Thursday, March 14, 2019

Congratulations to Jason Ward - The First Winner of The Alongside Wildlife Foundation Outreach Award

The Alongside Wildlife Foundation Outreach Award recognizes effective and innovative science communicators that go above and beyond to engage and educate non-scientists about wildlife and conservation. We created this award because everyone agrees this kind of outreach is important, but there are few mechanisms to recognize and reward the people actually doing the work. We are honored to present the very first award to Jason Ward, a self-described bird nerd, educator, and writer for Audubon; he caught our eye because of his tireless work on Twitter helping people identify birds. I hope this interview with Jason helps you learn more about him as well as the important work he is doing on behalf of both people and wildlife. And make sure to watch his new web series premiering this Sunday on March 17th (details below)!

How do your science communication efforts and initiatives relate to your career? 

There’s a lot in common with my science communication efforts and my career. Career-wise, I’m the current Community Relations & Outreach Coordinator for National Audubon. My job allows me to directly engage people of color and inspire them to pursue a career in conservation. I’m able to be the face of representation for a younger generation who may have not considered these doors open to them before.

That falls directly in line with my science communication goals. I aim to change the face of birding and blaze trails for colorful, young crowd of future conservationists. 

If you communicate one thing to non-scientists, what would it be? 

If I could communicate one thing to non-scientists, it would be to get outside more. Even if it’s just for 5-10 minutes. Being amongst nature is incredibly therapeutic. And it doesn’t matter what activity you choose to incorporate into your outdoor time. It doesn’t matter whether you’re birding, herping, jogging, or just going for a walk. Immerse yourself into nature, put your phone on “do-not-disturb” mode and enjoy. 

If you could communicate one thing to people thinking about getting started in science communication and outreach, what would it be? 

I would tell them to stay consistent. People will eventually take notice if you’re consistent. There may be times where you wonder how efficient you are. If your message is truly getting across to audiences. But stick with it, and have fun doing it. If it isn’t fun for you, no one benefits from it. 

Why do you feel it is important to spend your time and energy talking to non-scientists about birds? Who is your audience and what is your goal? 

I sincerely believe birds are the best animals in the world. I’m definitely the guy at the party who throws a random bird fact into the conversation. I cannot help it, it is who I am lol. 
My audience is anyone who will listen. Especially if they come to me and ask me a question about a neighborhood sighting, or something they saw on the internet. I consider those inquiries to be opportunities to kindle an interest in birds. I want to change minds, clear misconceptions, and infect others with my passion for birds.

What is a unique challenge you have faced while you engage with non-scientists about wildlife and conservation?

There are two challenges I’ve come across. On one hand, I didn’t expect so many people to have a fear of birds! People won’t go near them! It blows my mind lol.

On a more serious note, I’ve found it difficult to explain to folks how their behaviors can adversely affect birds. For example, feeding ducks and geese can have major domino effects on the overall health of a small pond of lake. Not to mention the effects it can have on the ducks and geese themselves. 

Is there something about talking with non-scientists about wildlife and conservation that you find particularly gratifying? 

I love the looks on people’s faces when they’ve just had their mind blown upon learning something cool about an animal. Sparking intrigue is something I thoroughly enjoy doing. Whether it’s talking to people about Clouded Leopards at Zoo Atlanta, or running my mouth about Peregrine Falcons on my bird walks. I love when I’m able to teach people something new. 

Who is a science communicator you admire and why?

It’s so hard to pick just one! They all do amazing work. I want to take this time to shine a light on the women of color in the community that I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with over the years: Asia Murphy, Yara Haridy, Earyn McGee, Corina Newsome, Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, “Crazy Aunt Lindsey”, Dr. Danielle N. Lee, Rose DF, and many more. I’m absolutely forgetting people and I apologize for that. You all are awesome. 
Also, fun fact, I’m not sure if you know, but the idea for came about due to your & hashtags that you tweet out occasionally.

What is a conservation issue that you’re particularly passionate about?

Keep your cats indoors please, thanks.
That’s all that needs to be said, it’s such a simple issue. Yet, it continues to be a divisive topic. I think the divisiveness stems from the fact that there’s a ton of emotion attached to it. People love their cats dearly, which I understand. But I’ll continue to push for responsible pet ownership as long as I’m alive. And keeping cats indoors is a major part of responsible pet ownership. There’s no way around it.

Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?

