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Well, I’m back in Australia! I am going to do my best to keep on top of a blog, with the goal of posting once a week. There, admittedly, may be times where I am unable to do so, most likely because I’m in the field and unable to do so! But I’m going to be here for 5 months, so I want to document the adventure this time (hopefully better than last time). So, watch for posts on Sundays/Mondays. That’s my goal.

So let’s first start off with how I ended up back Down Under. My research this past summer (or winter depending on where you are reading this) went well, but did not end up ideally. As with any research, I had more questions than answers and, really, there were more questions I wanted to address that I just did not have time to. And let’s be honest, winter in Australia, while comfortable for a guy from the frozen wasteland otherwise known as Michigan, was not the best time to be looking for frogs. I did find a few, but they were not really active. Given all of this, I wanted to pursue additional funding that would allow me to come back. Fortunately, there were several big fellowships available that would allow me to get to Australia. And it would have to be a big fellowship since the cost of the flight alone is in the $2000 range. Unfortunately, these big fellowships are also highly competitive. For example, the fellowship I received last year, I applied for it four times before I finally got it. I have also applied for a Fulbright four times and have not yet gotten it (still waiting on the latest decisions). I applied for three main grants that would get me to Australia again: the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright, and the Endeavour. The first two I am still waiting on decisions for. This was the first time that I applied for an Endeavour, and I was thrilled to have been selected for it. The Endeavour is essentially the Australian equivalent of the Fulbright, with the Australian government paying to get me to Australia and providing a generous monthly stipend to live in the country while I do my research. They do not, however, provide funding to actually do the research. Which, for the time being, is fine by me because what I aim to do in Australia should be relatively cheap.

Red-Crowned Toadlet (Pseudophryne australis)

For those who follow the sagas of J.P. Lawrence, Wildlife Photographer and Scientific Extraordinaire (the title, admittedly, needs some work), you’ll know that I went to Australia last year to work on a group of small frogs that is endemic to Australia to better understand how color evolves in this group. I got some interesting results, but there are so many more questions to be asked about this poorly understood group. The key feature that really attracted me to Pseudophryne is that they produce their own alkaloid toxins. You may, rightly, ask, so what? Well, most of the research

Corroboree Frog (Pseudophryne corroboree)

Say you’re a predator and you come across a red frog you’ve never seen before. It looks good enough and it certainly isn’t trying to flee, so you try to eat it. Bad decision. The frog tastes awful and it makes you sick to your stomach. You instantly regret your decision. Some time later, you come across another red frog. Do you try to eat it? Probably not. A little after that, you come across a blue frog. Do you eat that? Sure, why not? It’s not red and it certainly isn’t trying to flee. Easy meal. Well, damn, that, too, was a bad decision. So now you have to remember not to eat red frogs OR blue frogs. This is getting complicated. And this is why this is such a fascinating evolutionary question. It is far easier for predators to remember fewer signals, and in a population of, say, red frogs, the occasional new blue frog that pops up is likely to be picked off because it’s novel and predators don’t know that it tastes awful.

Example of color variation seen in the Strawberry Poison Frog

But despite all of this, we see in a number of species that use color to elicit an avoidance reaction from predators a wide variety of colors. Everything we think we know about this system tells us it shouldn’t exist, so why does it? Well, one well supported hypothesis is called honest signaling, which simply states that the more conspicuous you are, the more toxic you are. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but that’s the gist. So bright orange frogs are more toxic than green ones. This makes sense for these butterflies or Poison Dart Frogs because they get their alkaloid toxins from what they eat. And each region these animals are found will have slightly different communities of animals (or plants for the butterflies), which means they’re going to be sequestering different toxins and have different toxicities.

The same does not seem to be true for Pseudophryne. These are weird frogs, but very cool weird frogs. They produce their own alkaloid toxins called Pseudophrynamines independent of diet. Further, they can produce the same dietary toxins that the Poison Dart Frogs can (pumiliotoxins). And what’s really crazy is in absence of the dietary toxins the frogs appear to have the capability to upregulate their pseudophrynamines! This seems to suggest that they have a “set” level of toxicity which means there may not be all that much variation among populations, even if there is variation among prey communities. Much of this is conjecture since the research this was based off of was done on one species in the genus. And that’s where my Endeavour comes in. I aim to fill in these gaps in our knowledge about this group to see if the assumptions I (and others) are making are actually true. Now, Pseudophryne don’t vary as much as the Poison Dart Frogs (within or among species), but there is variation. So hopefully at the end of this, I will be able to say if these frogs vary in their toxicity and how much of that is due to dietary toxins and how much is due to biosynthesized toxins.

