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:

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.

Three new chameleons! But what does this mean for conservation?

By Michael McGuire

Taxonomy, the study of naming and classifying organisms, how hard could that be right? Turns out, pretty complex when you have a bunch of similar looking chameleons! For the longest time, a group of chameleon species in Madagascar have been put into the same species name “bucket”, if you will, and been collectively called Calumma nasutum. It has been long known that these chameleons were likely not all the same species, but taxonomy is a difficult and time-consuming task especially when chameleons in the genus Calumma look so similar! This is known as a species complex, and recently scientists have untangled these tiny and adorable lizards and given them official names. In this process, involving CT-scans, genetic analysis, and incredibly nitpicky measurements, they discovered three new undescribed species! They also designated official scientific names to three known species, for a total of six! To put it simpler, a species complex is like if you gave out the name “potato” to the potato, but also to an apple. Both are called potatoes, but one clearly is not a potato. This is a big deal for conservation since what was previously assumed to be one species with stable populations has turned into many, with more uncertain prevalence.

          Chameleons in the C. nasutum “complex” are tiny, often no larger than your finger. Surprisingly however, they are not as tiny as Madagascar’s smallest chameleons, Brookesia micra which only grow an inch long! First on the list of newly minted chameleons is Calumma emelinae which has a bony nose protrusion much like most Calumma species, and males can have a gorgeous green coloration with spines along their back.

Next is Calumma ratnasariae which is mainly a drab grey or brown, but when mating season rolls around and males don their display colors is when the magic happens. As you can see below, they are a pretty pastel rainbow of colors, the likes of which you may see on a trendy interior decorators Instagram page.

Calumma ratnasariae

And finally, the last new species is Calumma tjiasmantoi which turns a rusty shade of orange when at their most vibrant.

Scientists have had a difficult time describing the original species, Calumma nasutum. It wasfirst described almost 200 years ago by some of the first French zoologists to visit Madagascar, Duméril & Bibron in 1836. That chameleon described all those years ago and the cause of this complicated mix-up is on the left.

Calumma nasutum

By contrast, Calumma radamanusis this very similar-looking species.

C. radamanus

And the last described species, Calumma fallax is very easily confused with most all the rest of these chameleons, but most of all C. nasutum! The main identifier between them is their location, as C. nasutum are found in eastern and northern Madagascar, whereas C. fallax occurs at high elevation along the east coast.

C. fallax

Herpetologist and taxonomist Dr. Mark Scherz noted that a few of these species are already threatened. This illuminated an interesting quandary between taxonomy and conservation. All these species, being called C. nasutum previously, were listed as Least Concern according to the IUCN. But now what we thought as one species is in fact many, which divides the group and shows that some of these lizards are in fact endangered. Many of these chameleons exist in highly fragmented populations, and conservation policy takes a long time to update.

Scherz shared with me his frustrations with the Madagascan government for the difficulty to get permits to take these lizards for scientific research. Conversely, many permits are given to those taking chameleons to fuel the exotic pet trade. Scientists taking one or two individuals is a drop in the pool compared to the exporters. This disproportionate treatment between scientists and citizens is a problem, and one that makes it difficult to do necessary research for conservation. The Madagascan government feels as though researchers are taking advantage, since they do not see any return for allowing an animal to be taken. On the contrast, exporters are giving back to the government in taxes. This viewpoint is understandable, but Scherz noted that change needs to come from within. Madagascan citizens and researchers are the only ones who can push back against this. But in one of the poorest countries in the world with a university with only minimal resources, that is easier said than done.

Madagascar’s habitats are being lost at an unprecedented rate, largely due to agriculture. Farming techniques are outdated with many citizens doing slash and burn agriculture to produce rice. This strips the soil of its nutrients within years and the process must be repeated. This populice driven deforestation is the biggest threat to Madagascar’s flora and fauna.

There is some hope however, Dr. Scherz mentioned he has worked with many up and coming Madagascan citizen researchers who are discovering new species and trying to protect the countries natural wonders. Perhaps with enough protection and hard work conservation policies will be put into place before these newly discovered small chameleons are lost.

