Leopard Frogs and Hidalgo

I recently returned from a fieldwork trip to Hidalgo, Mexico. I was there primarily catching leopard frogs to help out some colleagues: Anne Chambers and David Hillis from the University of Texas and Daniel Lara-Tufiño, a Mexican graduate student working with Adrián Nieto at UNAM. Anne and David (along with their Mexican collaborators) are working on the project investigating the systematics of leopard frogs. As part of this, we sampled frogs across a transect across the state of Hidalgo from Pachuca to Atlapexco that spanned the contact zones of several species. The trip was a huge success (in large part because we were able to sample 10 frogs from each of our targeted localities) and a lot of fun.

Preparing samples in Huasca de Ocampo, Hidalgo, MX

I also got to see a lot of really cool parts of Mexico I hadn’t spent much time in before. The trip began in the pine forests of El Chico National Park where we were sampling Rana spectabilis (or the showy leopard frog, which owes its name to the bright green dorsal color it exhibits in between it’s spots, which you can see below).

The showy leopard frog (Rana spectabilis)
A beautiful lake in Hidalgo full of showy leopard frogs, and plateau tiger salamanders (Ambystoma velasci)!

From there we dropped down into the Biosphere Reserve Barranca de Metztitlán to catch Rana berlandieri (the Rio Grande leopard frog, which occurs from Texas/New Mexico all the way through Central America). This is an incredibly beautiful area that contains the highest diversity of cactus species in the entire world.

Biosphere Reserve Barranca de Metztitlán

Then, we drove back up into the cloud forest of the Sierra Madre Oriental (taking a quick stop-off to see one of my favorite groups of lizards: Xenosaurus, in this case Xenosaurus tzaculatepantecus). The coolest place we stayed on the trip was probably at the CICHAZ, A.C. field station in Calnali. The station was founded by Gil Rosenthal from Texas A&M University, who works on swordtails (fish of the genus Xiphophorus), which are native to this area and used extensively in behavioral and genetic research.

CICHAZ, A.C. Field Station, Calnali, Hidalgo, MX
Outdoor fish enclosures at the field station for Xiphophorus research

We ended the trip by dropping down into the lowland rainforest near Atlapexco to catch the endemic Rana johni. As you can see, we saw a lot of cool, diverse habitats, and some interesting species. It was also a lot of fun to learn to catch leopard frogs. They are rather crafty, and can be difficult to catch in ponds and streams, especially during the day. However, it becomes a fun challenge to try and sneak up on and grab them before they dive into the water and disappear.

Even though we were very focused on catching frogs, we did find time to see a few cool lizards, including this Sceloporus minor being photographed by David and Anne.

Mojave Fieldwork 2017

Just got back from our annual fieldwork trip to the Mojave Desert. We were out working in the desert in California and Nevada for the last two weeks of May. We went to six different sites this year, and for the most part, things went really smoothly. We started this trip spending a couple days in the Kingston Mountains in CA, where a few of us have been hoping to come across a Gila monster for nearly a decade now. Yet again, no luck finding a monster, but it was great weather and good herping.


After the Kingstons, we went over to our site near Pahrump, NV that we’ve been resurveying for lizards over the past couple years. This site was originally surveyed in the early 1960’s by famed herpetologist Eric Pianka as part of his doctoral dissertation research. Because of the extraordinarily thorough nature of his original surveys, they represent a valuable source of baseline biodiversity data at these sites. We are going back and looking for changes in lizard abundance and species diversity at his old sites to see if the past 50 years of environmental change has impacted the lizard communities at these sites.

After Pahrump, we  went up to a new site we’d never been to near Grapevine Canyon in Nevada. This site is off the highway to Scotty’s Castle, which is unfortunately is closed right now because of damage from a huge flood that occurred in 2015, would have been neat to check it out. Fortunately for us, the road closure is just past the Pianka survey plot we were working on, so we could still access it. It was a beautiful site, with tons of blooming Creosote.


