Frogs, Honduras

Quetzal Waterfall, Cusuco

Last month I found myself back in Cusuco National Park. It is one of the most stunning places I've ever been, and this trip was a pleasure as ever. We were specifically trying to find out more about the natural history of the Exquisite Spike-Thumbed Frog (Plectrohyla exquisita), a gorgeous but enigmatic little creature that is critically endangered and found nowhere else on earth. 

Exquisite Spike Thumbed Frog (Plectrohyla exquisita)

Myself, Jonathan Kolby and Ben Mirin have been specifically trying to capture the call of this frog, which has never been heard before (to our knowledge). This involved the usual trials and tribulations of working with the frogs of Cusuco (constantly hiking up and down a boldery river with camera and sound equipment), but this time we also added round the clock surveys. We wanted to be out at all times of the day and night to work out when they are most active. A few nights we even woke up at 1am and hiked for several hours, which’ll mess with you.

Jonathan Kolby and Ben Mirin in Cusuco National Park
 Emerald Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis Marchi)

Emerald Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis Marchi)

This place never ceases to amaze me and this blog is mostly to share my photos from such a beautiful place. The video should be published later in the year by Biographic and will tell you all you need to know about what we did and what we found (because we found some pretty exciting stuff)! 

DSC01448.jpg
DSC01590.jpg
DSC01783.jpg

A huge thanks to Miguelito, Santiago and Ana, who made the whole thing possible for us.

Axolotls, Mexico

A year ago I was chatting to a friend about salamanders. She mentioned a conference she had attended where a group of Mexican nuns entered the room to join in with the conversation about amphibian conservation. A year later I found myself knocking on their convent door in the small town of Pátzcuaro, a few hours outside of Mexico City.

The quest to find these nuns and tell their story has introduced me to an incredible group of animals. Axolotls are really fascinating not only due to their developmental biology, but also their ecology and cultural significance.

Salamanders, like most amphibians, have two life stages. Beginning with a larval stage where the animal lives underwater and breathes through gills, they then metamorphose into adult animals with lungs that live on land.

Some species of the genus Ambystoma, however, have evolved to mature into adults while retaining larval aquatic characteristics. This is called neoteny. Imagine if tadpoles could mate with other tadpoles to produce more tadpoles, and never become frogs. That is the equivalent of what happens with these salamanders.

In most salamanders the bi-phasic life cycle allows them to disperse overland to new ponds or lakes. Axolotls are native to high altitude lakes in the Valley of Mexico. It is thought that they evolved to remain aquatic because climatic change dried out the land between these lakes, so terrestrial adult salamanders could no longer survive in the desert between water bodies.

Many axolotl species adopt this unusual neotenic lifecycle, but stress (overcrowding or being removed from water) can cause them to metamorphose into terrestrial adults. If life in your current lake is threatened, it might be worth risking life on land to find a new one. 

So what does this have to do with nuns? Well firstly, several species are very close to extinction.

One particular species is endemic to lake Pátzcuaro (Ambystoma dumerilii, known locally as "achoque") and was traditionally harvested for cough medicine. The nuns of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, on realising that the achoque were becoming very hard to find in the lake, made the decision to try and breed them within the convent, for the continued health of the community.  They converted part of the convent to an aquarium and spent years perfecting the conditions for these salamanders. They now have the most healthy captive population of axolotls that I have ever seen, and have hundreds of animals. They are even working with Mexican scientists to do genetic diversity studies and have published a book on the technical findings of their breeding facility. I met with Sor Ofélia, head salamander breeder, and she was quite an incredible human being. A nun since the age of 16 and working with these amphibians since 2000, she still knows individuals by name. Unfortunately I was not able to film their amazing story, but being there was a true privilege and I am very grateful for the bizarre and wonderful experiences my work blesses me with.

20180317_124023.jpg

On my travels I met a number of other scientists and conservationists working to protect axolotls. Ambystoma mexicanum, which many people are familiar with due to its prevalence in the pet trade, is endemic to the southern part of Mexico City. It has been bred in captivity for many years and is an important study species in labs because of its ability to regrow tissue, not just limbs like other salamanders, but even organ cells including the brain! Despite being found all over the world in aquaria, it is nearly extinct in the wild.  A 1998 study found 6000 individuals per square kilometre, by 2015 their population was thought to be as low as 35 per km2.

