Inclusivity through taxonomy

By Luther Millison

When we think about barriers to science, Jargon-filled technical writings and multi-level academic institutions may come to mind. But what about taxonomy? Taxonomy is the naming and classification of organisms. Scientific names are uniform to all but have you heard any common names that are not in your own language? What about how to decide a name for a new species when different species have different naming levels based on their prominence or usage value in societies.

Uniform names for species, be it scientific or common, are crucial for science communication especially when it comes to conservation efforts. Information such as human-wildlife interactions, historical range, observed behaviors, and human uses can all be gained from partnerships between communities and conservation scientists. But how is a local indigenous population supposed to communicate with scientists when scientists have little to no documentation of culture-specific folk taxonomy?

Joint PhD candidate at North West University (South Africa) and Hasselt University (Belgium) Fortunate Phaka is working on this problem. He along with Edward Netherlands, Donnavan Kruger, and Louis Du Preez published a paper last year. Their paper, Folk Taxonomy and Indigenous names for frogs in Zululand, South Africa documents their process collaborating with people in Zululand to document current Folk taxonomy for 58 frog species and standardize guidelines for future taxonomy in the isiZulu language, (and possibly other local languages).

So, how did this process start and what was it like? I interviewed soon-to-be Dr. Phaka about the spark for this study and how it got moving. Here’s what he had to say:

“In South Africa, a lot of people say culture is bad for wildlife or ‘people of color don’t care about wildlife’. However, for the majority of South Africans especially people of color, wildlife is intertwined with culture. There is no way we can be so close with wildlife and be bad for it.”

When he looked into cultural names for South African frogs, most species names were only in Afrikaans, English, and Latin. This leaves out the 9 Indigenous National languages of South Africa. After this, Phaka and his Colleagues began work on an English and isiZulu field guide based on what the community wanted to know about frogs right away. While developing this field guide, they began delving into the process of documenting isiZulu taxonomy.

KwaZulu Province, where this study took place, lies on the upper eastern coast of South Africa.

Phaka and colleagues were starting fieldwork for this study in a very rural community surrounding Ndumo Nature Reserve. People from the community wondered what they were doing. These people knew about frogs and it turned out they wanted to be part of Phaka’s study. There were also two park rangers from the game reserve who were interested and wanted to be part of the study. Through these simple interactions and recommendations by participants, Phaka was able to recruit 13 interviewees for the study. These participants were all administered a questionnaire at an amphibian diversity workshop in Tembe Elephant Park. Participants were shown reference photos of the species in their areas and asked about the possible isiZulu names for those species. Because there were a few instances where one name was being used for several different species in the KwaZulu-Natal region, the interviewees had to establish some new ones. When the participants disagreed on a name or the reasoning for a name, they would deliberate until they reached an agreeable conclusion. Through this method (the full guidelines can be found in Phaka’s paper), new indigenous names were assigned to species previously sharing names and a new naming structure combining indigenous and modern taxonomy was put into practice.

A Scientist in Phaka’s position could easily take the credit for these new names and essentially steal this important intellectual property, but Phaka and his co-authors have been mindful to not appropriate any of this information. Phaka says, “when dealing with cultures, you are dealing with intellectual property. I want to be very careful to not steal any ideas/cultural knowledge. Luckily, new laws and university policies have helped make sure I’m not a bio-pirate. And South Africa’s department of environmental affairs is very helpful when it comes to culture and wildlife”.

A lot of people appreciate this research “especially members of previously excluded communities, they love the initiative and wonder how to help” says Phaka. “On the opposite side however, there are some seasoned scientists who want research to be done their way or no way.” Phaka calls these people ‘the gatekeepers of science’. “According them what I’m doing is not a scientific process and the indigenous names will not be scientifically acceptable.”

Despite the critics, Phaka stands by his work as an important way to take what has been neglected and show it to the world. In doing so, this science also helps represent and preserve South African and indigenous cultures while increasing the communication essential to conservation. Hopefully, studies like this can be adapted to promote and include communication with all kinds of communities for the benefit of conservation around the world.

