Friday, 21 July 2017

Students in the US Help Scientists Save Frogs at Lake Titicaca - via Herp Digest

Dina Baker, Peruthisweek, 6/28/17

Denver Zoo’s Lake Titicaca Frog Project aims to educate local communities in Puno about the health of the Lake Titicaca Frog and of the lake itself, in addition to taking action towards the conservation of this species. The Lake Titicaca Frog (telmatobius culeus) is now considered an endangered species due to pollution of the lake, contamination of the lake from local mining operations, and from humans illegally overconsuming the frogs. Educators and conservationists from Denver Zoo visit Puno and surrounding communities regularly to work with scientists in Peru and Bolivia to study the frogs, educate locals and work towards solutions to saving these frogs.

The Lake Titicaca Frogs are important to scientists and humans in general, because they are an indicator of the health of the lake. If these frogs decline significantly in population, then scientists know that there are bigger issues at hand which can impact humans who rely on the lake as well.

It has been over 50 years since Jacques Cousteau and his team were able to use a submarine to explore the depths and floor of Lake Titicaca. Today, scientists are not even sure what the true numbers of remaining frogs might be since it is too dangerous to dive down to those depths and the technology to reach those depths is limited. Since Denver Zoo’s mission is to “Secure a better world for animals through human understanding”, it is very important to Outreach Specialist James Garcia to connect his students in Colorado to nature and educate them about global conservation issues. 

James is also the Education Lead for Denver Zoo’s Lake Titicaca Frog Project for the zoo’s Conservation and Research department, so he has decided to combine his love of education and dedication to conserving the frog by involving his students in the conservation of the frog as well.

Collaboration with St. Vrain Valley Schools Innovation Center in Longmont, Colorado began in June of 2015 when James first met Axel Reitzig, Robotics and Computer Science Coordinator, at a Girls in STEM conference. This was where the idea to have high school students build a robot to study the depths of Lake Titicaca was born and the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) Team was formed. The team started with 6 students and has grown to 15 students presently.

These students were presented with the challenge of developing a submersible drone that could navigate the depths of Lake Titicaca to study the lake floor, the frogs at various depths, record data, as well as take photographic and video footage. The ROV Team of students worked on this robot during 2016, and in June of that year, James brought it with him to Peru to be tested and used in Lake Titicaca. Prior to leaving the US, the ROV was tested by James and the students in Denver Zoo’s aquarium exhibits and in an actual lake in Colorado.

Although the ROV is now technically out of their hands, the team maintains contact with the scientists at Lake Titicaca in order to troubleshoot, make improvements and help the scientists fix any problems with the ROV. The students have their own ROV model at their school that they can use to walk and talk the scientists through exactly what to do to fix the issues via Skype.

Most of the students are bilingual in Spanish and English, which makes communication much easier with the scientists. One issue has been that the ROV currently being used in Lake Titicaca has lost power. These students are actually teaching the biologists how to remove the power panel, disassemble, fix and reassemble the ROV to address the issue. This is such a great opportunity for students in Colorado to help solve the real world conservation problem that scientists are facing in Peru, capturing footage of the depths of Lake Titicaca.

The ROV Team of students will work with scientists on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides of Lake Titicaca, however, the ROV is currently in the hands of Bolivian scientists. Future goals of this project include having the Peruvian scientists work with the ROV more and send feedback of their own to the students. The ROV Team is also working on new sensors to measure depth and salinity. 

They are improving the navigation of the robot to make it more user-friendly for the scientists. Lastly, the team is working on a sonar device that will be able to map out the floor of Lake Titicaca in the future. Denver Zoo is very proud of James’s collaboration with the high school students of the Innovation Center and the scientists at Lake Titicaca. It will be very exciting to see the future accomplishments of this team and the discoveries that the scientists have yet to make with this technology.

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