Prötzel, D., Scherz, M.D., Ratsoavina, F.M., Vences, M. & Glaw, F. (2020) Untangling the trees: Revision of the Calumma nasutum complex (Squamata: Chamaeleonidae). Vertebrate Zoology, 70(1):23–59. DOI: 10.26049/VZ70-1-2020-3 [pdf

Photos by Dr. Mark Scherz & MadCham.De

Here be dragons

By Connor McCarthy

It’s completely dark. The eastern-European cave you find yourself in is silent, save the whirring of a passing aquatic invertebrate. Your undeveloped eyes can’t see it, but the vibrations on your slimy pink skin let you know as it passes, just out of reach. You know more food will come if you are patient, so you cling to your submerged rock and wait. And wait. And wait. And wait some more until seven long years have passed by your mysterious, unblinking eyes.

No, this is not a study-abroad-psychedelic-experience gone haywire or the opening to a B-list horror movie starring a Bosnian cave monster. This is the reality of the Olm salamander (Proteus anguinus), a slender pink cave-dweller from eastern Europe that spends its entire life cycle in the underground rivers that flow from the region’s karst limestone bedrock. The species is 20cm long when full grown, lives its entire life underwater, and keeps its external gills into adulthood. Like most other salamanders, the Olm eats a mix of snails and other aquatic invertebrates. What sets the Olm apart from other salamanders and other animals in general is its ability to remain effectively motionless for years at a time.

This behavior (or lack thereof), was first studied by Gergely Balázs, an accomplished cave diver and researcher at the Department of Systematic Zoology and Ecology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. Balázs and a team of other divers conducted a mark-recapture study on Olm in the eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a small country in southeastern Europe. Mark-recapture studies are one of the herpetology field’s most commonly used tools for estimating population, the idea behind them being if you capture a group of amphibians, mark them, release them into the wild, then come back later and capture roughly the same number as before, the proportion of marked individuals captured in the second survey is equal to the proportion of the total population captured in the first survey, which gives you a rough estimate of total abundance.

Due to their inaccessibly Olm are a fairly large question mark on the map of herpetology. Very few studies have been conducted on their life cycle and natural history, and most of what is known about the species has come from captive populations in zoos and aquariums. As a result, the species is shrouded in mystery. In medieval times, Olm were thought to be the offspring of cave dwelling dragons, as they would occasionally wash out of the caves during flood events. Though they cannot breathe fire, reproduce with donkeys, or do any of the other things dragons from our pop culture do, a wormlike creature with gills understandably must have seemed to be the spawn of something much more sinister.

According to Balázs, the species sedentary lifestyle makes them somewhat easy to catch. Researchers would use a flashlight to locate the Olms from a few meters away, then shut the light off (Olm are blind but can still see light and dark) as they slowly swam up to the salamanders. Once they were close, they would turn the light back on, grab the Olm, mark it with a visible implant elastomer (a liquid polymer injected under the salamanders’ skin that solidifies, allowing for re-identification later on). The Olm would then be set free, returning to the subterranean riverbed in a single burst of writhing speed.

The study itself had several layers and included data from previous expeditions into the caves. Balázs and his team conducted their first study in these caves in 2010, where they tagged 7 Olm, five of which were recaptured in the 2020 study. 19 additional individuals were tagged in 2016, 13 of which were observed in the subsequent 28-month monitoring period.

By comparing the locations of individual Olm during each of fifteen recapture expeditions, Balázs and his team attempted to discern exactly how much moving these salamanders were doing in the darkness. Like people, some Olm seemed to be travels whereas others were not. One salamander moved an impressive 38 meters over the course of 230 days, while another was found in the exact same spot after 2569 days (just over 7 years). It is unclear if this sedentary individual (along with the rest of the Olm in the cave studied) was feeding during this time or exercising its starvation resistance.

Over the entire study, no Olm traveled more than 80 meters from the site it was first captured at and on average they only moved about 5 meters a year. In the 37 total recaptures in the study, only ten animals had moved more than 10m away from their original location.

 Interestingly, all the Olm captured in the study were quite out in the open and very visible to the divers. This is in stark contrast to Olm behavior of captive Olm, which hide in cracks and crevasses of rocks. Furthermore, individuals could be found within a few meters of each other, but displayed no sign of grouping or avoidance behaviors. Essentially, Balázs and his team couldn’t make any conclusions as to why Olm spend so little time moving especially considering they have no natural predators or other competitors.