I’m so excited to share my new web series with everyone. It’s called “Birds of North America”, and it premieres Sunday, March 17th on YouTube and on Topic Magazine. There will be a new episode each Sunday.

Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some pretty cool locations to go birding. We were able to capture some amazing bird moments, and talk to some amazing people. It’s been a literal dream come true for me and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I’ve enjoyed making it. 
Also, if you live in the Atlanta area, join me on my monthly bird walks at Piedmont Park. They’re held on the first Saturday every month. More information can be found by visiting Atlanta Audubon and finding the field trips tab.
I’m honored to receive this award. It means a lot for a kid growing up in the projects in the South Bronx to be able to share my passion with the world. I won’t stop.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Support The Alongside Wildlife Foundation Just By Shopping On Amazon

Do you 

  • Appreciate that we awarded over $10,000 to wildlife conservation projects around the world in 2018 (and plan on doing it again in 2019)?


Well, now you can help generate funds for our important work simply by shopping on Amazon. Click here to designate The Alongside Wildlife Foundation as your Amazon Smile charity, and Amazon will send a small percentage to us each time you make a purchase (make sure you're shopping on Amazon Smile and not just Amazon).

It's easy to do and it really adds up. Please consider signing up and better yet, ask a friend to do the same. Let me know what you think below!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Antarctica: a Continent at a Crossroads --- Guest Photo Essay ---

Travel to Antarctica takes about four days from leaving your house to first sight of land. As a photographer traveling there for the first time, my interest was in the colors of the ice, the stark monochromatic landscape, and the sheer vastness of the continent. I was looking forward to this backdrop to photograph penguins, seals, and whales, but I had only cursory knowledge about these animals. What I found was a bustling and interconnected ecosystem full of life. 

The first part of the journey by ship is crossing the Drake Passage. The stretch of ocean between South America and Antarctica is notorious for rough seas, but we were in luck with smooth sailing. Various species of albatross cruised past the bow while giant petrels crisscrossed in the wake of the ship. After about 36 hours at sea we spotted our first iceberg and the shadows of the South Shetland Islands.

When visiting Antarctica, there is a requirement to check and decontaminate all gear prior to setting foot on land. While completing this process our ship pulled alongside an enormous iceberg. Dubbed A57a based on its point of origin, it is a tabular iceberg, or piece of ice shelf, about 12nm long by 5nm wide. The iceberg calved off of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in 2008 and it has traveled almost 1,000 miles to its current location. While not nearly the largest iceberg of its kind, A57a dwarfed the ship and the humpback whales feeding alongside it.

One thing you learn when you travel to Antarctica is that there are many different kinds of ice. NOAA defines an iceberg as ice greater than 16 feet above sea level, with a thickness of 98-164 feet. While tabular icebergs like A57a qualify in size there are also gorgeous blue glacial icebergs. Smaller chunks of floating ice are called bergy bits and growlers. There is also pack ice, which forms when floating ice is driven together by wind and waves, brash ice when the sea is covered in small fragments, fast ice when the ice is connected to land, and sea ice when the sea itself has frozen into a flat expanse.

After spending some time at iceberg A57a, we made a stop at False Bay, a quiet cove sheltered from the wind. During a small boat tour, we spotted 20 leopard seals lounging on pack ice. This was a surprising number to find in such close proximity. Leopard seals are typically solitary hunters whose diet includes fish, penguins, and smaller seal species. They are huge animals that can weigh around 1,000 pounds and they are nearly an apex predator with only the occasional killer whale to worry about. Leopard also seals make a variety of strange, otherworldly noises. If you have never heard them, they are definitely worth a listen. Scientists have monitored these vocalizations during breeding season and have found that visual counts may underestimate leopard seal populations.  

Next up was a visit to Paulet Island, home to about 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins. The island is rocky, ice free and very crowded with simple pebble-reinforced scrapes that the penguins use as a nest. Adult penguins and chicks occupied every flat surface and pungent guano stained most of the land a dull red. At this time of year Adelie penguin chicks are nearly full grown and going through the process of molting their down. Most chicks looked like miniature punk rockers with downy mullets; their plump bodies covered in grime from life in the colony. The chicks were eager for food and constantly pestered their parents. 

While penguin chicks are developing, one parent will stay with the chick to keep it warm until it becomes thermally independent. Then both parents will leave the chick to search for food. Penguins feed their chicks be regurgitating a slurry of partially digested fish and krill into their mouths. Adult birds have enzymes and antibacterial agents in their digestive tracts that allow them to store this food for a few weeks without it going bad. Having built in preservatives allows one parent to protect and feed the chick while the other parent forages.