Alright, now you’re all caught up as to why I am here. My official job while I am here is what I outlined above, but the lab I am going to be working in is ambitious in trying to figure out so many other questions regarding color evolution in this genus, so it’s entirely probable that I’ll be doing some side projects.

My subsequent blog posts probably won’t be as long as this one (who knows, most people who know me know that I can be pretty verbose when it comes to talking about frogs), but will cover the week-to-week adventures of trying to do science in Australia. So onto week one!

I arrived in country last Wednesday and have been staying in a hostel not far from the city center in Sydney. I’ll be working out of Western Sydney University which is about an hour and a half train ride out of the city. For this first week, I’ve had a couple of goals: get a bank account, get a phone, and find a place to live. All in all, pretty mundane, but somewhat stressful all the same, particularly the last one. It is not expensive ($5AUD) to travel from Sydney all the way out to Richmond (where WSU is), but what it lacks in cost, it makes up in cost of time. But all of that said, the main thoroughfare is in Sydney whereas Richmond is a small, quiet suburb out on the outskirts of the Blue Mountains. If there are things I want, I’ll find them in Sydney.

Little Corellas

In the time I’ve been here, it has largely been relaxed partially by design. My flights getting here were super stressful (I flew from Memphis to Chicago to San Francisco to Sydney, but there was a big snow storm in Chicago which caused delays which ultimately left me with 20 minutes to catch my flight to Sydney when I originally planned 2.5 hours). Last time I came, the first week was also quiet stressful, not knowing where I’d be living, where my luggage was, etc. I wanted to start on a relaxed note. So I decided to stay in a hostel for a week outside of Sydney while I ironed everything out and was able to check out the city.

Lotus from the Royal Botanic Gardens

Another thing that is going to be cool to witness is the Sydney Festival which basically takes all month. It is punctuated on January 26 which is Australia Day. In terms of celebration, as best as I can tell, it seems like the Fourth of July, but it’s not for their independent, but rather when British fleets first discovered Australia. It sounds like there are going to be heaps (Australian for loads or a lot) of things happening on the 26th including fireworks. For that, being in and around Sydney ought to be pretty cool.

I think after that, I’ll be able to start getting into my research. I’ll have to play it by ear because if it is hot and dry, I’m not going to have much success finding frogs, but if the occasional rainstorm moves through, which is what should happen as we get into fall, the frogs should become more and more active. I’m going to be going to Tasmania (Tassie) in mid-February, so hopefully by that time, it will start cooling down and getting a bit wet. Until then, who knows. And that this is an El Niño year, it’s an even bigger who knows.

I guess I’ll leave it at that since this is getting rather long. Keep an eye out for my Delorme inReach posts from time to time, just like last time. I’ll be posting on occasion, particularly when I’m traveling or doing fieldwork. You’ll be able to see those posts on Twitter or Facebook. Be sure to check out the map too as, particularly when I’m driving around, you’ll be able to follow along and see where I am in real time (you can even say hi to me through the Delorme links that will be posted when I post updates!). Until next week!

#Endeavour #Australia #Sydney

I think it’s time for another update as the one after this may be a little time coming. I spent the last two and a half weeks making 2084 clay models. This involved pouring clay that had been heated up in a crock pot into silicone molds, letting it cool, pop out the clay frogs, cleaning them up, and then painting them. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, do it 2000 times. Making the models actually went pretty quickly, although I was not nearly meticulous enough to reduce my time having to clean up the frogs after I popped them out of the molds. There was clay overflow that I would have to clean off with a scalpel. It was easy enough, but it really took a toll on my neck. After about a week, I started popping pain pills like Tic-Tacs. So I am quite pleased to be finished with making the models.

But research is mostly about being able to think on your feet. Not necessarily actually doing science. I had originally planned on making 4000 models, but the amount of time I would need to make them would be prohibitive. My solution was to make enough for one site, and then plan on reusing the models in the second site. Because the models are so small, I would not be able to reuse models if they were attacked. But I am expecting a 10-25% attack rate, so I should still have plenty of models for the second site. The second bump was that I was planning on using a University vehicle to get to the Watagans, but found out that a Uni vehicle would not be available until next week, which I cannot wait for. So I am going to rent a car and drive down to Croajingolong first and get those transects out of the way before coming back to Watagans. This would ultimately work out better because if I do need to make models, I could go to the university and make more.