But are these individuals really not moving, or do they just move back and forth between the same places like retired old men and therefore create the illusion of a sedentary lifestyle? Balázs’ current theory is that the Olm are trying to minimize the amount of energy expended. Female Olm only reproduce about once every twelve years and it is predicted the species can live to be over 100 years old. Furthermore, they are extremely resistant to starvation and some studies have shown individuals can go ten years without eating. They do this by eating large quantities of food at once, then storing excess nutrients, glycogen, and lipids in the liver. When food is scarce, they can reduce their metabolism and in extreme cases reabsorb their own tissue until more food becomes available. They also have a high tolerance for hypoxic water, meaning their oxygen demand is quite low which allows them to survive in cave environments. Essentially, everything about the Olm, from there anatomy to their reproductive cycle, is perfectly designed for to survive in the some of the most abysmal reaches of the earth’s surface. So, will we ever really know what goes on in the caves of eastern Europe while Balázs and his expert team of divers are not there to document it? For the time being, it’s unlikely. Setting up a motion trap for a species that hardly moves is a task in itself especially when these cameras would need to be placed in subterranean rivers. What we do know is these slender, pale, blind salamanders might have the most stoic lives of any vertebrate. While it’s difficult to envy a creature that spends in entire life in darkness, hardly eating, rarely moving, and reproducing once every decade, it’s also hard to argue the evolution and lifecycle of the Olm is anything but fascinating. Hopefully future studies will give us more insight on their mysterious lives as their delicate karst environments may be at risk due to stormwater runoff, pollution, and climate change.

A snake attack

By Mitch Maver

Across the globe, the introduction of exotic species is having catastrophic negative effects on the health of our planet’s natural ecosystems. Reptiles and amphibians are commonly caught and transported far from their native range to be sold as pets for humans. This practice has lead to the accidental, or in some cases intentional, introduction of exotic reptiles and amphibians into areas where they are not naturally found. In many locations, populations of exotic reptiles and amphibians have proliferated and are now reeking havoc on beloved local species. Invasive species disrupt natural ecosystems and can significantly reduce the biodiversity of an area. In other words, say goodbye to your beloved songbirds or deer because that pet snake your neighbor let “free” may become invasive and those charismatic local species could vanish from the landscape in the blink of an eye. Invasive predators can reduce the abundance of native species by eating them or by simply out-competing them for resources. This can then have a domino effect where the introduction of a single invasive species causes one effect which has another effect and so on until the next thing you know the whole ecosystem has collapsed. Unfortunately, this process, which in science terms is called a trophic cascade, is all to common across the globe.

            Today, the invasive Burmese python, Python bivittatus, is a destructive force that is taking over Florida’s Everglades National Park. Populations of this huge invasive serpent have skyrocketed since they were first detected in the 1980s and 1990s. Although it is not known for sure, the invasion of Burmese pythons in south Florida is believed to be the result of humans releasing pet pythons, that they either did not want or could no longer care for, into the wild. Burmese pythons are native to southeast Asia and are one of the largest species of snakes on earth, reaching sizes of 23 feet! Because of their size, these snakes can feed on a wide range of species such as wading birds, small alligators, and mammals. Cases where the introduction of exotic reptiles has lead to significantly reduced biodiversity and localized extinctions of native species has historically only been observed on islands. However, in south Florida, the decline in opossum, raccoon, deer and other mammal populations has been attributed to the introduction of the Burmese python. Recent research in south Florida has provided evidence that Burmese pythons are currently causing a trophic cascade where direct reductions in mammal populations due to python predation is having indirect effects on non-prey species such as turtles. In other words, mammal populations in south Florida have decreased due to python predation to such an extent that there are now less animals, specifically raccoons, around to feed on the eggs of certain turtle species. In addition, it is believed that Burmese pythons are having an indirect impact on the vegetation dynamics of south Florida.

Burmese python’s have no problem taken down large birds such as this great blue heron in south Florida (Gibbons, 2011)

In a 2017 study, Dr. John D. Willson, of the University of Arkansas, and his research team examined how Burmese pythons are indirectly impacting south Florida ecosystems. The study hypothesized that predation rates, specifically on turtle eggs, would be lowest in the southern part of the Everglades National Park, where pythons have been established the longest and where mammals are rare. Dr. Willson constructed artificial turtle nests baited with quail eggs at 13 sites and used camera traps to monitor predator activity. The 13 sites were divided into three categories; “core” sites, areas where pythons have been detected the longest, “peripheral” sites, where pythons have only recently been detected, and “extralimital” sites, where breeding python populations have not been detected yet. The spatial distinction of the study design allowed Dr. Willson to examine what animal species were present and their abundance so that conclusions could be drawn regarding both the direct effects pythons have on mammals and the indirect effect that has on turtle nest predation.