Brown Skuas, large seabirds with stout bills, circled the penguin colony looking for weak chicks to prey on or carcasses to scavenge. While some people compare them to vultures they are better described as an opportunistic predator. During penguin breeding season, skuas will steal eggs and take chicks whenever they can. In fact, researchers believe that skua breeding season is timed to take maximum advantage of the sudden uptick in available food. Skuas will also eat fish and scavenge food from other sources such as seal carcasses.

Another bird found around penguin colonies is the Snowy Sheathbill. You may hear about animals having an ecological niche and this bird is no exception. They will eat nearly anything - from seal placenta to fecal matter to algae growing on rocks. While they play a vital role as the Antarctic clean-up crew Snowy Sheathbills will also steal penguin eggs and gang up on adult penguins to get them to disgorge food. They are plump, white, homely pigeon-like birds belonging to the only bird family that breeds solely on Antarctica. They are also the only bird on the continent that does not have webbed feet and they avoid water. During winter, Snowy Sheathbills migrate north to South America.

Sailing in the Antarctic summer, the waters along the northern Antarctic Peninsula were mostly ice-free. The ship rounded the northern tip of the peninsula and headed for the Weddell Sea. During this part of the journey, we made a stop at Brown Bluff and were able to observe a colony of Gentoo penguins raising chicks. We all laughed as we watched a parent run away with a noisy chick trailing behind. Later we learned that penguin parents purposely lead the chicks away from the rest of the colony to feed them without harassment. Here we also got our first glimpse of penguin highways - deep furrows in the snow that make travel easier between the colony and the sea. Penguins establish them early in the breeding season and use them all summer long.

Later that evening we spotted a pod of killer whales nearby. The whale researchers on board told us that these were small Type B killer whales, or “Little B’s. Interestingly, killer whale research in the Antarctic has suggested that each of the four types of killer whale seem to occupy distinct ecological niches with each feeding on different types of prey. Most people are familiar with Type A killer whales. Their favorite food is Weddell seal and they will locate seals by spy hopping - peeking above the surface of the water to see what is there. The whales then coordinate to form a wave and wash unlucky seals off the pack ice and into the sea. By contrast, scientists believe Little B’s feed exclusively on fish. 

As the whale research team set off to attempt to ID individual killer whales and gather DNA the ship was surrounded by an astonishing number of baleen whales - fin whales, humpback whales, and even a critically endangered Antarctic blue whale! There were whales in every direction. The humpback whales coordinated feeding by using bubbles to concentrate schools of small crustaceans called krill and then surfacing, mouth agape, through the tightly packed school. The whales were so close we were able to see their baleen plates – built-in filters in their mouths used to strain the krill from the water.

Many animals in Antarctica, including birds, seals, fish, and whales, feed on krill. While krill are only about the size of a paperclip, they are a keystone species of the Antarctic food chain. During certain times of year, they can form in large enough masses that they are visible from space. One issue to keep an eye on is the commercial fishing of krill for products like omega-3 supplements and as food for both fish stocks and people. It is difficult to quantify the impact of commercial hauls as krill populations can vary with changes in the environment, but a collapse in krill populations would be dire for the Antarctic ecosystem.

We spent the next few days exploring - kayaking, hiking, even taking a plunge into frigid Antarctic waters - all while continuing to learn about Antarctica from the various scientists on board the ship. Different scientists presented each day and were happy to teach and answer questions. I learned a quite a bit and gained a much better understanding of the Antarctic ecosystem than I could have imagined. Given their knowledge, I asked many of them what they thought about Antarctic tourism and every one had a similar answer - if people come then they will care and if they care then people will want to preserve it. 

One of the last stops our ship made was at a Gentoo penguin colony at Jougla Point on the shore of Wiencke Island. The island forms part of a natural harbor that was used by whalers at the turn of the 20th century. The shore is littered with whale bones including a nearly intact humpback whale skeleton. Like many places on Earth, people rushed to exploit Antarctica’s resources during the 19th and 20th centuries. They hunted penguins, seals, and whales – in some cases decimating entire populations - and sold the extracted resources for profit. Fortunately, prohibitions on hunting and protection for these species have allowed many populations to recover.