Future plans

Fortunate M. Phaka will soon finish his Joint PhD at North West University and Hasselt University. He plans to Continue Indigenous taxonomy in the 8 other South African languages.

Phaka and colleagues’ paper can be found at:

And you can read more about Phaka and colleagues’ field guide here:

India ink egg masses

By Luther Millison

When I started this piece, I thought I was just going to draw one type of amphibian egg. I accidentally differentiated the spacing a little between the first and second clump and decided I would roll with it. Though improbable in the real world, I thought it would be cool to see Wood Frog, Spotted Salamander, and Northern Leopard Frog eggs all on the same twig in a vernal pool. So, with this piece I mean to represent that: Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) on the bottom, Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) in the middle, and Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)

Art by Luther Millison. Shared with permission.

I enjoy working in this medium and also think it lends itself to this piece well. When I see amphibian eggs I immediately think of dark ink, and I also feel some complimentary nature between wet brush strokes and the wet jelly that surrounds these eggs. I hope you enjoy this piece.

Portraits of the nighttime chorus

Natalie Albrecht is a Spring 2020 graduate of the Rubenstein School and is an Environmental Studies minor. Her art project for Field Herpetology consisted of 4 watercolor and pen drawings of some of her favorite “nighttime chorus” species, including a spring peeper, wood frog, American toad, and a green frog.

Natalie writes,

“Some of my earliest and most cherished memories are of lying in bed at night with my windows open, fresh warm air coming through my window screens, and the hum of the nighttime chorus filling the room.”

“Spring peeper” by Natialie Albrecht. Shared with the artist’s permission.

“During the day, I played in the woods searching for critters and treasures and always came home when dusk began to settle and the chorus began.”

“Wood frog” by Natialie Albrecht. Shared with the artist’s permission.

“Spring peepers, wood frogs, American toads, and green frogs were the calls I could identify first.”

“American toad” by Natialie Albrecht. Shared with the artist’s permission.

“The American toad’s long musical trill; the spring peeper’s like the jingling of sleigh bells; the wood frog’s soft, duck-like cackling; the green frog like an un-tuned banjo string.”

“Green frog” by Natialie Albrecht. Shared with the artist’s permission.

“The meaning of this chorus has changed for me throughout my life. When I was young, it was bell to go home and my what put me to sleep at night. When I moved to Vermont, it became my promise that warm weather was finally coming. And when I went far away, it’s what I’d listen to when I was missing home late at night.”

Hoping this resonates with others who may be far from home, or just craving the familiarity or simpler times of childhood. If you keep your ears open, the sounds might just give you what you need.

Bone fluorescence: the secret language of chameleons?

By Jaxson Hussey

It’s All About Perspective

Most of us see the world relatively the same way; we see in color, have depth perception, and an ability to adjust our vision so that we are able to see in low-light conditions. Often, we may assume that the other species see the world in the same way that we do, but more and more we are learning that this is not always true. Sure, most of us know that dogs have some degree of colorblindness, as well as the ability to see in the dark much better than we can. However, some animals such as frogs have the ability to see much better than we do. This perspective of the world around us can be very difficult to imagine, and so studying these perspectives can give us insight as to how other species view our world. Additionally, we know that sexual selection and natural selection can sometimes act in opposition of one another. Basically, this means that some traits that may help individuals attract attention from potential mates can also attract more attention from predators. So how do animals overcome this problem?

Pictured above: The bright colors and severe contrast of the superb fairywren (Malurus cyaneus) help them attract mates. However, this also makes them stand out to predators (2019).

            Well, natural selection will always reject features that cause an increase in predation. However, given that species see the world in different ways, is it possible to evolve so that these features aren’t obvious to everyone else?