On Thursday, I am going to drive down to Croajingolong and hopefully only need a week to set the transects before I head back to Watagans. If all goes according to plan, I should be able to finish this experiment in two weeks, which would give me four days to do what I would like. If I can stick to that plan, I would like to get to Brisbane and Beerwah before I head to Cairns on August 9.

As a result, I’m going to be in the middle of the Bush for a while and will not likely have access to internet to update the blog or Facebook page. You can still (and I’d love to hear from you) contact me directly using my satellite communicator. As long as I have access to the sky, I should be able to hear from you. Keep an eye out for updates from my communicator. I’ll be Facebooking/Tweeting as I go so I can bring you along!

EAPSI stands for East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes which is the fellowship offered by the National Science Foundation that brought me here.

#science #research #models #frogs #Australia

Australian EAPSI Fellows

Well, I have been in Australia for 2 weeks now. 2 weeks?! I can already tell that if I blink one too many times, I’m going to be back in the States. Things are settling down, so I have a little bit of time to write a blog post of impressions and experiences so far.

Australian Pelicans from Newcastle Beach

The house I’m in is not great, but it’s cheap and that’s what I want. I have lived in a lot worse, and I don’t have to be here long. The strong benefit is that it’s only a 10 minute walk from the office which means I don’t have to hop on a bus all the time. Buses are expensive here! It costs $3.80AUD ($2.91USD) for a 1 hour ticket. With all of the running around I’ve had to do, I reckon (there’s an Australian term for you) that I’ve spent nearly $50 on buses. They have a card you can get and charge that will have slightly cheaper fares ($2.50-$3.10AUD depending on distance), but still, it ain’t cheap! So, I’ve been walking a lot. It’s good exercise and it will help prep me for laying transects in a week or two.

This last week, I went to Sydney on Monday as a brief stop before going to Canberra. While I was in Sydney, I stopped at the Taronga Zoo, which is an impressive zoo. It’s not necessarily the largest, but it has a lot of exhibits. The one thing I really liked about it was that it is forested. So rather than being on a manicured estate like a number of U.S. zoos, it actually feels like you’re out in nature observing the animals. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked, but I did get to stop by the reptile house with the express purpose of seeing the Corroboree Frog breeding facility there and talking with the head keeper. Southern Corroboree Frogs are critically endangered. You can count the number of calling males in the wild on one hand. The Taronga Zoo is one of four institutions working with Corroboree Frogs and they’re being quite successful. Fortunately, the frogs breed well in captivity. Unfortunately, they’re easily susceptible to chytrid, a deadly fungus wiping out frogs all over. While there are reintroduction efforts, it is currently unclear as to how successful they are, in part because it takes the frogs 5 years to reach maturity (pretty long time for a frog). The head keeper there gave me the opportunity to photograph some of the frogs. I had asked and was expecting to be turned down due to the status of the amphibians, so when he said it was no problem, I was so very excited! I think it’s now a bucket list item to see one in the wild. That may be a tall order.

Southern Corroboree Frog from the Taronga Zoo

With my remaining time, I looked around the zoo but was sure to watch the bird show, which I was told was excellent. The reviews didn’t lie. It was probably the best bird show I’ve seen. Pretty seamless transitions between species (with the one exception of a rat going off script and trying to escape), and lots of good information. It was very interactive and immersive as well. They had a large variety of birds from cockatoos to a buzzard who cracked open a fake emu egg to an Andean Condor! If I get back to the zoo, I’ll have to go again. It was a fascinating show.

Major Mitchell's Cockatoos from the Taronga Zoo bird show

The Shine Dome, the iconic symbol of the Australian Academy of Science

The first day was rather light in terms of activities because it was generally assumed that most of the fellows would have arrived in country a day or two earlier and would be dealing with jet lag. After the first day, we went to the Australian War Memorial which is dedicated to all of the service men and women who served in all of the wars that Australia was involved in. It was nice to see the dedication, and it was a quite nice museum that had a pretty complete history of Australian wars. And as a random fact, since World War I, Australia has aided the U.S. in every war we were involved in.