Following Grapevine, we went down to our site near Searchlight, NV which is one of our favorites due to it’s proximity to this interesting boomtown, and our campsite at Cottonwood Cove on the Colorado River where we are able to take refreshing afternoon swims after our surveys! Our last two sites were near Mojave and 29 Palms. Our only day of bad weather this year was in Mojave, where it was cold and windy one day. Although we lost one day of surveying, it did lead us to discover the existence of the California City Whiptails, an independent professional baseball team in the Pecos League. Our last night in 29 Palms, we got a big group campsite in Joshua Tree National Park, and had a fancy BBQ to celebrate the trip. It was an excellent trip: lots of fun with good friends/colleagues, successful herping, some great food (including some great taquerias, and a variety of cuts of venison cooked by Greg), and the beautiful Mojave Desert!

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Mexico Trip

I recently returned from a trip to Mexico City. I was there for a couple weeks, working with my collaborator Adrián Nieto at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). We’re working on trying to finish up a couple manuscripts on the phylogeny of Mexican whiptails. It was a really productive, fun trip, and was the most time I’ve spent in Mexico City and at UNAM. When I have been through before, it’s usually on the way back from fieldwork to drop off specimens, so I haven’t had much time on those visits. Pictured here are Adrián’s lab of Herpetology and a cool rock snake nearby.

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We spent most of the time in the lab trying to organize and identify specimens. Adrián has an incredible collection of whiptails from Mexico from all the fieldwork he and his lab have done over the years. We solved a lot of problems, but like the many whiptail taxonomists that have come before us, trying to make sense of the phenotypic variation we see among populations can be pretty confusing some times. Here’s an example of one specimen from Guerrero:IMG_4862 copy.JPG

It’s not clear exactly what to make of this population. Phenotypically, it’s most similar to Aspidoscelis lineattissima (though not exactly in line with the diagnosis), but it’s found much farther south in Guerrero than scientists think this species occurs.

We also spent some time analyzing some data and trying to figure out how to use El Supercómputo en la UNAM (http://www.super.unam.mx/). We were less successful at that, but did make some progress thanks in part to another postdoc in the department, Rubi Meza.

Finally, being the excellent hosts they are, on the weekends Adrián and his wife Elsa made sure to take me to cool places all over the city, including the Museum of Anthropology, the ruins at Tehuacán, and a bunch of other neat spots to site see and eat excellent tacos. Couldn’t have hoped for a better trip (besides maybe a few more herps, which we really didn’t have time to look for while I was there).

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Snake-eyed skink surveys II

I wrote previously about a project we’d started trying to determine the distribution of snake-eyed skinks on the island of Oahu. This past week, we finished up some additional surveys on several nearshore islands with some interesting results. In collaboration with Megan Laut and Kevin Donmoyer (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), Robert Fisher and Kevin Gallagher (USGS), and Tiana Bolosan (Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources) we surveyed Popoia Island and Goat Island. Snake-eyed skinks had previously been reported from both islands, but we only found them on the latter. We also attempted to survey Rabbit Island and Kāohikaipu Island, but the water was a little too rough for our inflatable boat, which nearly capsized before we had to turn back part of the way there. Fortunately the State is going back out to do breeding bird surveys on those islands next month so we can tag along and finish the skink surveys. Most significantly, we also recorded the first confirmed sighting of snake-eyed skinks on the main island of Oahu in ~100 years! Interestingly, we found a population hanging on inside the predator-free zone (which consists of a fence to keep out introduced rats and mongoose to protect native birds) at Kaena Point!

Undergraduate student Sam Fisher surveying for skinks at Makapu’u Beach, Oahu.
The DLNR crew preparing our boat.