            This is what is known as private communication. This is almost like a Morse code, that only other members of the same species can understand. As you can imagine, private communication is not well understood because it is not intended to be obvious to other species. The article “Widespread bone-based fluorescence in chameleons” (Protzël et al, 2017) is based on a discovery of fluorescence in chameleons. It is known that chameleons have very distinctive ridges on their skulls, yet we don’t really know what for. However, these scientists discovered that chameleons exhibit fluorescence along these ridges from the bone tubercles, which suggests that maybe these ridges could be involved in some type of private communication among individual chameleons.

Original photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Scherz exhibiting the fluorescence seen on chameleons under UV light (2018).

How it Works

            There is a common misconception that chameleons are seeing this in UV light. While chameleons can and do see UV, the ridges on their heads are actually emitting blue-green light which is outside of the UV spectrum. This happens due to a process in which UV light is absorbed by the bone, and then emitted again as a blue-green color. This is caused by the tubercles that are formed on the bone. Tubercles are a bone structure that protrude upward from the skull, and have a cylindrical structure. The tubercles push upward on the skin, displacing everything in the cell around the tubercle, creating a sort of translucent window. This then allows UV to come in, and then come back out as blue-green light. This is the basis for the hypothesis that chameleons could be potentially be using the anatomy of their skulls and these bone tubercles to privately communicate. This fluorescence is widespread among species of chameleons. Additionally, there is a species of chameleon called Trioceros cristatus, which lacks these translucent windows along its ridges, but the coloring of the skin along the skull ridges of T. cristatus is the same as the color emitted by the bone tubercles of other chameleon species that do fluoresce. This could be an adaptation that allows T.cristatus to have the same coloration as the species that fluoresce without actually fluorescing, and potentially have this color be more prominent. So, there is a suggestion that somehow chameleons are benefitting from the coloration along their skull ridges.

Original photo displaying the skull structure of chameleons that fluoresce, courtesy of Dr. Mark Scherz (2018).

What’s Next?

            Let me be clear; the hypothesis that chameleons are using this bone fluorescence for private communication is not yet proven. All that we know is that the chameleons fluoresce, and we can demonstrate that this phenomenon is widespread. However, we don’t really know why the chameleons exhibit this feature and what the feature means. It is also entirely possible that this characteristic has evolved as a result of something else and is a sort of side effect that really has no meaning at all. We know that the chameleons have evolved to have these tubercles, so the fact that they fluoresce could be a side effect of the tubercles themselves, and that the tubercles are in fact much more significant than the fluorescence that they create.

            Even though it is not yet possible to discern the exact meaning of this fluorescence, or if it has any meaning at all, this research has left several pathways for research in the future. If we can figure out if this bone fluorescence is a form of private communication in chameleon species, then it can help us to further understand how other species see our world and can give us a window into how private communication is utilized in nature among different species.

What frog heat tolerance can tell us about climate change

By Gretta Stack

Phyllomedusa camba: a species with a high tolerance to heat (CTmax), which could be advantageous in adapting to climate change. (photo by: Rudolf von May)

Rudolf von May grew up in Peru and was always curious about the diversity of organisms around him. His family took trips to the Amazon rainforest and he was amazed. Surrounded by diverse landscapes and people, he eventually discovered he wanted to be a scientist. Sadly, many of these beautiful places where he found his love of science are now threatened by climate change and may not be around forever. Von May has spent years studying thermal physiological traits in Amazonian frogs and how they could be affected by climate change.

Why Care?

Tropical rainforests are home to the most biodiverse plant and animal communities on earth. Climate change is threatening these tropical rainforest habitats and could cause some species to even go extinct. In the Amazon, increasing heat waves and extreme weather events are leading to intense droughts and fires. What will happen to these communities in the future? Which species will survive and which will go extinct, as global temperatures continue to rise? The story is more complex than it may seem.

