Wednesday, 18 December 2013

UT Arlington Biology students to search for species in Sumatra – via Herp Digest

by Kathryn Cargo, The Shorthorn-UT Arlington Campus Newspaper, November 26, 2013

This winter, members of the biology department will explore montane forests in Indonesia for new species of reptiles and amphibians.

“Traveling there is an adventure and an enriching experience,” biology doctoral student Utpal Smart said. “We’ll get to see animals people have never seen and may never see again.”

Biology assistant professor Eric Smith, biology doctoral students Smart, Elijah Wostl, and Kyle O’Connell, researchers and students from Broward College will make their third trip to Sumatra, the Indonesian portion of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The biodiversity, or variation of species, of the area is poorly known. It is projected that the area may be some of the most abundant in species.

The team will search for and catch amphibians and reptiles in forests during the night because that is when they are most active, Wostl said. During the day, the team will take samples and begin preserving them to process for specimens. The specimens will be studied to prove new species exist and understand the biodiversity and genetics of the animal.

“It’s so diverse,” Wostl said. “Each species is relatively not very common. Any given night, even if we go to the exact same spot as before, we never know what we’re going to see.”

Both Wostl and Smart said they came to UTA for this project and are using it for their dissertations. The fieldwork and research they do for this project is what they want to do after they graduate.

“This fieldwork is an extension of our childhood,” Smart said. “I’ve been interested in nature and these animals since I was a kid. It’s constantly been in the back of my mind.”

Wostl specializes in very small bush frogs that are less than an inch long. Smart specializes in Asian coral snakes, which he said are rare to find. Their dissertations are focused on describing the possible new species and what geological and environmental processes contributed to one species evolving into another, Smart said.

About half of the specimens collected from this project are stored at UTA’s Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center, one of the top herpetological collections in the U.S. Also, about half of the specimens from future trips will be sorted there. Smith said during the trip to Sumatra last summer about 45 possible new species were found.

This project might make UTA the home of the largest collection of amphibian and reptile specimens from Indonesia, Wostl said.

“I think what we’re doing lays the groundwork of cutting edge research,” he said. “If you don’t have a specimen, how will you do genetic work? Fieldwork is the foundation of biology.”

The team will be exploring northern Sumatra. The last time the area had a large-scale survey like this project was in the 1800s, Smart said.

Both Wostl and Smart said they could not emphasize enough how important this project’s fieldwork is because of the rate of deforestation in the area.

“We want to do it now while we can,” Wostl said. “Regions of Sumatra are losing 3 to 6 percent of forest a year. Many forests we visited before are being conformed to coffee plantations now.”

The project is funded by a three-year grant of $725,000 from the National Science Foundation. Smith is the principal investigator for the project, which is expected to end at the end of August in 2015.

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