EDGE conservation biologist, Claudia Gray, is currently teaching on a field course on the island of Negros in the Philippines. Here she tells us all about early starts, rare frogs and how the work she does helps to prevent the loss of some of the world’s most extraordinary creatures.
It’s still dark in the tropical rainforest this early, but you have to get up really early to see the birds. Today I am teaching on our month long field course – this year it is being held on the island of Negros in the Philippines. My role as conservation biologist is to train and mentor our EDGE fellows – early career conservationists that are working on Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species. Each fellow gets funding and support from our team for two years, during which they carry out research and engage with local communities to help ensure the survival of their species. There are about 15 fellows on the course today, and this week we are trying out a wide range of different methods for surveying amphibians, mammals, birds or reptiles.
We are now waiting at one of the bird survey points, standing in silence and trying hard not to rustle the leaves with our feet. We need to be as quiet as possible so that the birds are happy to fly close to us and so that we can hear all the different species singing. I have instructed the fellows to record the data in their little yellow waterproof notebooks: they are estimating the distance of each bird from our location, its activity and the type of vegetation where it is found.
This morning we are also accompanied by employees of a local conservation NGO, as they know all the forest trails and they are helping the fellows identify the bird species. This part of the training will be particularly useful for the EDGE fellow that is studying the Ethiopian White Winged Flufftail – an elusive little wetland bird with striking white wing feathers. The White Winged Flufftail is Critically Endangered and only has one breeding site left in the whole world. Our fellow will be working out how management of the site can be improved to prevent us losing the species forever.
Having finished the bird survey, we now move on to the small mammal traps. We set up a line of 10 traps to teach the fellows how they work – each one is a small metal box with a trap door. The door closes when the animal removes bait from a little hook at the opposite end of the trap. We open the traps carefully, anticipating something exciting in each one.
Unfortunately, the first nine traps are empty. The final one reveals a fuzzy ball of fur with a long tail that darts out into the bag we are holding over the open trap door. We weigh the whole bag to see how heavy the animal is. One of the EDGE fellows then carefully manoeuvres the little forest rat into a safe handling position to measure its body length, tail length and record what sex it is. This data is being collected to monitor the health and demography of the small mammal population in the forest. Our EDGE fellow working on mouse lemurs in Madagascar will be using similar techniques to find out how the mouse lemurs move around a fragmented forest landscapes. He will then use this information to help decide which parts of the area should be reforested.
The next stage in the mornings training is to check the pitfall traps for amphibians. These traps are buckets dug into the ground, into which we have put some damp soil and leaves to give the frogs, toads and salamanders the moist conditions they need. We are lucky today and have found several species, some with brightly coloured legs, others that have evolved to look just like leaves. I am teaching the fellows how to take swabs from the frogs. They gently move a little cotton swab over the skin, following a standardised procedure. This will be sent off for laboratory analysis.
There is currently a fungus causing major declines in amphibians all over the world, so it is really important to check whether this fungus is present in the population. If it is, the area may need additional action, such as increased habitat protection or reducing pollution, to help the amphibians survive. This year we have an EDGE fellow who will be using this protocol on the purple frog, a truly extraordinary little creature with dark purply-brown skin and a white bony pointy nose. It lives under the soil in the Western Ghats (India) and only emerges once a year when all the adults try to find a mate and breed. He is aiming to map the distribution of the species, which remains poorly known, and will have to work really hard on the couple of days when the mass breeding happens!
We’ve now got records of the bird species we’ve seen and heard at our survey points. The amphibians have happily hopped away after we took the swabs. The small forest rats have been released at the same locations where we found them, so that they are in a familiar location. We are heading back to the field centre for some lunch and a break from the heat!
After some tasty fried vegetables, spicy beans and rice cooked by the friendly field centre staff, we get the fellows to gather in the classroom for an afternoon lecture. Today we are teaching them how to map and visualise their data in free, open source software. We work through the theory and a couple of examples, and then they embark on the tutorials – first-hand experience of using the software is by far the best way for them to learn how to use it. It can be a pretty tiring session, trying to answer everyone’s questions as quickly as possible, but it’s really worth it because at the end of the session they are all really pleased with what they have achieved. The field centre staff reward their efforts with a snack of delicious sweet mangos!
We return to the forest to set up the survey points for the night. We put plenty of banana out in the rat traps, so that any individuals caught have plenty to eat for the night. We also open up the pitfall traps for the amphibians – they have been shut during the day to prevent any animals getting caught in the heat. We also practice taking some measurements of the vegetation – tree height, canopy cover and the density of tree trunks. Although we don’t have EDGE fellows working on plant species yet (hopefully we will soon!) these measurements are important for characterising the habitat that the animals need.
We are back at the field centre for a shower and some supper. After everyone has eaten and feels refreshed, we listen to one of the EDGE fellows give a short presentation on their project. Alongside the training, I am working with the fellows to develop their project plans – decided what their objectives should be and what methods they should use. They are taking turns to present each evening on their species and what their plans are so far. This evening we are listening to one EDGE fellow talk about the East African shoebill – an incredibly tall bird with human-like eyes and a huge beak that give it a weirdly prehistoric appearance.
After the talks we review the plan for tomorrow and everyone stays around to chat for a bit. One of the EDGE fellows working on an amphibian species takes a small group of people out to search the field centre paths for some exciting frogs, since she has never been to this forest before and is excited to spot something new. Gradually everyone heads off to their rooms to sleep – it’s another early start tomorrow!
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