I had the pleasure of talking with Rudolf von May over a phone interview to learn more about his research. As he states in his paper, there is an assumption that closely-related species that occupy the same niches will have similar responses to climate change. This seems to make sense at first. Frogs that are related and live the same types of habitats should have the same response to a changing climate, right? However, von May’s research shows that even closely-related species can have different tolerance levels to extreme hot and cold temperatures. Understanding how species respond to climate change can help us conserve biodiversity in the future.

Leaf-litter plot survey (photo by: Jenny Jacobs)

A Study

Rudolf von May and collaborators conducted a study that focused on how frogs in the Amazon respond to average warming and cooling (Thermal physiological traits in tropical lowland amphibians: Vulnerability to climate warming and cooling, 2019). They studied 56 different species of Amazonian frogs between 2012 and 2017 at the Los Amigos Biological Station in the Madre de Dios region, Peru. They captured 384 individual frogs in the field and brought them to the lab to measure their heat and cold tolerance levels (critical thermal minimum/CTmin. and critical thermal maximum/CTmax.). They measured the thermal tolerance levels by placing frogs in a warm bath or a cold bath and measured their righting response. The righting response is the moment when a frog cannot right itself from being placed upside down for longer than 5 seconds. They also collected environmental temperature data using data loggers for two forest microhabitats (leaf litter and understory vegetation) in different forests where the frogs are found.


They found that, in fact, there were a few trends in tolerances among frog families based on body size. For example, tree frogs and microhylid frogs tolerated warmer temperatures than other families. Frogs in the Strabomantidae family were found to be at the highest risk of thermal stress. “This finding is both significant and concerning at the same time, because this family of frogs has more than 700 species—which is about 10% of the number of described species of amphibians”, von May said. However, one third of the species in the study showed differences in tolerances between individuals within the same family, which shows that these thermal tolerance traits can be plastic and can change, even over an individual’s lifetime. This new research on heat and cold tolerance levels can help us predict which species will persist and which will suffer in a warmer climate in the future.

Good News

Luckily, there seems to be some good news from von May et al.’s findings. While some species will suffer dramatically with a 3°C increase in average temperature, many species have high thermal maximums and therefore, could be tolerant to climate warming. Von May et al.  found that only about 4-5 % of the 56 lowland frog species they studied are really in trouble. This means that some lowland frog species, such as Phyllomedusa camba (pictured on page 1.), will be able to adapt as global temperatures increase.

Looking Towards the Future

With the looming threat of climate change, it is important that conservation efforts are strategic. For example, when designating a protected area, the thermal tolerance traits of the species that live there must be studied to determine which populations are most vulnerable. The question is, if closely-related species respond to climate change differently, how do we go about conserving and protecting a specific species? Von May believes that to protect amphibians in general, the best thing to do is protect habitat. He said that disturbed habitats can only support a small subset of species. Meaning that habitat degradation, regardless of climate change, can pose a serious threat to amphibians.

Ceratophrys cornuta (photo by: Jenny Jacobs)

In addition to habitat protection, to protect biodiversity in the Amazon and around the globe, more research and better data are needed. According to von May, the weather data needed to study temperature tolerance can be limited. The data used for research are from weather stations, which are usually many meters above the ground. To study lowland frog species, the temperature at ground level must be measured, so it is best to collect the data with data loggers or manually on the ground instead of using data from weather stations. Even when weather station data are relevant, there are still gaps in the data because there are places in the Amazon and other places on Earth that are so remote that they lack weather stations.

With more research and better data, we can predict which species are most vulnerable to climate change and understand how we can best protect them. We cannot let any of these beautiful, little creatures go extinct.

Noblella losmigos (photo by: Rudolf von May)

Interested in reading more? Find the article here.

Strawberry poison frogs? Color me intrigued!

By Ben Upton

A colorful strawberry poison dart frog. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Marshal Hedin.

Poison dart frogs are among the most colorful groups of species in the world, with body colors that encompass every shade of the rainbow, and strawberry poison frogs (Oophaga pumilio) are no exception. Typically, strawberry poison frog populations consist of a single color morph, meaning that all of the frogs that live in an area are the same color. But in some regions, like in the Bocas Del Toro region of Panama, there are populations of these colorful critters in which multiple color morphs live together and come in contact with one another. This occurrence is exactly what made ecologist and PhD Student Yusan Yang of the University of Pittsburgh so interested in these frogs.