Coming across a 17-foot python, such as the one here, is now a far too common event in south Florida. (Garcia, 2019)

Dr. Willson, and his research team, found that nest predation rates, and the observed number of species, were significantly greater at “extralimital” sites where python breeding is not yet believed to be occurring. Nest predation at “core” sites, where python populations have been established the longest, was low and only a few species of mammals were observed. In addition, the nest predation that did occur at “core” sites were done almost exclusively by crows. Whether or not the greater occurrence of crows at core nest sites compared to “peripheral” and “extralimital” sites can be attributed to decreased competition with the prey species of the Burmese python could not be “conclusively concluded based on the [Study’s] data”, says Dr. Willson. However, data from the camera traps at each site did indicate that the “spatial pattern of mammal abundance is inversely correlated with the spatial expansion of python population”.  In layman’s terms, what Dr. Willson means by this is that mammal abundance was found to be lower in areas where pythons were abundant and higher in areas where pythons were less abundant. Furthermore, the results of the study supported the hypothesis that the decreased mammal populations caused by python predation is positively effecting the abundance of the non-prey species of the Burmese python. The study also refuted the previously suggested alternative hypothesis that the recent increase in the abundance of coyotes in the Everglades is driving the observed decline in mammal populations. So based on the findings of the study, Dr. Willson and his team concluded that a trophic cascade, where Burmese pythons are having a positive indirect effect on the recruitment of small egg-laying species by suppressing mammal populations, is occurring in the Everglades National Park. What this means is that more egg laying species, such as turtles, are surviving to adulthood because the pythons have eaten a large number of their predators.

            Based on the conclusions Dr. Willson and his team were able to draw from the findings of this study, I asked him what he believes needs to be done next in order to mitigate the issues Burmese pythons are causing in south Florida. At the current moment, Dr. Willson believes that more extensive research is still needed and states how, in his mind, there are currently no “tools that can be used at a large-scale to do anything about this problem” because of how widely distributed pythons are in south Florida and how difficult they are to detect. Right now, the most effective way to mitigate Florida’s python problem is to work at a “small-scale and do things such as protect key area’s used by wading birds, and to keep python populations low in the Florida Keys where there are a lot of endemic species like the key deer, the lower keys marsh rabbit, and the Key Largo wood rat” says Dr. Willson. But, before any large-scale management plan can be implemented Dr. Willson is adamant that more research on control methods, such as python traps, needs to be done. He goes on to explain how on the island of Guam where invasive brown tree snakes lead to a significant loss of native fauna, well funded research regarding basic control methods, like traps and visual searches to remove tree snakes, has allowed researchers on the island to begin large scale removals and the reintroduction of native birds; something he would have said was impossible ten to fifteen years ago. “The solid research on the very basic level of how to detect [brown tree snakes] using very simple techniques basically laid the groundwork for large scale removals and we are just not doing that with [south Florida] pythons” says Dr. Willson. The main problem he currently sees in Florida is that “there is more pressure to present the visual of doing something rather than doing things that are less glamorous but actually inform our knowledge of the situation better”.

            After gaining a better understanding of the current python problem in south Florida, I asked Dr. Willson if thinks Burmese pythons are affecting the Everglades ecosystem in ways that have not yet been examined. He mentions how, in his mind, pythons are most likely having some indirect effect on the area’s vegetation dynamics by suppressing populations of important herbivores such as rabbits and deer. Furthermore, he suspects that pythons are indirectly affecting the seed dispersal of fruit-forming plant species by reducing the abundance of seed dispersing mammals. In Guam, research regarding the invasive brown tree snake suggests that brown tree snake’s “are changing the forest by changing the recruitment, pollination, and seed dispersal of trees” says Dr. Willson. If a similar phenomenon is occurring in the Everglades, its very likely that the forest structure of the park will be different in future than how it has been historically which could have far reaching implications that can not yet be predicted. However, if wildlife managers in the Everglades take what has been learned on Guam, in regards to invasive snake management, in to account as the come up with there own python management strategies it is possible that further large scale changes to the ecosystem dynamics of the Everglades can be prevented. Lastly, Dr. Willson mentioned how there is a lack of knowledge regarding the effects pythons have on wading birds because of how hard it is to keep track of there populations. The knowledge gaps that still exists regarding the effects pythons have on vegetation and other organisms will be a major hurdle researchers and wildlife managers will have to get over before any large scale management plan can be implemented

            To conclude the interview, Dr. Willson mentioned how the greatest challenge, when it comes to carrying out large-scale studies such as this one, is overcoming the very complex political and regulatory environment of south Florida. Since pythons are now so widely distributed across the region, to test his hypothesis meant he needed to include sites located on lands that are managed by several different entities. This made “the permitting required to conduct this study astronomically difficult to get organized” says Dr. Willson.

