UMMZ Herpetology in the Amazon

The Herpetology Division at the University of Michigan has just returned from a scientific expedition to the Peruvian Amazon. Our team included researchers from the University of Michigan, four Peruvian institutions, and the Western Australia Department of Parks and Wildlife. Four University of Michigan graduate students participated in the expedition. Our objectives were to collect baseline data about amphibian and reptile diversity in one of the world’s most species-rich tropical rainforests.


2016 UMMZ herpetology expedition Peru team. From left: Valia Herrera, Andrea Gutiérrez, Alison Davis Rabosky, Oscar Huacarpuma, Mark Cowan, Iris Holmes, Dan Rabosky, Joanna Larson, Erick Vargas, Consuelo Alarcón, Mike Grundler, Mauricio Iglesias, Rudi von May, César Macahuache, Pascal Title. Not shown: Juan Carlos Cusi.

Data from this project will help us address key issues involving the ecology, evolution, and conservation of lowland rainforest faunas. Researchers involved with the expedition are interested in a broad range of questions, including the causes of high tropical species diversity, the evolution of warning coloration in coral snakes and their mimics, how and why species evolve to use new ecological resources (e.g., new types of prey, new habitats, etc), and even the ecology of the intestinal “microbiome” in reptiles. In addition, our work has a major applied conservation angle: we are building a permanent database of biodiversity information that will allow us to monitor the effects of future climate change and landscape modification on tropical reptiles and amphibians. We hope that researchers will be able to use these data in concert with historical data from the Amazon basin to identify rapid changes in the health of natural communities. We are able to ask such questions as: are we failing to detect species that should be in our study region, based on previous research? Can we apply tools from molecular biology to the samples we’ve collected to detect the early signals of diseases or parasites that might ultimately lead to population declines and extinction?


Horned frog, Ceratophrys cornuta

In practical terms, these expeditions involve lots of sweat and mud, with a healthy dose of biting and stinging insects thrown in. We climb over, under, and through vegetation of all sorts. We walk hundreds and hundreds of miles through the rainforest at night, scouring the vegetation with our headlamps, hoping for one of those mind-bending moments when the lichen-encrusted twig in front of you suddenly metamorphoses into a perfectly-camouflaged tree snake. We hack our way through vine and bamboo thickets to set traps (often, nothing more than a bucket in the ground) for animals that are almost impossible to find any other way. We wallow and wade through palm-lined swamps in pursuit of mating frogs.

Most disciplines within the life sciences have seen dramatic advances in the scale and scope of data collection, driven by technologies that include genomics, robotics, computer vision, and machine learning. In the museum community, we have benefitted extensively from the development of these and other technologies.

But to ask even the most basic natural history questions about reptiles and amphibians – e.g., “what animals are here”, and “how does this animal live” – you are effectively stuck with the same brute-force approach to data collection that the earliest Amazonian naturalists would have used. For us, a pound of flesh given in the service of science has very nearly the same value that it would have had in the days of Henry Bates, Fritz Müller, and Alexander von Humboldt. It is true that in the modern era – an era of transcriptomics, digital x-rays, and microCT imaging – we can do far more with our specimens than these early naturalists could have imagined. But all of these technologies are irrelevant unless you can find the actual animals in nature. And finding these animals is hard, dirty, sweaty, frequently bloody work. And it takes time. Lots and lots of time.


UMMZ PhD student Iris Holmes hauling a heavy load of pitfall traps through floodplain forest

The natural history of many reptiles and amphibians remains poorly known, all the more so for species from rarely-visited or hard-to-access tropical regions that often are associated with the highest overall species diversity. We collect voucher specimens and DNA samples in order to address the most basic questions one could ask about biological diversity. What species are here? How do they differ from other species elsewhere? What are the evolutionary relationships between species? What is their geographic distribution? We also collect ecological data on every reptile and amphibian we find, including habitat, diet, and activity. These data – including biological specimens and DNA samples – will be archived at the Museo de Historia Natural (UNMSM) in Lima and in the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. The only tried and true way to ensure that our data will be useful for researchers 10, 20, or 100 years in the future is to leave “hard copy” biological material in the institutions whose mission it is to steward that information.

In the coming weeks, we’ll profile more aspects of this and other work from the U-M biodiversity research community.

Expedition participants hailed from the the University of Michigan, the Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios, the Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco / Museo de Historia Natural, the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos / Museo de Historia Natural, the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and the Western Australia Department of Parks and Wildlife.

posted by danrabosky

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