              Yusan, while not specifically a frog researcher by trade, is interested in these frogs because of their distinct variation in appearance. The differences in color among individuals in this species allow Yusan to study whether individuals select mates based on a preference for one color over another. Yusan considers herself a question driven scientist rather than a species driven scientist, and currently these poison frogs are the best critters available to help her try to find answers to her question. What is her question exactly? How does sexual selection drive evolution? In other words, Yusan wants to try and determine how mate choice in these frogs could influence long-term changes in the species.

              One of the main questions addressed in Yusan’s work is this: In an environment where frogs of two distinctly different color morphs live together, how do females choose which males to mate with? When these frogs were studied in a lab setting, researchers found that frogs of a certain color morph preferred to mate with individuals of that same color morph. Furthermore, when the frogs were presented with mate choices that were all of the same color morph, they were more likely to choose the mate that had the shade most similar to their own. Why does this matter, you ask? Well, think about it this way. If a population of strawberry poison frogs has two distinct color morphs in the population (red frogs and blue frogs) and females exclusively choose to mate with males of the same color morph, eventually the two color morphs, due to a lack of breeding between them, could eventually become two distinct species. This process of speciation through sexual selection is exactly the kind of process Yusan wants to study. The problem with this process is that mate preference doesn’t always predict mate choice. In other words, just because red frogs chose to mate with other red frogs in a lab setting doesn’t mean that the same will occur in the wild, a behavior that Yusan and colleagues are still perplexed by.              

In Yusan’s study, in fact, two sites were studied and only one of the sites showed a correlation between mate color and mate choice. This disparity between lab results and the results of this study done in the wild might mean that speciation is actually not likely to occur in this population. This is because gene flow (or DNA passed from one generation to the next) in a population is determined by mate choice, not mate preference, and if these frogs don’t exclusively mate with individuals of their own color morph, gene flow will continue to keep these two color morphs as their own, single, colorful little species.

The plague of microplastics

Researchers have found a method to flush microplastics accumulated in apex predators, but to what extent?

By Natalie Albrecht

Figure 1. Chris Jordan, “Midway”

Images of floating garbage patches and trash-filled beaches are the poster children of many environmental movements. These apocalyptic images come as a disheartening shock to many people; birds with stomachs full of plastic, seals with plastic can toppers twisted around their neck, beautiful islands cloaked in trash. Floating garbage patches and littered waterways are the tip of the iceberg. The 8 million tons of plastic that is discarded in our waterways annually eventually ends up in the ocean. As plastic is tossed around in our waterways, it breaks apart into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes microplastics as small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life. The impacts of microplastics are largely unknown, what we do know however, is they can physically damage organs and leach hazardous chemicals in wildlife species, as well as humans. Scientists and health officials around the world are continually working to understand the effects of microplastics and ways to mitigate microplastics.

Figure 2. Example of microplastics (plastic pieces under 5mm.)

Dr. Mauricio González Jáuregui at the Laboratorio de Contaminantes Orgánicos Persistentes in Mexico, also known as the Persistent Organic Pollutants Laboratory, is a scientist who’s dedicated much of his research to microplastics. In 2019, Dr. González Jáuregui completed research to test a method that could remove ingested microplastics from wildlife with the method article titled “Stomach Flushing Technique Applied to Quantify Microplastics in Crocodilians”. Dr. González Jáuregui strategically picked crocodiles as the test subject due to the process in which microplastics enter our environment.  Once microplastics are present in rivers, streams, and oceans, our smallest organisms ingest them, from salamanders and frogs, to fish, and become a part of our trophic system. As one animal eats another, microplastics and the twins they leech, accumulate in the food chain. Thus, whole ecosystems are compromised, effecting the food we eat, the soils we grow our food in, and the water we drink. Dr. González Jáuregui and his team chose to test their stomach pumping method on crocodiles since they are an apex predator. In an email interview, Dr. González Jáuregui, explained, “[microplastics] constitute a great risk for the conservation of populations of wildlife species, especially of the top species in their ecosystems since these species tend to accumulate and magnify all these compounds, registering the greater effects on [their] health…”.

