Currently, I am a postdoc at Colorado State University working with Dr. Kim Hoke and doctoral student Molly Womack to explore the evolution of ear structures in toads. We are studying a number of species in the family Bufonidae (genera Atelopus and Rhinella) to resolve the paradox of why vocalizing animals in a given clade would repeatedly lose their ears.
Field work and animal breeding is taking place in various regions across Amazonian Peru and Ecuador, especially at the field sites of Centro Jambatu in Quito and the Centro de Capacitación en Conservación y Desarrollo Sostenible in Oxapampa. We are paired up with various museums and a number of fantastic undergraduates and local experts to get all of the specimens collected and set up exhibits for the public focusing on the global crisis of amphibian decline.
Molly is using auditory brainstem recordings to characterize the hearing capabilities of the toads in the study, as well as microCT scans and 3D histological reconstructions to compare the morphology of hearing structures in those species. She has found some fascinating preliminary results so far. For example, it seems that earless toads actually have great hearing ability and there is some key variation across species in the ossification and shape of important ear structures!
My role in this project involves: (1) field work in Peru to get toads collected and breeding, (2) descriptions of the breeding behavior and natural history of the lesser studied species, (3) contributions to microCT and histological reconstructions of developmental series of hearing structures for each of the species, and (4) lab and bioinformatics work from a transcriptome perspective to test whether the expression of genes that modulate the development of hearing structures follows predictable evolutionary patterns and is associated with natural history traits. Check back to the updates section to hear how the project is moving along.