For our last stop, we took a short trip to nearby Port Lockroy on Goudier Island. The old British outpost had seen the whalers come and go, the fear of an Axis takeover during WWII come and go, and is now a historical site complete with a small museum, post office, and gift shop. The site is a popular stop funded by tourist dollars and various vessels anchored nearby. We could see hikers climbing the glacier across the channel under sunny skies in relatively warm weather. Antarctica is, by international treaty, a land preserved for peaceful purposes and scientific discovery. It is also a tourist destination on a planet confronting the potentially existential challenge of global warming. It is at a crossroads where the conflict is between having people see it and want to preserve it and the high cost of getting there.

About the Author

Jen Cross has a Masters of Science in Enginee
ring and works in new product development. She has leveraged her background in science to learn and understand more about wildlife biology, ecology, and conservation

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

California Waters: Frogs of the Frozen Reaches ---Guest Post---

Part III, and III.

More than an experiment

Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frog (Rana sierrae).
Photo courtesy Gary Nafis
In the 1990s, researchers embarked on an ambitious plan to restore Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs to California’s highest lakes.

The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog (now split into two species) was once the most numerous vertebrate in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The steep streams that pour off the Sierra Nevada’s slopes are a barrier to fish movement, so frogs thrived in the empty niche. Early surveyors said the lakeshores were so thick with frogs that it was impossible to avoid stepping on them as you walked.

But sometime around the 1960s their populations began to crash. Basins which historically had been full of the frogs now held few, often none at all. Soon they were gone from 95% of their former range.

Topography keeps the Sierras wild,
but we still find ways to impact its wildlife.
Theories proliferated as to what was behind the decline. A few researchers suggested that increased UV radiation from the weakened ozone layer could be the issue, while others found a correlation between struggling frog populations and vehicular pollution. Some hypothesized that a novel disease had hit the frogs. Pesticide exposure may have been a factor, as the worst-hit populations were downwind of the intensively farmed Central Valley.

By the nineties the bulk of researchers had coalesced around one primary theory: introduced trout were eating the frogs to extinction.

Surveying a deserted landscape

Flash forward to May 2018. I had spent ten days surveying the deserts of eastern California and was ready to move on to the forests that form the backbone of the state. With my father I traveled through the San Bernardino Mountains, the San Gabriels, the Tehachapis, Breckenridge, and up into the southern Sierras.

Sierran Chorus Frog (Pseudacris sierrae).
Frogs were in short supply. On most hikes I was lucky to encounter a single chorus frog or toad. Only once did I find a Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog (Rana muscosa). As I described in my first article, it was tucked away in a remote high-elevation stream in the San Gabriel Mountains, part of a population down to its last dozen or so frogs. Nowhere else did I even cross the path of a ranid (true frog).

Before the trip I had known this would be a likely result. Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs are basically gone from these elevations. Despite low expectations, I still went through something of a mourning process as we hiked pristine streams and gorgeous meadows yet found nary a frog jumping into the water. My father and I had to content ourselves with several lizard species, salamanders in the wettest spots, and the occasional Mountain Garter Snake.

Mountain Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans elegans) are
often associated with Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs, but now
only chorus frogs survive in this snake’s meadow.
When White fishermen first arrived in California, they met an entirely different disappointment - the fishless lakes and streams of the Sierra Nevada. Their response was to introduce trout to the waters. These rainbow and brook trout survived by competing with frogs for food and even eating the tadpoles themselves. At first fish were only introduced to the most accessible lakes, but in the 1950s the Department of Fish and Wildlife began employing helicopters to plant trout in remote waterways. As sport fish thrived, frogs disappeared. By the end of the twentieth century, 90% of Mountain Yellow-legged frog habitat was inundated with predatory trout.

One step forward, two steps back

Dr. Vance Vredenburg was one of many biologists who saw the dots connect between trout and the frog declines. As the habitat was still intact, he suggested that removing trout could allow frogs to recover. In 1996 he chose the 10,000-foot-high Sixty Lakes Basin as a place to test the theory. Though Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs had been extirpated from many trout-filled lakes in the basin, populations remained in the ponds where fish were absent.

Dr. Vredenburg’s research team used gill nets to extract fish from five more of the basin’s lakes. Once the fish were gone, the frogs returned. Even lakes that still contained trout began to harbor frogs so long as they were adjacent to fishless lakes. Similar studies in other basins confirmed the theory. Conservationists excited by the results began to remove fish from high-elevation lakes across the Sierras.