Dr. González Jáuregui and his team set out to find a way to quantify microplastics in organisms and find an effective way to flush them out of an organism’s system. The methods involved in this study included capturing 20 crocodile test subjects, separating them into groups of 4-5, and introducing 1 capsule with 42 microplastic fragments to each crocodile all in the same period of time. In following days, in 24 hour increments, Dr. González Jáuregui and his team would flush the contents of the crocodile’s stomachs by inserting a short PVC pipe into the mouth and then pumping water into the stomach through a hose. The pipe was then removed, in which the crocodiles then regurgitated water, as well as other things accumulated in the stomach. Microplastics were then separated with sieves and sent to lab to ID.On day 1 of the experiment, the stomach of the first group of crocodiles were flushed, in which 89% of the microplastics were recovered. Dr. González Jáuregui and his team successfully recovered the majority of microplastics in the first group of crocodiles. However, the percent of plastic recovered negatively correlated with the time the microplastics sat in the body of the crocodiles. As time went on, less and less microplastics were recovered. On day 2, 3, and 4, the percent of microplastics recovered were 84.2%, 65.2%, and 62.8%. Overall, 75.3% percent of the total plastic fragments were recovered, the remaining 24.7% was presumed to this still be in transit in the crocodile’s intestines by the end of day 4 and have the potential to leach toxins in the crocodiles.

This experiment is a prime example of the work being done to find ways to assess the quantity of microplastics in organisms. In this study, it was found that as time goes on, microplastics become harder to remove from an organism’s system, which was founds through feeding microplastics directly to apex predators. However, microplastics enter our trophic system way earlier than apex predators in many cases. Microplastics often enter at the start of our food chain with our smallest organisms, and the toxins released from microplastics increase along the food chain as one animal eats another, as well as through direct plastic consumption. This process can be any period of time, from one day, to 80 years, the average lifespan of a crocodile. Therefore, microplastics would be mostly irremovable from the majority of organism who have years of accumulated toxins. Accumulation of toxins from microplastics in apex predators is a serious threat to both species health as well as environmental and human health. More information and research is needed to understand the true impacts of microplastics, as well as what their presence is in different ecosystems, and how to mitigate them, as Dr. González Jáuregui explained “Much remains to be studied and it is essential to know the real impact of plastics on the endocrine and immune systems of wildlife”.  

“…the primary message to all is that we should reduce the use of single-use plastic packaging, extend the shelf life of all commonly used plastic utensils, and above all, properly handle and dispose of all waste…” Dr. González Jáuregui explained.  The main takeaway that scientists and environmentalists, such as Dr. González Jáuregui, hope to instill is to be more conscious of plastic use and disposal. Some simple, every-day things you can do to reduce your plastic use is to use a reusable water bottle, avoid the use of plastic straws and utensils, and recycle discarded plastic whenever you can. Every organism is, and will continue to be impacted by plastic and microplastics, from our smallest amphibians, to our apex predators, to even ourselves. Our natural world is plagued by plastic and the toxic environment it creates. Do the part you can to reduce single-plastic use, and to prevent plastics from ending up in our ecosystems.

Amphibitheater gladiators: an eat or be eaten world

By Beth Carroll

Dr. Lindsey Thurman standing at the edge of an amphibitheater in Mount Rainer National Forest, where species co-occurrence data was collected.