So why can’t we just continue breeding them in captivity and release them back into the wild? Well the main reason they have become so scarce is due to pollution. These axolotls live in the waterways of Mexico City’s chinampa fields (a traditional farming technique begun by the Axtecs). While it’s fascinating to get off the metro in one of the worlds biggest cities and find wild endangered amphibians, they are suffering the consequences of rapid urban growth. Scientist Luis Zambrano of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) says that individuals released into this region (Xochimilco) would likely not survive, and attempting to do so could skew the genetics of the wild population with traits picked up over generations in captivity.

Ambystoma mexicanum, wild type and leucistic

All this time I had still only been able to film axolotls in captivity. But thanks to a chance introduction I was able to travel into the field and follow herpetologist Alfredo Díaz monitoring another species: Abystoma taylori.

These animals are a particularly incredible as they are endemic to a saline crater lake name Alchichica. They are, as far as I know, the only amphibian to live permanently in salt water. What’s more, they have been found up to 30 meters below the surface of the water! There is very little existing footage of these animals and so filming them swimming around these strange stromatolite rock formations was a real privilege. They really are little dragons.

Ambystoma taylori at Lake Alchichica

I’m always blown away by the hospitality I receive in Mexico and this trip was no exception. Manuel González and his wife Karen, Luis Zambrano, Sor Ofelia, Felipe Barrera Aguirre and Alfredo Díaz and his wife Carmen, all went out of their way to help me in any way they could and I am extremely grateful for that. I’m hoping to continue telling this story as research continues, I've kind of got hooked on these creatures.

Urchins, Honduras

So I find myself back in Honduras. I've been filming the research Operation Wallacea are doing at Banco Capiro reef, just off the coast of Tela. This site has 3 times the hard coral cover of the average Mesoamerican reefs, so it's super valuable. It was a pleasure to be able to visit and document the work scientists are doing to trying to unlock its secrets. It seems like the abundance of the long spined sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) could be the key. Sea urchins are also incredible.

As someone generally used to filming above water, this has been a huge learning curve. Diving twice a day is exhausting and the equipment and environment were all new to me. Also focusing on marine creatures when currents are moving you in three dimensions is something I did not think through and it makes macro photography very challenging!

I was lucky enough to be able to borrow an SLR for stills, with housing and lights. Flash is not something I love to use, even in dark forests, but to get extra light down on the reef is so important. Red light is lost quickly as you descend and, although filters can be helpful, getting white light down with you makes all the difference. I had some initial teething problems with the strobes but go there in the end. Its amazing to see the colours of the coral come out.

Rattlesnakes, Michigan

Back in May I travelled to Michigan in order to film the Massasauga rattlesnake. It was an incredible week working alongside scientists who are documenting the population of this fascinating wetland species and the snake fungal disease which is affecting it. The video is finished now so all the information you need is here:

A lot of people ask how close I needed to get to the snakes to get some of these shots. Well I suppose often about a meter away, but they are not particularly big. However, I can't stress enough how placid these creatures are. Even with scientists collecting data on them for a considerable amount of time, they rarely ever strike. As Jen says in the video one of the main problems they face is direct persecution because people fear them, but they really don't deserve that reputation at all. 

This isn't a rattlesnake. It is an Eastern Garter snake. The wetlands and woodlands of Hastings are stunning and brimming with reptiles and amphibians, so I will take this opportunity to share some photos I took while there.

Gray tree frogs (Hyla versicolor), green frogs (Lithobates clamitans), wood frogs (Lithobates sylvatica) and American toads (Anaxyrus americanus).

DSC08068-2.jpg

This cheeky leopard frog was actually in Omaha, at the botanical gardens, which are great. 

 

Zoo, Nebraska

Brandon Greaves (King of the dome)

I am very lucky to have some friends who work at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Nebraska. I spent a full week exploring this incredible place and hanging out with the lovely people who work with their reptiles and amphibians. Here are some pictures of a few of my favourites from the herp collection, and some mesmerising jellyfish.