Sixty Lakes Basin became one of the most vibrant Mountain Yellow-legged Frog metapopulations in the Sierras.  

Frogs killed by chytrid in Milestone Basin.
Photo from Voyles et al. "Pathophysiology in Mountain
Yellow-Legged Frogs during a Chytridiomycosis Outbreak".
That is, until August 2004, when a frog-killing fungal disease called chytridiomycosis (chytrid) entered the basin’s waters and spread from one lake to another. Dr. Vredenburg watched disaster unfold in front of him. “When I witnessed the die-off of mountain yellow-legged frogs from this chytrid fungus, I saw literally tens of thousands of dead frogs littering the shorelines of these beautiful pristine lakes.” As published in “Dynamics of an emerging disease drive large-scale amphibian population extinctions”, the fungus eliminated 98% of the yellow-legged frogs in Sixty Lakes Basin. Twenty-seven of its 33 populations were wiped out in the first five years alone. Sister projects in Milestone Basin and Barrett Lakes Basin suffered the same fate.

This story repeated itself across the Sierras, and testing suggests that chytrid had been responsible for previous Mountain Yellow-legged Frog declines. In fact, the disease has become an existential threat to frogs across the globe, famously causing the extinction of Costa Rica’s Golden Toad and dozens of other species.

An epidemic spreads through Sixty Lakes Basin: Green depicts healthy frog lakes, yellow infected frog lakes, and black the lakes where frogs have disappeared.
Figure courtesy of Vance Vredenburg.

Scientists believe that chytrid originated with a non-lethal strain of the fungus native to the Korean peninsula. That strain can exist in local frogs without killing them, but around 100 years ago it mutated into deadly forms that were then spread globally by international trade and the Korean War. Infected amphibians from pet markets now drive its global spread, while wading birds, fishermen, hikers, and even researchers may accidentally move the disease locally to one new waterway after another.

Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frogs have disappeared from this
Yosemite meadow, but may be reintroduced if trout are eliminated.
I began with a narrative of trout, and then flipped to fungus. Which one drove the Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs to near-extinction?

It is likely that both are responsible. Trout decimate frog populations, and so does chytrid. The combination is nearly insurmountable. Air pollution, pesticide exposure, and climate change may also weaken the frogs’ resilience. And when development and high-impact recreation have eliminated many connecting populations, the isolated survivors in-between are that much more susceptible to extinction events.

Yosemite Toads will frequent this lake later in the season.
The two Mountain Yellow-legged Frog species, Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frog and Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog, are not the only Sierran frogs to suffer. The Yosemite Toad (Anaxyrus canorus) has also been listed as an endangered species. Strangely, it is not as susceptible to trout predation nor chytrid infection, so scientists continue to investigate the reasons for its decline. The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (Rana boylii) has nearly disappeared from the Sierras, only hanging on in a few places in the lower elevations. It was brought down by a mix of dams, habitat fragmentation, and introduced predators. And the California Red-legged Frog (Rana draytonii) has been reduced to a dozen tiny populations spread out here and there in the northern foothills.

Ways forward in a beautiful land

Grizzlies are gone from California, but we saw two brown-phase
Black Bears recently emerged from hibernation.
In the final week we made it up to the northern Sierras. The streams, lakes, waterfalls, meadows, trees, cliffs, everything were gorgeous beyond compare. Yet just as in the southern Sierras, the frogs were gone. Even when I hiked through perfect-looking habitat, such as one beautiful flooded meadow bisected by a stream, I was distressed to see huge trout dashing through the waters. Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frogs and Yosemite Toads still have viable populations at 9,000 feet and above, but those lakes were snowed over. Across three days in the northern Sierras, the Sierran Chorus Frog was the only frog species I saw.

My poor luck does not tell the whole story. Scientists have noted that some frogs are developing a degree of resistance to the chytrid fungus. And highly complex mid-elevation meadow systems, those with a combination of streams, ponds, flooded meadow and forest habitat, may result in frog populations more resilient to infection than the isolated high-elevation lakes.

This mid-elevation marsh, photographed from a distance due to its
protected status, supports populations of Sierra Nevada
Yellow-legged Frog and Yosemite Toad.
Unfortunately, recreational impact and trout introductions have left healthy mid-elevation meadow systems in short supply. But a combination of meadow restoration, fish removal, and the development of fungal resistance may one day allow prime habitat to become viable across the Sierra Nevada. In Yosemite Park there has already been a documented increase in mountain yellow-legged frog populations, leading Roland Knapp of UCSB to affirm that, "given sufficient time and the availability of intact habitat, the frogs can recover despite the human-caused challenges they face."

