October 16, 2016 , Pittsburgh Post Gazette, by Diana Nelson Jones
Some 200,000 snakes, frogs, turtles, toads, salamanders and lizards hang suspended in tanks and jars of alcohol on shelf after shelf in a 110-year-old building connected to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.
Except for student groups and researchers, the public has no access to the Alcohol House collection, one of the 10th largest of reptiles and amphibians in the country.
A recent $499,224 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow the museum to hire another staffer and pay for facility upgrades, new tanks and jars and all the little stuff, too, from gaskets to tags. Seventeen percent of the grant will go toward creating exhibits for the public to get a sense of the measure of this collection and why it matters so much.
Even old specimens are vital to biodiversity research, which can come in quite handy if, as one example, you are bitten by an unusual snake.
Say it’s a coral snake. You would really want someone to be able to identify the species or subspecies of coral snake. The effective anti-venom would depend on it.
But natural history museums throughout the world face a dearth of scientists in specific fields, including herpetology, just as these scientists work against time to identify ways to conserve endangered species.
The Carnegie has a full plate. Thousands of specimens have yet to be cataloged due to staff shrinkage, and numerous jars bear, in elegant penmanship, names of countries who names no longer exist, such as Rhodesia and Mesopotamia.
Two specimens of bushmaster snake, Lachesis Muta and Lachesis Stenophyrus, have filled a three-gallon jar since they were collected in Suriname and Costa Rica decades ago. One location tag reads “road betw. Carolina and Powakka.” For future reference — in case those road names should change -— that location and all other colloquial references need to be identified by latitude and longitude, said Stephen Tonsor, the museum’s director of science and research.
The museum’s reptiles and amphibians come from 170 countries. Most were collected before the 1970s and some date to the late 1800s. The big specimens of turtles are in five and 10-gallon tanks. The big snakes are coiled in three-gallon jars. There might be 100 salamanders in a jar the size of which you’d keep in your pantry full of flour -— a sack full; a couple of small frogs in a jelly jar, or 8-10 lizards in a Ball jar with a brittle gasket.
Many of these specimens are so enigmatic, it’s hard to understand why more people aren’t in these sciences.
Steve Rogers, collections manager for reptiles, amphibians and birds, unclipped a lid on a stainless steel tank and lifted the head of an alligator snapping turtle from its alcohol bath.
The head is the size of a soccer ball and it has a snout. Its mouth is open wide, its tongue a lump with a little attachment that looks like a grain of rice. To a fish, the dangling attachment looks so much like a worm that it wouldn’t register the open mouth ... until it was too late.
In videos of live alligator snapping turtles, the mouth snaps shut so fast that you squirm imagining being the fish. Yet sympathy should go to the turtle. Logging and other encroachments are threatening its future.
For sea turtles, a warming climate threatens to upset the balance in the gender of their offspring. Rogers said fluctuating temperatures used to ensure a mix but now warming temperatures could result in all or too many of the same sex.
“For years, researchers would gather sea turtle eggs to protect them from coastal predators and incubate them in warm huts,” he said. “The temperatures were so high in the huts that the turtles were born all of the same sex.”
As a result, he said, Carnegie scientists traveled to Costa Rica and brought back turtle eggs to incubate at varying temperatures to find out the ideal temperature for a 50/50 mix.
While many species are vanishing, others are being more appropriately identified.
Several years ago, Rogers said, a researcher borrowed some crocodile material from the Carnegie to extract DNA that identified the specimen as a previously unknown species of Nile crocodile.
Turtles once lumped together under the name Graptemys now have more nuanced names to signify variations among them. Toads were once called Bufonidae, whether they were collected in Paraguay, Cameroon or Alabama. Detection methods since have identified 580 species in that family, and almost every toad in North America that used to be described as “Bufo” now have other names, Rogers said.
The museum’s most recent reptiles and amphibians came from Peru, where Jose Padial, the museum’s assistant curator of amphibians and reptiles, directed a crew into the Vilcabamba region early this year, trekking and camping through miles of Andean rain forest looking for specific frogs and snakes.
One such snake, of the species Erythrolamprus dorsocorallinus, swirls in its jar, displaying a jewelry-like mosaic of coral and blue with an underbelly pattern suggestive of a row of stubby piano keys.
Phyllomedusa bicolors, a deep green frog when alive, is dusky blue in its jar. Compared to most other frogs, its head is disproportionately big for its body.
“Look at the closeness of his shoulder to his mouth,” Mr. Tonsor said, his finger on the side of the jar. “That has to do with how and what they eat and what they have to do to get their prey.”
A row of spots on the bicolor’s arms look like buttons on a fashionable pair of gloves, with four fingers that end in little knobs. The underside of the knobs are flat, with suction-like tips that allow it to climb and cling. These are features bioengineers might study to create robots that cling to and climb glass, Mr. Tonsor said.
“Most populations in these habitats are difficult to find,” said Mr. Padial. “Not that they are all rare, but it is hard to find frogs in a cloud forest. You get your ear tuned to hearing and listening for frogs.”
When it comes to snakes, they’re the ones with the strong sensors.
“I was walking with my team to our campsite, in walking mode, not searching mode,” Mr. Padial said. “A bushmaster [one of the most venomous snakes in the world] stirred and moved to escape. My wife was filming for a documentary. I told her ‘Don’t move. It’s a bushmaster, it’s very dangerous,’ but it moved quickly away.”
He had no intention of collecting the bushmaster because it is well known, he said. But the dorsocorallinus is not, and there are not many in any collection.
Mr. Padial said he rarely takes more than 10 specimen of any species on his trips, while early collectors took everything they could find because it was such an undertaking to mount an expedition. Data sharing has created less need to cull in large numbers, and funding from organizations such as UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — helps them share their catalogs with anyone doing research.
The benefit of having many old specimen of a species is that scientists can get a good reading of the evolutionary similarities and variations within each, Mr. Tonsor said.
“We will lose 20 to 70 percent of all species over the next century because we are changing the climate too rapidly for species to evolve fast enough,” he said. “The greater the variation, the better chance they have” to adapt and evolve.
“When we talk about environmental sustainability, we’re talking about sustaining an environment so new species can evolve.”