frogs is conducting leaf litter plots. This essentially consists of measuring out a 10X10 meter plot in the middle of the forest and crawling around on hands and knees combing over every square inch for frogs. We have attempted three of these plots and have yet to find one frog with this method. During our last plot I managed to get attacked by a multitude of ants which was not a fun experience!

Having now lived at the Villa Carmen biological research station for some time I have gotten to learn about the work of many of the researchers and staff here. Villa Carmen is one of three stations managed by ACCA, or the Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica. The other two are Wayqecha, where I stayed for the orientation portion of my project, in the cloud forest and Los Amigos in the Amazon lowlands.  ACCA chose to work in this area because it is the only place in the Andes where the cloud forest of 3200-4000 meters is so close to the lowland forests of 200 meters.  Villa Carmen is between the two at around 600 meters.  These three stations and the land managed by ACCA link several national parks to create biological corridors in the region to prevent deforestation and save species from extinction. However, there is more to achieving these goals than just preserving land. ACCA is also dedicated to education and research. They work with local communities to teach about the importance of conservation and provide grants to Peruvian students to conduct research at their stations. They also host scientists from all over the world to help create a greater pool of knowledge of this incredibly diverse area. According to a study published last year, the easternmost region of the Amazon, right where ACCA is working, has the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. This means more species of frogs, bats, birds, monkeys and plants than any other single area! At Villa Carmen alone there are 99 species of orchids that have recently been discovered but have yet to be given scientific names. Unfortunately deforestation is still occurring at an unbelievable rate and there are several examples of frog species that have gone extinct within a few years of being discovered.  This is just one of the many reasons why I feel so privileged to be working in this area at this point in time. In all likelihood, if I come back ten years from now I will encounter a drastically altered landscape and a huge reduction in species diversity.

We had to take a cable car across the river

Madre de Dios river

Arrival in paradise

As the van rolled through the gates and then down the long and narrow road to the station I tried to take in as much of the scenery as possible. On my right side was a roaring river boarded on each side by steep banks. On my left were horses in a field, then a thin patch of trees, then a flock of black birds with bright yellow tails flying along the road. As the van pulled up to the lodge I realized I would not be roughing it as much as I had expected. The recently renovated administrative building features an outdoor dining room and a roofed patio with rows of orchids, tree ferns and bromeliads hanging around the edges. Just as we stepped out of the van my group was greeted by a cacophonous cry followed with a flyover by three massive macaws, two red and one blue and yellow. The heat and humidity were the next to hit me. At nearly 90 degrees and close to 90% humidity by mid-day, this place will not let you forget that you are in the tropics! I am sure that everyone has their own ideas of what the Garden of Eden may look like, but my thoughts at this point were something along the lines of, “I have just landed in paradise.”

The dining hall/ administrative building with the dorms off to the right

The dining hall/ administrative building with the dorms off to the right

The froggers of 2013 split up at Wayqecha. Some stayed in the cloud forest, some headed down to San Pedro at mid elevation, and Indira and I went all the way down the mountain to Villa Carmen. Allesandro also joined us for one night and lead us on our first night transect in the rainforest. In four hours we caught 19 frogs! However; the most exciting finds of our night were two plethodontid salamanders. There are only three species of salamanders in all of Peru, just one lives in this area, and we found two in the same night! There are biologists who work in these forests for years without ever seeing one of these. Unfortunately, since this species is so rarely studied, Alessandro instructed me to kill, preserve and take a DNA sample of one of our specimens.

ALE_9731

For the next two weeks we will be sampling as many frogs as possible before Allesandro returns to bring all of our swabs back to Cusco to test for chytrid fungus. Once he runs the test we will have our first look at the distribution of the disease at Villa Carmen.

While I have many more stories to share from my first few days here, I will save those for later posts.

Be sure to check out the photo galleries for a view of the area!

Wayqecha

On Wednesday June 5 the froggers of 2013 left Cusco for the biological research station Wayqecha. It was a five hour van ride on some of the scariest roads I have ever seen. I was torn between looking up at the spectacular views and looking off the side of the cliff to certain death below. To make a long story short, we survived.

Upon first approach to the station it was quite obvious why this type of environment is called a cloud forest. We were literally driving in desert like conditions for 4.5 hours until we suddenly hit a cloud and the vegetation turned from sparse scrubs to a thick, wet forest filed with mosses and vines. The station is in Manu national park and was established seven years ago by the ACCA (the Peruvian counterpart to the ACA). While birding is probably the greatest tourist attraction at this station, the leader of the frogging expedition, Alessandro Catenazzi, has been studying frogs in this area since before the station even opened. Our entire team of 6 froggers and a few other students are at the station here to learn the techniques we will be using to study chytrid fungus this summer. After the first two days, I quickly realized that the condition of the South American frog populations is much more critical than I originally thought. To paraphrase Alessandro’s presentation on the research he has conducted in the past, “the reason we are studying frogs that are only somewhat susceptible to the fungus is because all of the frogs that are extremely susceptible are already extinct or missing from large parts of their historical habitats.” It is sobering looking through recent field guides and seeing the small red dates next to so many beautiful endemic species listing the last time they were observed in the wild.

With the research I will be doing this summer we are hoping to get a better understanding of the spread of the disease into lower elevations where it was thought that it would not occur due to the higher temperatures, but has recently been discovered. One of the other projects that members of the group will be conducting is investigating a species that may act as a reservoir for the fungus, spreading it to other frogs without actually getting sick from it, therefore causing the disappearance of several other species. The project that I find most interesting that will hopefully be completed this summer is inoculating frogs with a beneficial bacteria that protects from the chytrid fungus. This method has been used successfully in saving a species of frogs in the Sierra Nevada from extinction. Currently the bacteria cultures are stuck in customs so hopefully they will make it through with enough time to run the trials.

Tomorrow I leave for Villa Carmen to start on my project down there.

Como es, no?