Unravelling the amphibian and reptile habitats of Costa Rica

Deep beneath the overstory

I was fortunate between my second and third years to spend five months in Costa Rica, designing and constructing research on amphibian and reptile ecology, as well as taking tissue samples which we barcoded once back in Plymouth. DNA barcoding is a method of identifying organisms based on short standardised fragments of DNA and it is a process to rapidly accelerate the discovery of new and cryptic species which helps us understand and better conserve these very rich tropical ecosystems.

The purpose of the research was to better understand the amphibian and reptile communities within that system, the conservation area known as the Área de Conservación Guanacaste in north-western Costa Rica. We were hoping to better understand how the reptiles and amphibians work and which species are found where.

This experience came about after I spoke to one of my lecturers, Dr Robert Puschendorf, about the fact I was interested in amphibians and reptiles. In 2015, Dr Puschendorf was part of a team of researchers who published a paper identifying the first new species of glass frog to be discovered in the country since 1973. He said come to Costa Rica and conduct a research project, which was brilliant.

This was the first research of its kind to be done in this protected area, especially looking at the distinct forest types which we focused on: cloud forest, rainforest, dry forest and an ecotone that represented in-between the rainforest and cloud forest, the semi-moist forest.

<p>An eyelash viper snake (Bothriechis schlegelii) wrapped around a branch of a tree.</p>
<p>A frog on a leaf.</p>
<p>A lizard on a tree branch.</p>

The hurricane in the rainforest

You would think fieldwork in a tropical country would be idyllic, it’s not. Working in a rainforest for weeks on end is difficult. There’s lots of biting insects, you get bitten all over. And for lots of it we were isolated – we spent two weeks on top of a volcano where we saw no one else for that period. 

Being immersed in this pristine forest was incredible, but you do get a bit lonely. It’s difficult and we were very limited on the choice of food while up there. But overall, the experience was incredible, despite the hardships of living in a forest for several weeks on end.

At the end of a sampling period at one of our dry forest sites we got a text from my supervisor back in the UK saying we were expecting some rain, some heavy rain. It had rained every night while we’d been sampling for the two weeks there, so we didn’t really think too much of it, but this low pressure system ended up rapidly becoming a fully-fledged hurricane, something really rare for this area of the tropics.

We went out sampling, it was raining. We came back and the rain just didn’t stop and then it turned into a hurricane and we were stranded in the forest for several days, which was terrifying. 

We were staying in a rangers hut at that point and the water just came in slowly under the door and the water rose and rose and rose to just above my knee.

We slept on a table outside underneath a piece of corrugated iron while the wind and the rain battered us. It was a scary experience, but it was an experience. A good story to tell afterwards. To experience this type of fieldwork was fantastic, despite all the bugs and the food and the hurricane!

<p>Alex Edwards and colleague in Costa Rica.</p>
Alex (left) with fellow student George
<p>A sunset over the hills.</p>
<p>After the heavy rains.</p>

Reflecting on the creativity of science

It took a bit of adjustment coming back to Plymouth. I spent about a week just eating. I certainly missed the weather out there. I missed the forest and being in nature all the time, which was truly wonderful.

It was fantastic to get the experience to design my own research project and to execute it in the field, to get the results back and then get something out of that, which is my dissertation and hopefully a paper afterwards. 

It was brilliant to obtain the actual skills to go out and identify species in the field, to take genetic tissue samples and understand field guides and the ecology of the species, so you can then use the results and put them in a broader context.

The course really allows you to be creative in terms of what you want to study and how you do it. Science is a very creative field but it is not necessarily depicted as such, but it is great to be able to design your own project, to decide how long the transits are going to be, where are you going to conduct it, what sorts of results you want and how you are going to present those results so they are easy to disseminate. 

I would love to return to Costa Rica or any tropical environment. Whether it will be studying amphibians and reptiles, I don’t know, I mean I love amphibians and reptiles, so probably! I definitely have plans to go out to somewhere like Costa Rica again.

<p>The underside of a frog.</p>
<p>Alex Edwards' picture of a powdered glass frog in the Costa Rican rainforest (Credit: Alex Edwards, University of Plymouth)<br></p>
Alex's award-winning photograph
<p>The red-eyed treefrog (Agalychnis callidryas).<br></p>

An award-winning frog

I was passionate about wildlife photography before I came to university, but studying a degree in science has really allowed me to marry these two passions together with a greater focus on ecology and science communication.

Photography is a very powerful tool, especially for conversation and for getting people involved and aware of what’s there and what’s happening and what needs to be saved. Plus, everybody loves pictures of frogs!

During my time in Costa Rica I came across a powdered glass frog (Teratohyla pulverata) perched on a leaf in the rainforest. I was able to very quickly take a couple of pictures of the frog looking directly at me, before it disappeared back into the undergrowth. 

I was encouraged to enter the Close and Personal category in the British Ecological Society’s annual photography competition by Dr Puschendorf. It was great to see one of my photos selected for the competition. I was then even more delighted to find out that I had won the category

It was fantastic to see the frog in its natural environment, but I only managed to get about two photos before it disappeared. Needless to say, it instantly became one of my favourite photos from the trip.

<p>A&nbsp;White-faced capuchin&nbsp;(C. capucinus) in the trees.</p>
<p>A blunthead tree snakes&nbsp;(Imantodes cenchoa).</p>
<p>Keel-billed toucan (<i></i>Ramphastos sulfuratus)<i></i>

 sitting on a tree branch.</p>

Capturing a moment to share

I want to continue to combine using photography to showcase my science research, but it will probably be more of a hobby than the main part of the science. There are though definitely aspects of science where photography does play a big part, such as species identification.

In terms of communicating the results of my science, photography will continue to play a massive role in my future. Photography makes science more colourful and more emotive to an audience, helping them to understand the subjects of the science and the threats they face.

Science isn’t always the most emotive of subjects especially in scientific writing, whereas with a photo you are really able to capture a moment and people can relate to photos or understand the issues with a far greater immediacy than from reading.

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