Andes, Buses, and Toads

If you had suggested 5 years ago that I would spend almost 2 months crossing the Andes 6 times and sit ~100 hours on buses with Amazonian toads at my feet, I would have looked at you like a crazy person. #strangethingsforscience

This field season, Nov 2015-Jan 2016, was epic for me, and not only in the melodramatic sense of the word that the cool kids are using these days. First, I need to mention how honored I was to work alongside so many truly wonderful people throughout the journey. I learned so much and saw dozens of species of frogs and snakes and lizards while searching for toads with world-class Peruvian herpetologists like Amanda Delgado, Peter Condori, and Juan Carlos Chaparro. I laughed at the great jokes and huge grins of outstanding local guides like Santos and Hector who searched abandoned mining camps and road ditches with us until 4:30 am in the pouring rain. And with the help and care of fellow Colorado State biologists Dusty Gannon and Claire Tortorelli, as well as CDS research station owners Florencia Trama and Federico Rizo-Patrón (and their toddler Lorenzo), I was able to work through a number of logistical challenges, do science, and feel at home through a holiday season away from home.

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On the first of 3 major phases of the field trip, I flew up to Cusco and joined Peter and Amanda. We drove up and then down a rather crazy highway towards Puerto Maldonado in search of an arboreal toad.

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We got lucky with a heavy downpour on our first night there, and in a few nights were successful in finding all of the frogs here that we hoped to find and a few that I joy-squeaked a little bit when we first spotted (Amereega, Phyllomedusa, Oreobates, Osteocephalus, etc. etc.). We also found 6 snake species (2 venomous), a salamander (Bolitoglossa with its little moustache), and an anole.

Unfortunately, a lot of our conversation and dismay here was focused on noting the rapid expansion of illegal gold mining in the area. This activity involves tearing out big patches of forest along streams, using heavy machinery to dig up the stream beds and mud, pouring toxic chemicals like mercury into the sludge to pull out the gold bits, and then leaving all of the destruction and contamination behind. Its actually unbelievable that we still were able to find so many herps here given the conditions. We had a couple of interactions with miners who, although generally friendly, were obviously nervous about why we were there each night, and had us on edge as well. Do me a favor, blog reader…please do not encourage this gold industry by buying things made with gold.

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With a couple boxes of the Rhinella toads we were looking for (with permits in hand to transport them), we headed back to Cusco. Then I took a bus with the toads to Lima, because the permit process for flying with live toads is arduous as well as risky because the police could decide at any moment to confiscate or quarantine them. Generally I have a pretty stable stomach for bus rides, but this was the ultimate nausea inducing experience and I’ll just say that in the future I will gladly pay the extra $50 to fly up to Cusco. Once in Lima, I met up with insect hobbyist Cristhian, who sold me 350 baby cockroaches to feed the toads, and sent the toads and their crunchy lunch to Oxapampa on a bus.

Phase 2 of the trip was a whole other level of adventure. Joined by Juan Carlos Chaparro, author of many articles describing toad species and their natural history and curator of herps at a museum in Cusco, we ventured to the area of Chachapoyas in the north of Peru. Aiming for a toad that only lives above 2700m, in an area where mining and other questionable land use activities are rampant, one of our biggest challenges was obtaining permission. We had the permit from SERFOR, the Peruvian government organization for wildlife research, but needed to connect with the mining company and campesino community that oversees one of these mountain peaks to get their approval to hike up there. Juanca, who has an ideal character for this sort of thing, made it happen in the community of Shipasbamba. They asked us to attend an evening meeting with the elders and explain what it was we wanted to do. Although they found it a little unusual that this blond foreigner really wanted a few of their toads, they were excited to hear some stories about the herps that are unique to their area and seemed driven to ensure our experience in their community was positive (including an impromptu dinner for us!). In the end we received a handwritten letter, signed by the elders, giving permission to hike up into the abandoned mining camps on their land and look for the prized toad.

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With permits in hand, we were joined by 3 local guides, packed up a few days worth of food, and set to climb the 1800m to where the toads live in a dense population at the top of the mountain. The photos below can do a better job of describing this lifetime experience…

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Once back down, the toads and I set off for 3 days and nights of bus travel from Chachapoyas to Chiclayo, Lima, and finally Oxapampa. Now in phase 3 of the trip, I was joined by Dusty and Claire (recently graduated CSU biology students), Flor and Fede (directors of CDS research station in Oxapampa), and Peter (the same Peter from Cusco!). Our goal was to take the toads collected in the north and south, as well as a couple of species from the area of Oxapampa, and get them to make babies so that we can study the evolutionary development of their ears (or lack thereof). The process of breeding frogs comes with a whole set of challenges, and had never been attempted for any of these species, so we have had to overcome a lot of hurdles in the effort related to thermal and humidity conditions, food sources, habitat preferences, hormonal priming, and more.

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Now, Flor and Peter continue to monitor and encourage breeding through this wet season. I was able to bring back a bunch of samples and combining those with others that have arrived from our collaborators in Ecuador, I’m now working with CSU undergrads Koedi and Duncan to histologically process them. We hope to develop an understanding of the developmental morphology of species with and without ears so that later the Hoke lab can explore the molecular processes behind those morphological differences.

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And of course, while all of the science was happening, no trip to Peru would be complete without some creature comforts and a truly amazing array of FOOD.

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