Given the availability of intact habitat.

It is striking that wildlife suffer from human impact even in one of California’s most pristine ecosystems. But while remoteness does not protect the frogs completely, it does allow a pathway to hope. Through all they’ve endured, the habitat is still there, and as long as the habitat is still there the frogs can come back. Reintroductions are in process with several species and have already shown some success. These waterways may one day be filled with frogs again.

Frog diversity at the northern borders

Our time in the Sierras was disappointing, but luck shifted as we made our way north to Shasta. Shasta Lake is a manmade reservoir created in 1945 by the construction of Shasta Dam, which flooded nearly 30,000 acres of Winnemem Wintu homeland and prime wildlife habitat. Thankfully, the unique rock systems of the area support so many rivers and creeks in close proximity that even with the dam, amphibian diversity remains robust.

Arriving at the meandering roads that track the lake’s arms, my father and I soon encountered a Boreal Toad (Bufo boreas boreas) under a rock. Just a couple feet away we lifted another rock to find a Striped Racer (Masticophis lateralis). Nice start!

Foothill Yellow-legged Frog.
We stopped the car at the first likely-looking stream and started hiking. A splash around the bend alerted us to a frog’s presence. Ears pricked, I followed the sound to a secluded pool where a Foothill Yellow-legged Frog floated in the waters. After nearly a week without seeing a ranid, the sighting brought significant joy.

As we made our way from stream to stream, additional searches revealed Shasta Black Salamander (Aneides iecanus), Oregon Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii oregonensis) and Coastal Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus) in good numbers in the sheltered canyons. Forest Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata) and Northwestern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis occidentalis) roamed the sunny spots on the side of the road.

Shasta Lake’s limestone outcrops are also home to three species of Shasta Salamander (Hydromantes sp.), ancient cave-lovers found nowhere else on Earth. Shasta Salamanders are at the center of an effort to prevent a planned $1.4 billion expansion of the Shasta Dam, a move that would destroy 3,000 more acres of their habitat and flood much of the Winnemem Wintu’s remaining historic lands.

At night I hiked out of the campground and found Sierran Chorus Frogs calling in numbers from the lake shore. Millipedes meandered across the forest floor and toads hunted on the roads. The quiet darkness rewarded me with a Ringtail sniffing around an abandoned campsite, the first I’d ever encountered in the wild and my most exciting mammal sighting of the trip. Later I spotted it again, this time making its way through the forest understory. The disappointments of the Sierras had disappeared.

Which is not to say that the Shasta system does not have its own concerns. While Foothill Yellow-legged Frogs are more common in Shasta County, the dams have still cut into their numbers. 

My camera couldn’t capture the real-life beauty of this
Shasta Black Salamander. Matt and I found it near
Whiskeytown Lake before the burn.
And California’s worst-ever fire season burned hundreds of thousands of acres just months after I visited. The Carr Fire devastated Whiskeytown Lake, where I had previously found Foothill Yellow-legged Frog and 14 other herp species. Reptiles and amphibians can adapt to normal burns, but the size and intensity of modern fires eradicates entire populations. And because roads, dams, and development leave areas isolated, sometimes there is nothing left to recolonize the spots that were lost.

The joy of finding tailed frogs is that they frequent
the most gorgeous natural landscapes in the Pacific Northwest
One particularly sensitive local resident is the Coast Tailed Frog (Ascaphus truei). Uniquely adapted to clear, cold, fast-flowing waters in old-growth forest, it can’t tolerate logging, road construction, or fires, all of which fill its habitat with sediment. Canopy loss is also a problem for the frogs when the reduction in tree cover leads to an increase in water temperature.

Some distance north of Shasta my father and I embarked on a five-mile hike with the requisite elements – old unlogged forest and fast streams. Underneath a waterfall at the turnaround point I uncovered two Coast Tailed Frogs side-by-side in a rocky pool.

California’s northernmost counties are also home to the Cascades Frog (Rana cascadae), which fills the same montane niche that the Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frog holds a bit to the south. A unique population of Cascades Frog is going extinct in the Lassen region of northeastern California, and no one is certain why. Drought, the introduction of trout, pesticide exposure, and disease all may contribute to the problem. The other California population, residing in remote regions of the Trinity Alps and Siskiyou Mountains, is more robust but also in trouble. Cascades Frogs are doing better to the north in Oregon and Washington’s Cascade Mountains, though declines have been noted there as well.

