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.
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 surrounding color evolution, if it’s not done on insects (butterflies and moths, primarily), it’s done on Poison Dart Frogs of Central and South America. And these groups are fascinating because in one species, you can have a huge variety of color. Not only is this fascinating in and of itself, but it’s fascinating from an evolutionary perspective. These colors are thought to be a communicative tool for the frogs to potential predators. The bright, conspicuous coloration is easily recognized and remembered, in theory, helping predators learn to avoid those signals.
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.
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. I won’t find them in Richmond. As would be expected, the closer you get to Sydney, the higher prices go for rooms. In Australia, you pay by the week, and something like $300AUD (~$210USD) per week is actually on the low end for a place. I could cover that with my fellowship, but I’d rather skimp on a place to live and pocket the remainder for adventures around the country. Finding a place has not been easy, but it looks like I may have locked down a place on the WSU campus. I tend to like that sort of environment, anyway. While I like Sydney, I’m not a city person.
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.
I’ve heard that Sydney is a city for people who like the outdoors which I think rings pretty true. There are a number of parks throughout the city, including the large Royal Botanic Gardens which is a good way for Sydneyites (Sydneyans?) to get their daily dosage of nature. It’s a really cool park, and I like it, but it’s a manicured park, and I prefer things a bit more wild. But I can at least get my daily dosage of Vitamin G there. I don’t think I will ever get used to (or stop appreciating) that parrots are everywhere, even in the cities. Cockatoos were around (although not as numerous as last time – perhaps following fruiting trees?) as were lorikeets. Kookaburras laughed all over. All in all, it’s pretty nice.
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!