Friday, May 1, 2015

The Costa Rica Amphibian Research Center

When I was talking to Edgardo about my plans to visit Costa Rica, he quickly offered up a suggestion. "If you're going to Limón you should go visit my friend Brian. He has an Amphibian Center there, and he really loves frogs."

I did some research on Brian and his Costa Rica Amphibian Research Center (C.R.A.R.C.) and quickly he discovered that he didn't just love frogs. He was a genuine amphibian genius, and a true naturalist with a strong interest in fish, reptiles, birds, and plants as well. So visiting him became my mission while in Costa Rica. 

Soon after Edgardo mentioned him, a couple days later some friends sent me a link w with a clip from the today show discussing a new species of frog discovered in Costa Rica that looked like Kermit. Brian was responsible for discovering it.

The more I learned about Brian, the more excited I became to visit him. He and his wife have found over 50 species of amphibians on the reserve where they live, and I wanted to see as many as possible.

I sent Brian an email, and I made arrangements to stay there on Tuesday, April 28. Brian lives on a large plot of land in the Central Caribbean highlands, one of the most biodiverse areas for amphibians in the entire country, and arguably in the world.

The plan was for me to go out with Brian on a personal guided night hike on his property, searching for amphibians and any other cool critters we may come across. Brian also runs a small lab where he keeps a handful of species in captivity, most notably moss salamanders from the genus,  Nototriton. All eight species within this genus are native to Costa Rica. As Brian would later tell me, he and his wife are the only living people that have seen all eight in the wild. Anyhow, I was obviously looking forward to checking this lab out and comparing it to our operation at EVACC.

To get to Brian's property, I had to explain about a million times that I was going to Siquirres... a town who's name was impossible to master. I kept saying "Si quierres" which means "If you want" in Spanish. So the conversation at about 3 different bus terminals went something like this, translated.
"Where do you want to go?" 
"If you want" 
"Ifff you... want" 
Puzzled look. 
"Ahh- Siquives" 
"Siii. Por favor."

Eventually I got off the bus in Siquirres, and Brian met me at the bus station. He is a straight shooting guy, with a casual demeanor that belies his incredible intelligence and passion for the natural world.  While we drove up the windy mountain road leaving If you want behind, Brian began to calmly rattle off facts about the geology and climate of this region. He explained that this particular week had been unusually hot, and dry. Normally the highlands where he lives receives up to 6 meters of rain a year! This makes a week without rain extremely rare. Despite the fact that it was unusually dry, which is not the best time to see amphibians, he assured me we would still see plenty.

Arriving at the reserve, he showed me inside the simple yet luxurious guesthouse where I would be spending the night. Well, the few hours of the night left after we finished our hike.

The first thing Brian showed me was his captive lab, since it was right next to the guesthouse. In a large open air concrete building with a tin roof and plastic panels that let in plenty of sunlight, he showed me a variety of terrariums filled with various species of poison dart frogs, salamanders, and even a few aquariums with baby clown fish. A little side project that his wife is working on, he told me.

Outside there was a greenhouse of sorts, with pitcher plants and various other tropical species spread around on metal shelves. On the floor there were 6 small buckets containing overripe pineapple pieces. Fruit flies buzzed excitedly around each bucket. Frog food. This is a stark contrast to the fruit flies we raise, which live their entire lives from egg to adult sealed in a plastic container. He showed me how he collects them using a net, then tossed them in a small cup and banged the cup against his hand, stunning the flies so they would crawl instead of fly making them easier for the frogs to eat. There were at least three different species of flies in the cup. A healthy part of the frogs' balanced breakfast.

I rattled off questions as fast as I could, eager to learn about all the success Brian was having here with breeding these amphibians. I quickly learned that Brian's perspective and purpose for keeping animals in captivity was in fact much different than our mission at EVACC.  Brian keeps mostly species that are not endangered, using captivity as a tool to learn more about their natural behaviors in the wild, where observing their habits can be quite tricky.

As we chatted, he explained how he believes in in situ conservation first & foremost, which means working to help frogs while they are still in the wild, by putting out buckets for them to lay their eggs in, creating pond habitats, etc.

He opened my eyes to other things as well... such as how incredibly arbitrary the conservation status of species listed on the IUCN can be. "It's really just a bunch of people sitting around a table making decisions based on the data we have from previous sightings," he clarified. He has personally been responsible for delisting quite a few species here in Costa Rica, especially those that are found in the highlands. Because their habitat is so difficult to access, many people assume they are rare. But they are still out there, he informed me, and many of them are thriving. This was a nice change of perspective from all the doom and gloom that is so common in the Amphibian world.

When I asked Brian about Chytrid, the deadly amphibian disease that is the primary reason the EVACC exists,  he nonchalantly replied, " Oh yea it's here." For Brian, finding a cure to chytrid is not his goal. Instead, he believes that increasing the numbers of the amphibians that are still around in the wild will help these animals to naturally combat this crisis. He let me know that you can see this sort of thing happening all throughout history - a population crashes, but a few individuals survive. With time, they slowly begin to return. Brian's goal is to give amphibians a boost in the wild primarily, rather than trying to save them in glass boxes. I couldn't help but feel a little jealous when I realized how simple and effective his strategy of using almost entirely natural materials has been. At EVACC anything brought in from outside must be thoroughly bleached and decontaminated to eliminate the risk of Chytrid. This makes introducing moss or delicate materials practically impossible. Here, Brian will just go out and collect more moss or plants from outside whenever necessary, never even bothering to think of Chytrid. Keeping amphibians in captivity is not his primary focus. "I'm a field guy," he declared. So into the field we went.