Only a few miles from the tailed frogs’ waterfall, we encountered a lone Cascades Frog at the edge of a woodland pond.

The last stragglers

The Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipens) once lived along California’s eastern border, but is now extirpated from the state. The grassy meadows it frequented were prime targets for ranchers. Their livestock gnawed down the grassland, leading to a drying out of the soil that the leopard frogs couldn’t survive. Development, pesticides, pollution, and the introduction of bullfrogs also played a role.

One of dozens of bullfrogs spotted in one of the last two western
Nevada strongholds for the Northern Leopard Frog.
At the beginning of our trip my friend Matt and I had crossed into western Nevada, where two populations of the species remain. We visited a site where leopard frogs eek out an existence on recovered ranchland. Unfortunately, even that population is inundated with predatory bullfrogs.  A preserve manager described various control methods to us, but the bullfrogs appear resilient to extermination.

At least 20-30 frogs must have jumped from the banks as we walked. Only one or two of the jumpers were leopard frogs, the rest invasive bullfrogs that threaten their existence in Nevada just as they helped wipe them out in California. Naturalists associated with the preserve are attempting to relocate some frogs to new sites where bullfrogs are absent.

Conservationists press on. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has undertaken a Northern Leopard Frog Reintroduction Recovery Project in Washington state. Through habitat enhancement, head-starting, and bullfrog reduction, they hope to bring a robustness to their leopard frog populations so that they avoid the fate of California and Nevada’s frogs.

Such efforts can only succeed where habitat survives. That is the ultimate issue. When habitat persists, frogs may one day recover. When habitat is bulldozed, planted over, dammed, drained, or built upon…what hope is left?


Thomson, Robert C. California Amphibian and Reptile Species of Special Concern. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Nafis, Gary. California Herps: A guide to the reptiles and amphibians of California.

“Pesticides and amphibian population declines in California, USA”, paper published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistryby DW Sparling

“Effects of nonnative fish and habitat characteristics on lentic herpetofauna in Yosemite National Park, USA”, paper published in Biological Conservationby Roland Knapp

“Reversing introduced species effects: Experimental removal of introduced fish leads to rapid recovery of a declining frog”, paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciencesby Vance Vredenburg

“Removal of nonnative fish results in population expansion of a declining amphibian (mountain yellow-legged frog, Rana muscosa)”, paper published in Biological Conservationby Knapp, Boliano, and Vredenburg

“Dynamics of an emerging disease drive large-scale amphibian population extinctions”, paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciencesby Vredenburg, Knapp, Tunstall and Briggs.

“Recent Asian origin of chytrid fungi causing global amphibian declines”, paper published in Scienceby Simon O’Hanlon et al.

“Ground Zero of Amphibian 'Apocalypse' Finally Found”, article published in National Geographicby Michael Greshko

"Large-scale recovery of an endangered amphibian despite ongoing exposure to multiple stressors”, paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciencesby Knapp et al.

“Opportunities and Constraints of Sierra Nevada Meadow Restoration”, a University of San Franciso Master’s Thesis by Allie Sennett

“Preliminary Restoration of Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs Environmental Assessment”, report for the Department of the Interior

“Disease and climate effects on individuals drive post‐reintroduction population dynamics of an endangered amphibian”, paper published in Disease Ecologyby Maxwell Joseph and Roland Knapp

“Tiny salamanders could stand in the way of massive dam raising project”, article published in the Redding Record Searchlightby Damon Arthur

I want to thank Vance Vredenburg for the use of a figure and photo from his research. Quotes from Vredenburg and Knapp were taken from “Scientists try to save this frog species from being wiped out by fungus”, an article by Public Radio International.

Much thanks again to Shanti Mathias for editing the piece and making suggestions.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The King Cobras of Northeast Thailand — Researching Lives and Threats --- Guest Post ---

Across the globe there is a tendency for people to view snakes in a negative light, a fear born of unfamiliarity. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where snakes are protected from threats, like habitat loss and persecution, without countering innate anti-snake bias. As we learn about snakes, we can present them in more relatable ways.

Questions concerning snakes are bountiful everywhere, but especially in Southeast Asia. Many species across the region have scant natural history information and remain taxonomically ambiguous. Even the most charismatic snake species lack widespread work that would help us understand their populations and threats they face.