I think that ecology is just like a stereotypical middle school lunchroom– eighth graders bully sixth graders and within each clique, there is competition. Cafeteria monitors can detect the roles of each 12-year-old, but unlike middle school, determining how wild animals interact with one another is hard. It is especially hard if the animals are millimeters in length and spend most of their life burrowed under logs & leaves. These animals are salamanders and frogs, specifically those in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. They emerge from the ground and conglomerate at isolated, mountainous pools of snowmelt once a year in order to breed; this is when they are considered “easiest” to find. Determining how these frogs and salamanders compete and predate on one another is imperative for modeling how these sensitive communities will react to a changing climate.

Our story starts with two scientists who shared a mutual curiosity about the secret lives of animals – how species interact when people are not around and how these interactions shape each species’ footprint on the landscape. Drs. Lindsey Thurman and Allison Barner met early in their PhD programs at a workshop organized to bring budding scientists from different universities, programs, and disciplines together to tackle the big questions in biodiversity science. They started their collaboration on a marine biodiversity project, something Dr. Thurman, an amphibian ecologist by trade, describes as “way outside of my wheelhouse”. After completing that project, the two intrepid researchers banded together once again; this time Dr. Barner, who studies seashore tide pools, was out of her wheelhouse. The two met biweekly – if not weekly – for the next four years, immersing themselves in conversations about ecology, animal behavior and interaction, and how to properly describe these interactions.

Typically, most amphibian behavior studies are done in a controlled lab setting. The argument is that researchers may not be able to witness certain behaviors when visiting amphibians on their own turf. The amphibians are incredibly elusive – similar finding a needle in a haystack, if the haystack was liquid and the needle can run away. In the laboratory-based studies, “you collect eggs or larvae and you bring them into a controlled setting, and you take data on them as they’re swimming around in an aquarium,” describes Dr. Thurman. This methodology similar to going to Shamu’s tank at SeaWorld in order to study orcas – when animals are removed from the wild and put in a tank, their natural behavior may change and make interpretation of observations challenging.

So, Dr. Thurman commenced her seasons in the field, hiking to these remote breeding grounds in Mount Rainier National Park. She systematically determined who was present in the arena, then used these data to see if the models could accurately predict how each species is interacting. As it turns out, the models are not very good at their jobs due to the dynamism of interactions that predator-prey species have – one is constantly attempting to avoid the other.

A hand holding a frog

Description automatically generated
The notorious top predator in the amphibitheaters: the rough-skinned newt, seen here in amplexus, the mating position. Photo by Lindsey Thurman.


Models that conservation biologists have been using to infer competitive and predator-prey interactions from their footprint on the landscape have historically been fairly inaccurate. These models are imperative for understanding how a species may respond to climate change – as temperatures change, home ranges may too. Scientists currently believe that these climate change-caused range shifts are mediated by species interactions, thus necessitating the ability to quantify these interactions. In other words, if we don’t know how organisms interact with each other, we will not know where they may move in response to a warming climate.

Additionally, these models are used by conservation biologists to determine how to best manage an ecosystem in the face of climate change, shaping how all people interact with the land. Inaccurate species interaction models can be dangerous; wildlife and land managers are unable to make educated decisions when their estimations are inaccurate. However, there’s still use to this data – a poor model is better than no model; continued assessment of species interaction is indispensable for improving such models.


This study assumes that each pond is a closed community, and each frog or salamander stays in their original pond. According to Dr. Thurman, that assumption likely isn’t true. “we know that’s not necessarily the case, these animals do metamorphose and disperse, some up to five kilometers.” These organisms are constantly interacting across space and time – it is not restricted to just one moment at one pond. Dr. Thurman notes that “when you’re just using snapshots of their presence and absence at one location at one time point, it creates a lot of uncertainty within these network models.” In other words, I’ve never watched James Cameron’s “Titanic”, but I’ve watched the trailer and seen the memes: a few snapshots of the whole. I have a basic understanding of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s love, but a lot of detail, nuance, and connections are overlooked with this methodology.