Mexican horned lizard (Phrynosoma taurus); Great Basin rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus lutosus); Giant leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbratus)

Panama golden toad (Atelopus zeteki); Waxy monkey tree frog (Phyllomedusa bicolour); Mexican leaf frog (Pachymedusa dacnicolor); Dyeing dart frog (Dendrobates tinctorius)

Arizona black rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus cerberus); Panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis); Ackies monitor (Varanus acanthurus); Oustalet's chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti)

Climbing mantella (Mantella laevigata); Central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), Gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor); Black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis); Rhinoceros ratsnake (Gonyosoma boulengeri)

Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox); Bluespotted jawfish (Opistognathus rosenblatti); Giant leaftailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus); Madagascar day gecko (Phelsuma madagascariensis)

Many horned adder (Bitis cornuta); Centralian python (Morelia bredli); Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes); Great Basin rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus lutosus); Satanic leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus); Giant leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus); Amazonian milk frog (Trachycephalus resinifictrix); Mexican leaf frog (Pachymedusa dacnicolor)

Surrealistic, Mexico

Photos from Edward James' surrealist garden in Xilitla and the desert around Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi. 

 

Tamarins, Brazil

I decided to take a detour to Brazil in order to visit a friend, Gabriela Rezende, who is working in the Atlantic Forest with endangered black lion tamarins. Here I had another stroke of luck, although I didn't really realise it at the time. I left Puerto Maldonado in Peru and after 4 days travelling I made it to the field site, a few hundred miles west of Sao Paulo. When we arrived there was news awaiting us. One of the groups she is radio tracking had decided to sleep in a particularly convenient tree hole, which meant we could attempt to capture them in the morning to change their collars. Cool, I thought, this sounds exciting.

Before dawn we headed into the forest to find them.

They weren't terribly happy to be woken up, but the little family of four were safely removed from the tree and weighed, one of them had its collar changed and another made a little more comfortable. Among the family was this particularly adorable baby as well. 

Success, I thought, a pretty cool day in the office for these guys... what I didn't realise until afterwards, is that Gabi and her team had been attempting to capture this group for nearly a year! These animals almost always sleep too high in the tree, or too deep into a thick trunk. It all happened so quickly I hadn't realised this is not a usual day in the office. I felt pretty incredibly lucky to see these guys up close on my first day, and get some shots that will hopefully be really helpful for IPE, the conservation organisation she works for.

What I also realised a few days later, is that a normal day of work for her team is nails. Radio tracking these monkeys involves waking up at 3.30 and basically running through a ridiculously sweaty jungle for 13 hours. When they move they move fast (think monkey crossed with a squirrel) and the Atlantic Forest is basically just vines, everywhere. Its also kind of dangerous, because of the rather well camouflaged rattlesnakes. Luckily the one I nearly stepped on warned me just in time, that its important not to spend too much time looking up into the canopy. 

As you can imagine filming these tiny primates high up in the trees when they don't really stop moving is a big challenge. Keeping my tripod out meant being completely tangled in plants if I tried to move anywhere, packing it away meant that when we spotted them, I rarely had time to set up my camera before they were off. 

Again I felt very privileged to have been able to film a capture. And I have a massive new found respect for primatologists.

But I think I'll stick to herps, thank you very much.

Otters, Peru

In my last post I mentioned having learnt a simple but important lesson about travelling and filming wildlife, about accepting that sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don't. The week I went to the low jungle near Puerto Maldonado (despite my laptop charger breaking and accidentally throwing my spare camera battery into a lake) when it came to wildlife, I was particularly lucky.

I was there to help an organisation called Peru Verde with some filming to promote their conservation work, and so I went to visit two of their lodges on the border with Bolivia. People visit this region in the hope of seeing giant river otters, and we were not disappointed. Our guide Jhon Aguilar whose voice you can hear on this video, is incredibly good at his job in every way:

We also saw a tapir, 6 species of monkey, a rainbow boa, an amazon horned frog (perhaps not high on the tourist list, but for me this was a real highlight) countless macaws and a sloth! Basically every excursion we went on, the amazon threw up some new spectacle, and I saw lot of animals I have wanted to see since I was a teenage girl glued to 'Andes to Amazon' and realising that dinosaurs really do still exist (those hoatzin are just nuts).