After I cooked a quick dinner in the guest house, Brian met me at 6 pm sharp and gave me a pair of boots and a flashlight. He instructed me to take off my headlamp, so as to avoid blinding him.  "I don't believe in headlamps," he reported. I found it a little strange, but I obeyed.

Within minutes of walking down the trail behind Brian's house we had spotted 4 or 5 different species. The resident one-eyed Leptodactylus savegei that hung out in the path, and scores of beautiful calling Agalchynis callidryas (red-eyed tree frog) and Dendropsophus ebraccatus (hourglass tree frog). This list went on. In fact, the list would eventually have over 25 different species of amphibians on it, most of them brand new to me. It was an incredible evening, and gaining a small window into Brian's mind was an experience I will never forget. His drive and passion for these animals is truly inspiring, his ability to spot frogs and identify them from a distance is unbelievable. He was patient with me when I needed to ask two or three times where exactly that frog across the pond was, and he always made sure I found it.

We took a few breaks and chatted while he shared his snacks with me. I learned so much about the land and the water here, the life cycles of these amphibians, the history behind who discovered them, what their Latin names mean, and that was only a small fraction of it. He pointed out other interesting creatures to me as well, showing me a cool invertebrate known as a velvet worm, which would shoot out a sticky goo like Spider-Man when he bothered it by rubbing it's backside. Fascinating!

We saw a variety of snakes as well, such as a coral snake and a few snail eating snakes with huge eyes. He told me about the various mammals that have been spotted on the property, including ocelots,  tapirs, and monkeys. I learned about how he found himself in Costa Rica and how he went about aquiring the land. "Never buy land from a newspaper," he advised. "If you see a piece of land you like, just start asking around and figure out who owns it and what they want for it. You'll find much better deals that way, before they have had time to think about what it is worth." I filed this away with all of the other pieces of useful information he'd given me that evening.

After all the buzz over the new "Kermit look alike" frog, (Hyalinobatrachium dianae) of course I had to ask Brian how it became such a big deal. He chuckled. "It's not my style," he revealed. "Those that know me know that." That didn't surprise me in the least. Brian seems like he has a lot more important things to do than spend time drawing comparisons to Kermit. He told me didn't even plan to bring the discovery to the attention to the presses, but one of his wife's friends works for a local paper and thought it would be neat to draw some attention to Costa Rica's amphibians. From there, another Costa Rican paper spread the story, and then the Daily News did a story on it... and Brian believes someone there in the states was responsible for drawing the Kermit comparison. Soon after that, the whole thing went viral. "We got over 200 emails in one day," he divulged. The president of Costa Rica called him up personally to congratulate him. He admitted that it was all a bit much for him, but in the end, he agreed it was nice because it raised awareness about how many frogs are still out there that we haven't found yet. That's the important part. Amphibians need all the help they can get.

On one of our snack breaks, I asked Brian for new batteries for my flashlight since it had started to become quite dim. This had caused my eyes to become rather tired, straining to find things and I noticed my eyes were beginning to shut more than I wanted them to. "You doing alright, not getting bored or anything?" Brian asked, obviously noticing. "Yeah I'm fine, but I think I need some new batteries" I replied, slightly embarrassed. The new batteries did the trick, and with the new light we trekked on for a few more hours.

By the time 2 am came around, we were just beginning to arrive back at the cabin. We had spent 8 hours walking through the woods, and I loved every second of it. Although there were the shameful moments when my eyes had begun to droop, I followed Brian's lead and used searching for animals as my caffeine. It had paid off, and I felt so thankful to have had this opportunity. If you are into wildlife, and especially if you are interested in amphibians... visiting Brian's center in Costa Rica is a MUST. I extend a huge Thank you to Brian for taking the time to teach me so much in a short period of time, and I look forward to visiting and learning more from him in the future!

Amphibian Species list
Allobates talamancae
Rhaebo haematiticus
Sachatamia albomaculata 
Teratohyla spinosa
Craugastor bransfordii
Craugastor crassidigitus
Craugastor fitzingeri 
Craugastor "rearki"
Pristimantis cerasinus 
Pristimantis ridens 
Dendrobates auratus
Oophaga pumilio
Phyllobates lugubris
Diasporus diastema
Agalchynis callidryas
Agalchynis lemur
Agalchynis spurrelli 
Cruziohyla calcarifer
Dendropsophus ebraccatus 
Duellmanohyla rufioculis
Hylosciritus palmeri 
Smilisca phaeota
Tlalocohyla loquax 
Leptodactylus savagei
Lithobates vaillanti
Lithobates warszewitschii 

Again, this was written on my phone so it lacks many of the frog photos that I took with my camera and I am only able to upload pics at the end. I will update as soon as possible. Peace ✌
The captive lab
 The amphibians of the reserve
Inside the guest house
Hourglass tree frog (Dendropsophus ebraccatus)
Amplexing pair of red-eyed tree frogs (Agalchynis callidryas)
Agalchynis spurrelli

ID pending on these snakes... 

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