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Where does the time go?

Time flies and all of that! I know it’s been two weeks since my last update, but I do have good reason why I haven’t filled in on the Australian adventure since. Things are finally starting to get into motion and I’m having less and less time to sit at a computer to write down a blog post. As is, I’m currently sitting at the airport in Sydney waiting for a flight to Launceston, Tasmania. But I’ll get to that in due time.

In the meantime, let me fill in all of my avid readers on the events of the last two weeks, or really, the last week, which is the interesting week (the week prior was, admittedly pretty boring and uneventful). On the 7th, I headed down to Kosciuszko National Park in the southern part of New South Wales to participate in a project for Corroboree Frogs. Simply, we were placing clay models all over the park to allow predator to attack them. We had three different types of models: solid yellow, solid black, and corroboree. The idea behind this research is to elucidate the function of the yellow-and-black striping of the Corroboree Frog because we actually don’t know its function. Surely, you must think, that that bright striping has to be warning coloration just like we see in poison dart frogs, but rarely are things so clear. Speaking from experience in placing these models, the striped pattern is incredibly cryptic when placed into the snow grass where these frogs were once found. So this color pattern could be disruptive. We don’t really know. We don’t actually know what eats or potentially eats these frogs. This study should give us a lot of insight into the biology of the frogs.

I analyzed the data that the lab collected in December and found some interesting results. The lead PI on this project wanted three different sampling periods to cover the entirety of the breeding season, which is probably prudent. In the interest of waiting until the study is done, I won’t discuss the results here, yet. But suffice to say I think that there are some neat things going on with Corroboree Frogs.

I spent this last week with two undergrads who were effectively heading the project. They spent countless hours making these frogs only to have them possibly destroyed by predators. They have a great deal of dedication for the project, and because of that, since I was brought in later, I really want them to be the main benefactors of the results. I’ve been encouraging them to start thinking of analysis and writing, and I envision the main PI and myself to act as editors and perfect the paper before we submit it for publication. I think that’ll probably be submitted before I leave for the US, which is really awesome. They seem pretty keen to do the paper. We will have one more sampling period in March that may address a couple other questions, but after that, we should be set with getting ready to publish. And it should be pretty awesome. By the end of it, we will have placed over 6,900 models, which is several times more than any clay model experiment I’ve seen and it’ll have been done over the course of the breeding season, which most model experiments do not do. With that, I think it could have pretty high impact.

I did have to emphasize to these two that I currently live in Mississippi and am from Michigan. In both of those areas, a 20m hill is considered a mountain. So I initially had some issues with doing the transect. After a couple of days, I got used to the 1500-1900m elevation, but it was still quite exhausting. The hardest part for me actually was going off-track. The subalpine and alpine areas are essentially all covered in “snow grass” with some sparse shrubs here and there as well as the occasional sphagnum bog that the Corroborees would have liked. This snow grass grows in tufts which made the ground very uneven. Effectively, it was like walking on a lumpy mattress for half a day. As a result, my ankles were seriously hurting by the end of the day. And further complicating matters was that I was pretty insistent on bringing some (but not all) of my camera gear to take photos of the area as well as film the experiment in progress. I want to great a short video of the research as it happens, so keep an eye out for that in the next couple weeks.

While the whole area was beautiful, I do want to make note of one particular trek. Blue Lake. This was the highest elevation we got to (between 1800m and 1900m) and it was also the longest hike. We had to walk 5km which was mostly uphill to get to the lake (which was formed many years ago by glaciers). In the panorama, you can see what we had to deal with. The trail goes downhill for about ½ km before starting uphill. You can see where Blue Lake is to the back right (that big exposed rocky bit). Rather than doing a fairly direct route, the route took us around one mountain before we ascended the mountain where Blue Lake was. Then we set 3km of transects down through that area. And we ended up bushwhacking for most of it until we ended and then made a loop of the hike to pick up the trail rather than go back the way we came. I can’t decide if this was ultimately better for me because probably cut 5km off of our return trip, but it meant going through a lumpy mattress for another kilometer or so.

Helping raise my spirits were the herps of the area. I thought that surely being so high, we wouldn’t see any herps, but we did end up seeing a number of cool ones. On the Blue Lake hike, we saw Alpine Water Skinks (endemic to the area) and on the way back, I almost stepped on a small (which I guess was an adult) White-Lipped Snake which is a venomous snake, but not particularly dangerous. That invigorated me because I wanted to get a decent photo for identification purposes. What worked best was taking my hat and throwing it over the snake. It would calm down and coil up. Until when I did that once, a rather large spider bolted out of the grass under the hat. When we lifted the hat, the snake was gone. These hills are dotted with spider burrows (some of which are pretty big – probably 1.5” in diameter). I suspect that the snake found this burrow while I was trying to take photos and decided to evict the arachnid, giving the appearance that the snake magically turned into a spider. Beyond that, we also saw a number of Alpine Copperheads (another venomous snake). One I managed to get some photos of, but it wasn’t exactly happy that I was taking its photo. It never struck at me, but it flattened its neck in a threatening behavior. It was definitely a cool experience.

In the interest of time, that is where I’m going to leave you. I apologize for the lateness of the post and the lack of photos. I’ll probably post a big photo post when I get back from Tasmania, so keep an eye out for that! I’ll finally have a little bit of time to breathe. This last week and this coming week have shifted by bedtime forward a couple of hours because I end up so exhausted at the end of the day. I can’t wait until I don’t feel so exhausted. But if that’s the price for experiencing Australia, so be it!

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