The view from Goat Island. Not bad!
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Snake-eyed skink! (Cryptoblepharus poecilopleurus)

Maya presents research at UH

Maya Shaulsky (an undergraduate in the lab that I have been mentoring for the summer through the NSF REU Site program) finished up her research last week and presented a poster on it at UH. Maya is broadly interested in hybridization, so she’s been working on a project aimed at elucidating the genetic composition of several leopard frog populations in California that are thought to be potential hybrids between the native lowland leopard frog (Rana yavapaiensis) and the introduced Rio Grande leopard frog (Rana berlandieri).  Lowland leopard frogs are a highly endangered species that has not been documented to exist in California since 1965. Historically, they only occurred in the very far southeastern portion of the state, however, the two species are also very hard to tell apart based on morphology. Recently, several populations within their historical range have been reported to have individuals that look intermediate between the two species, so we wanted to investigate this issue using genetics. Maya impressively mastered her wetlab skills this summer, sequencing several different genes on a large panel of samples for the project. She also rapidly picked up skills analyzing her genetic data using phyologenetic and population genetic approaches. She finished up by putting together a great poster on the topic. Congrats to her on a successful summer and a job well done!


2016 Beckman Symposium

This weekend I attended the 2016 Beckman Symposium, which took place at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. This is the annual gathering of all researchers that are supported by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, through which my postdoctoral fellowship is funded. This includes the Beckman Young Investigators (early career faculty), the postdocs, and the Beckman scholars (undergraduate students) along with their mentors from universities across the U.S. The symposium is mostly a way for all of us to come together, present our research, talk about science, and learn a bit about the legacy of Arnold Beckman. The Beckman Foundation supports a large diversity of research across chemistry and the life sciences, so I really enjoy the opportunity to learn about the research people are doing that is very far removed from my field of science. It’s really informative, and gives some great perspective on different fields, and the scientific process more generally. This year, I presented my research at the symposium, and got a lot of great feedback from other scientists in the program. It was a lot of fun to meet some new talented scientists in the Beckman program, and to hang out with friends from the fellowship I met last year!


Summer Fieldwork

I just got back from some fun summer of fieldwork and scientific conferences. Things started off at Abaco Island in May, where Amber Wright invited me to help out catching lizards. She and her collaborators were just finishing off an experiment looking at the effects of seaweed on foodweb dynamics between plants, spiders, and lizards on small islands in the Bahamas. We spent the first few days spraying lizards with paint to census the population sizes on several different islands. Since it was the end of the experiment, we spent the last 10 days catching brown anoles on each of the experimental islands, and preserving the lizards and their parasites for future research. It was a lot of fun to cruise around in a boat in such a scenic area and get to see the small islands which have inspired a lot of classic work on anole experimental ecology. We were so efficient, we even ended up with a little extra time to see some sites, and spend time at the beach and a blue hole!


Straight from the Bahama’s, Amber, Bob and I flew out to Southern Nevada to meet up with our collaborator Greg Pauly for a couple weeks of historical resurveys of the Mojave Desert. Over the past three years, we have begun resurveying lizard communities at sites that Eric Pianka initially surveyed for his seminal work in the early 1960’s. There are a total of 12 sites spread throughout CA, NV, AZ, UT, and ID; this summer we completed resurveys at 4 of them, plus an additional site surveyed by Benjamin Banta around the same time. Our goal is to see how changes in climate and development that have occurred over the past several decades have impacted the diversity of lizards at each site, and their population sizes. Included in our trip was our annual weekend looking for Gila Monsters in the Kingston Mountains of California (where they are very rarely seen).

Doing our transect surveys in the Kingston Moutains
A fringe-toed lizard at Kelso Dunes








A really neat mural we found in 29 Palms of a Desert Iguana!


Finally, Bob and I just got back from a trip to southern Mexico. We spent a couple weeks collecting whiptail lizards with our collaborator Adrián Nieto Montes de Oca in Puebla, Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas. This work was in support of a project aimed at identifying species boundaries among Mexican whiptails, which has traditionally proven difficult due to extensive hybridization among species. I talked briefly about the labwork side of this project in a previous post. We had some minor complications with road blockades due to teachers protesting some new regulations, but it was great to get out and catch some whiptails together and fill in some sampling gaps. We got to see a huge variety of habitats across these areas, and a good chunk of whiptail species diversity. As an added bonus, I even got to see my first Xenosaur and my first Mexican horned lizard!