Dr. Willson’s full journal article can be found in volume 54 of the Journal of Applied Ecology on page 1251 or at

Work Cited

Gibbons, J. (2011) Invasive Burmese Pythons Are Taking a Toll on Florida’s Native Birds. Smithsonian Insider. Retrieved from

Willson, J. D. (2017) Indirect Effects of Invasive Burmese Pythons on Ecosystems in Southern Florida. Journal of Applied Ecology, 54, 1251-1258

Garcia, S. E. (2019) A 17-Foot Burmese Python Was Found in Florida. What Was It Even Doing There? The New York Times. Retrieved from

Hang on tight: how hurricanes cause toe-pad size to increase in lizards

By Raymond Looney

Humans are naturally devastated by short-term weather events such as hurricanes, but the news tends to overlook the implications of these storms on natural flora and fauna in the devastated areas. If a changing climate is only going to intensify the impact and frequency of short-term climatic events like hurricanes, we need to find ways to adapt to our changing world or else we are toast. In September 2017, the West Indies and the Alantic coast were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The two category five storms, brought with them winds upwards of 150 miles per hour, causing more than $65 billion in damages and caused an estimated death toll of 2,982 in Puerto Rico.

A close up of an animal

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A visual representing the two study islands: Pine Cay and Water Cay, as well as the path of Hurricane’s Maria and Irma and the vicinity of the islands (white dots) to the center of the storm. (Donihue et al. 2018).

In a paper published in Nature in 2018, scientist Colin Donihue provided evidence for a species of anole lizards to have adapted due to two catastrophic short-term climate events, hurricane Maria, and hurricane Irma. Within a 6-week period, he found evidence that surviving individuals developed stronger grips by selection for larger toepads and forelimbs. This paper received a massive response as it is the first study to test how short-term climate events can cause long-term changes in native populations and cause immediate evolutionary shifts.

A. scriptus photographed by Colin Donihue

            Donihue and his team originally went to Turks and Caicos in order to study the impacts of an invasive rat on the endemic species of nearby islands (Pine Cay and Water Cay). In order to do this, he was set to take baseline natural history data of Anolis scriptus (A. scriptus) like body length, toe pad size, forelimb, and hindlimb length. Donihue describes the progression of their research as simply “being in the right place at the right time”, as right after they left the two islands were battered by hurricane Maria and Irma within a two-week period. These two storms caused immense damage to natural flora and fauna as well as human communities. If these events have catastrophic effects on humans, one can only imagine the damage that is put on natural biodiversity. The team initially had no plan to look into the impact of hurricanes on selection, however, were given a rare opportunity to put a very important question to the test.

A picture containing tree, outdoor, animal, green

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The toepads of A. scriptus after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the study site (Donihue 2018).

            Three weeks after the effects of Hurricane Maria, Donihue returned to Pine Cay and Water Cay to resurvey the islands for surviving lizards measured forelimb and toepad size to determine if they had differed from their first visit not long ago. They looked for changes in toepad surface area, as an increase in this trait would indicate better clinging ability in A. scriptus. To determine the significance of their results, they questioned whether changes in toepad size of the surviving anoles’ were random, or whether the change was explained by the catastrophic events of the hurricanes.

After  an extremely busy two months, the team found evidence for shifts in morphological traits that may have given the lizards a survival advantage during the catastrophic storms. Surviving lizards had significantly larger toepads and forelimb size than the ones originally measured. These results suggest that natural selection has operated to deliver a survival advantage to the individuals with characteristic that helped them to cling tighter to their environment during strong storms.

            The findings of this study are imperative to the future of studying climatic effects on natural biodiversity. Most of the studies coming out regarding a warming climate on ecosystem processes focus on long-term processes such as droughts and excessive warming and don’t focus on short-term disturbances like hurricanes. Extreme climate events are only going to increase in frequency and severity in the future and we do not know how the implications of a rapidly warming climate will impact not only humans but natural flora and fauna of the world. Normally we only hear the negatives on climate change, however this study may give a positive view on how some organisms are adapting in real time to our new reality.