So, the researchers analyzed competitive and predator-prey interactions at increasing spatial scales, which helped reveal some bias. This shows that when thinking about species interactions, scale matters. Nuances in predator-prey and competitive interactions can be blurred if zoomed too far in or lost in the details if viewed too widely. Similar to many things in life, the picture gets clearer when you take a few steps back.


In a changing climate and global system, it is imperative to know how natural communities’ function. These models are what conservation managers use to make decisions. If populations shift as a result of climate change, managers must know the intricacies of the daily amphibian duels in order to preserve their population numbers.

If these amphibians are lost from the ecosystem, it could lead to a collapse of the ecosystem – similar to removing the middle of a Jenga tower, reducing structural integrity. The bottom of the tower – the algae and plant matter the larval amphibians graze on – become more stable and are able to proliferate without predation. The top of the tower – the birds, snakes, and fishes who ate the amphibians – fall apart due to a lack of food. Unlike Jenga, ecosystems are much harder to reassemble. Accurate population models are vitally important for preventing this Jenga tower from collapsing, especially when protecting the ecosystem from the harms of climate change.


Thurman, L.L., A. K. Barner, T. S. Garcia, T. Chestnut. (2019). Testing the link between species interactions and species co-occurrence in a trophic network. Ecography, 42, 1658-1670.


Thurman, Lindsay. Personally taken photographs.

Herpetology comics

Sophie Kogut is a Spring 2020 graduate of the University of Vermont. Sophie turned to humor for this project, and skillfully integrated herpetology concepts, art, and comedy. We hope these bring you a chuckle, or that your learn something new!

The Watering Hole
In this scene, an artistically liberal green tree frog is shown sitting in a puddle of spilled beer. This demonstrates that frogs (and other amphibians) do not drink via their mouths. Instead, many amphibians adopt a particular water conserving conformation, which involves flattening their underbellies against a moist surface in order to absorb water through their skin; this frog is transitioning into that position. Some species, including many toads, have a segment of skin near their pelvic region that is specially adapted for this purpose, called a drinking patch.
Who is in My Bathtub?
In this scene, an unsuspecting mole comes home to find a visitor taking advantage of the amenities in his home. The culprit is a spotted salamander, the largest of the 3 species of mole salamanders in Vermont. These amphibians earn the designation of mole salamander because they overwinter in the tunnels and burrows dug by other animals, including moles. The salamander here has decided to overwinter in the tunnel of a mole and use his bathtub. The mole is confused about why the salamander is in his house.
Happy Mother’s Day
            In this final scene, a female copperhead snake is seen talking to a smooth green snake. The smooth green snake remarks that the baby copperheads look just like their mother; the female copperhead retorts that not only do they share the same looks, but also all of their genetic material. This is an allusion to the fact that some copperheads reproduce via parthenogenesis, or a form of asexual reproduction where an egg develops without fertilization; many reptiles, amphibians, and birds are known to reproduce in this way. Offspring produced via parthenogenesis are genetic clones of the female.  Many species, including the copperhead, are able to switch between parthenogenesis and reproduction via fertilization.

Herps: the heart of the ecosystem

Sarah Clarke is a recent graduate of UVM’s Rubenstein School, and is a true lover of herps.

She writes, “I decided to paint this because I love herps, not to be cheesy or anything. I also think these lower trophic levels play a huge role and are the heart of ecosystems, yet many people don’t even realize it. Eastern red-backed salamanders can have greater biomasses than birds, wood frogs can freeze themselves solid, and spotted salamander embryos can have symbiotic relationships with algae. These really are fascinating creatures! “

“This is an acrylic painting of an anatomical heart that is painted as a cross section of a tree trunk. On the extended branches there are frog eggs, spotted salamander eggs (characterized by the green tint of algae), and a wood frog. The frog eggs do not have an outer gel layer like the salamander eggs. There is also a spotted salamander, ring-necked snake, and eastern red-backed salamander. Coming out of the top are real, pressed flowers. The edges are bordered by scientific names of amphibian and reptile species in Vermont.”