Inside the Australian War Memorial

Following the War Memorial, we went to Parliament to learn about how Australia is governed. The whole Constitutional Monarchy confuses me a little. They’re their own independent country, but still have ties to the UK, and in particular, the royal family (Queen Elizabeth is on all of the currency). They have a government similar to ours in that they have a house of representatives and a senate, but it operates in a parliamentary fashion. After touring Parliament, we got to sit in on Question Time.

Question Time sounds like something out of Sesame Street, but it is anything but. Imagine that you have a group of five year olds who naturally separate themselves into boys and girls. One group stole something from the other group because it felt it had the right to it, which led to a debate on who should be able to have that object. When one group questions the opposite, it’s questions dripping with distain and seeking to undercut the other group. When individuals question each other within their group, there are softball questions meant to build up the confidence of that group (i.e., “boys are better than girls because boys play sports and girls don’t”). Now, because we’re dealing with five year olds, such arguments are not civil. Insults are thrown left and right, and whenever someone makes a particularly good point, his or her group guffaws in approval. Occasionally, when these arguments occur, a parent may butt in to scold particularly boisterous individuals, and if those individuals are particularly bad, they’ll get a time-out. I’m sure all of you can relate to this scenario.

Now, what does that have to do with Question Time you may ask? Well, take that scenario and rather than have the individuals be five years old, have them be thirty to eighty. And that’s it. Just the difference in age. No maturity that comes with age, just the difference in age. And there, you have a pretty good approximation of Question Time. Members of the two leading parties (the Liberal Party – equivalent to US Republicans – and the Australian Labor Party – equivalent to US Democrats) question the other of topics of the day and try to undermine the other party while bolstering their own. It’s not civil, not really anyway. The Speaker will warn or throw out particularly boisterous members, but otherwise pretty much anything goes including yelling, laughing, sneering, etc. When the opposition party (the Labor Party) asked question of the Prime Minister (Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party), they were about a letter sent to the Attorney General from the hostage taker in Sydney last year (basically, the guy sent a letter to the AG two months before that happened asking if it was okay for him to talk to the leaders of ISIS). The AG didn’t do anything about the letter, which the Labor Party hammered on. The Liberal Party just asked fluff questions of the Prime Minister or his other ministers (i.e., what are you doing to better education in Australia, how are you helping farmers in Australia, etc.). It was basically like watching a bunch of 5 year olds argue. Except that it was grown men and women. And they are in charge of an entire country. It was interesting to witness, to say the least.

An Eastern Gray Kangaroo lounges at Tinbinbilla Nature Reserve

The following day, we started off with breakfast with the U.S. Ambassador to Australia, John Berry. Seeing the entourage along (security detail, photographers, aides, etc.) was intimidating. Fortunately, the Ambassador was quite jovial. He was enthusiastic about hearing what we planned to do while in Australia and, here and there, had anecdotes that related to our research. I was impressed with how knowledgeable he was (for instance, he actually knew what chytrid was and why it was a concern). He was a busy man, so we didn’t get much time to spend with him, but it was a pleasure to spend the hour or so with him. After that, we headed to Tinbinbilla Nature Reserve which was about an hour outside of Canberra. There, we got to meet an indigenous ranger who told us a little bit about Aboriginal culture, tool use, and history of the Reserve. Then we got to walk around the reserve and enjoy the bush. This habitat is completely foreign to me, and it was so interesting. The Eucalypt forests are pretty open (almost reminds me of tropical dry forest). The leaf litter layer isn’t really deep and the ground is pretty covered in herbaceous vegetation (often grasses). It was quite unusual, but I can see how brush fires are such a problem (most of the larger trees had charring from a fire in 2003). The bird life there was pretty good, and I did hear a number of frogs calling (all Crinia signifera). I didn’t get a chance to dig for them since we were on a tight schedule. But we did finally see a ton of kangaroos and even an emu (which was very aptly described as being out of a Dr. Seuss book). While there were wild koalas in the area, I only saw some captive ones (two fellows managed to find a wild one). And after all of that, we headed back to Canberra to head our separate ways and start our research. I took the bus back to Sydney and then the train to Newcastle Friday morning.

Today, I finally started getting into making models. It took a while getting all of the stuff I needed to make them, but now I should be set to get into it. I think I can get around 2000 models this week, which means I may be able to start placing them next week! Until next time!

#EAPSI #Australia #Research #Birds #Zoo #Canberra #Sydney #Newcastle #Kangaroo

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