We at the Sakaearat Conservation and Snake Education Team (find us on Instagram!) are exploring the lives of snakes (king cobras, green pit vipers, green cat-eyed snakes, Burmese pythons and kraits) with the goal of understanding their habitat and space requirements. The longest running project involves perhaps the best ambassador for Southeast Asian snakes — the king cobra. They are instantly recognizable, strikingly beautiful, and (perhaps surprisingly to some people) infrequently appear in hospital snakebite records. Despite their charisma and wide-distribution, almost all the modern work on the ecology of king cobras has been limited to the western Ghats in India.

We are working in Thailand's northeast province of Nakhon Ratchasima, in the Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve. The reserve presents an opportunity to study king cobras in a number of habitats. The core of the reserve is protected old growth forest and seasonally burnt dry dipterocarp forest. Surrounding the oldest forests are plantations, attempting to restore a larger area to a forested state. Beyond the reforestation area is a mix of agriculture and small villages. Typical crops for the region are rice, sugar cane and corn, often interspersed with orchards. Straight through the middle of agricultural land, and bordering the forest is a four-lane highway connecting the Northeast to Bangkok. This complex landscape of competing interests and land-use is where our king cobras live, and where the team follows their every move.

King cobras are elusive, presenting a myriad of problems when studying them. Because of the difficulty recapturing kings, we turned to radio-telemetry. Kings of sufficient size and health have radio-transmitters implanted, allowing a signal to be detected and followed. Every day the team heads out, into forest, fields and streambeds to record the kings’ locations. 

After years of tracking, we are gaining a glimpse into king cobra life. We have documented the huge areas they span, over 700 ha (~2.7 square miles) for the adult males. While there is some indication that they prefer the safety (or food) of the forest, they are willing to traverse highways and fields, especially while searching for mates. A dangerous habit given how king cobras are one of the most feared snake species in the region. The pattern of tracked king cobra mortalities in unprotected areas suggest that the fear is leading to persecution.

Our inability to use systematic trapping prevents any conclusions on whether the persecution and accidental deaths in unprotected areas are undermining the king cobra population. But the trend of finding dead kings outside the protected area, together with seeing few instances of natural deaths, is worrying.

How do we prevent further king cobra deaths? A larger protected area could be a solution, but this would be costly, unjustly displace people, and does not tackle the underlying cause. From the mortalities we have witnessed, we believe tackling the negative perceptions and fear surrounding king cobras is important. The lack of human envenomations by king cobras can help convince people king cobras are more threatened than threat. Also, efforts to limit the incidental deaths from road mortalities, pollution and wildlife traps are required. Reducing road mortalities will require better crossing systems, but may also be reduced via education if road-users are deliberately targeting snakes. Both pollution and wildlife trapping will require larger scale changes in society’s attitudes, but can be integrated into local education efforts.

Our tracking of king cobras and other snake species, provides the information we need to conserve them in an ever-changing landscape. One pattern is becoming clear for king cobras, conservation cannot stop at the boundary of protected areas. It needs to tackle underlying prejudices against snakes and appreciate the importance of habitat connectivity.

Papers from SCSET on king cobras: 

Marshall, B. M., Strine, C. T., Jones, M. D., Theodorou, A., Amber, E., Waengsothorn, S., … Goode, M. (2018). Hits Close to Home: Repeated Persecution of King Cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) in Northeastern Thailand.Tropical Conservation Science, 11, 194008291881840.

Marshall, B. M., Strine, C. T., Jones, M. D., Artchawakom, T., Silva, I., Suwanwaree, P., & Goode, M. (2018). Space fit for a king: spatial ecology of king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) in Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve, Northeastern Thailand. Amphibia-Reptilia.

Strine, C. T., Silva, I., Crane, M., Nadolski, B., Artchawakom, T., Goode, M., & Suwanwaree, P. (2014). Mortality of a wild king cobra, Ophiophagus hannahCantor, 1836 (Serpentes: Elapidae) from Northeast Thailand after ingesting a plastic bag. Asian Herpetological Research, 5(4), 284–286.

About the author: 

Benjamin Marshall is a researcher at the Suranaree University of Technology, where he focuses on the analysis of radio-telemetry data. Also keen to communicate research, Ben co-hosts a fortnightly Herpetological podcast that looks at recent research findings.

The Sakaerat Conservation and Snake Education Team was set-up by Dr Colin Strine and is currently being led by Doctoral student Max Jones.