If a magical being pops into existence in front of you and demands that you choose a non-human animal into which you will be reincarnated, one of the first things you should consider is: how many babies does the species have, and how big are they? If you want a good shot at surviving past infancy in your second life, you will want to select a species that has just a few, big babies. Elephants are a good option, with their single giant offspring; ditto whales. Large sharks are a solid possibility, often birthing just two large babies at a time (but you’ll want to be careful that you don’t pick a species—such as the sand tiger shark—in which many embryos are formed in the uterus, and then all but two are eaten by their siblings before birth).
You will most certainly not want to choose to be a species whose offspring look like this:
Cope’s gray treefrog pair with eggs
Frog season is upon us, and for us in the Frog Lab, regular sleeping hours are a luxury of the past. In the day we hide from the sun in basements and prepare our equipment.
Painting frog models to perfectly match real frogs.
Calibrating a speaker so that it ouputs the sound of a frog call at exactly 85.0 dB.
In the night, we don our chest waders, take up our headlamps, hang bags of tupperware from our wader straps, and walk into the ponds to seek our prey.
The early stages of a scientific career are designed to be unstable, slingshotting you from place to place as you acquire new skills. I bucked this paradigm somewhat in the first years after finishing my PhD, teaching and working on local projects in order to stay in the Bay Area; but the lure of learning from a cool new lab (and having health insurance) proved irresistible. At the end of August this year I moved out to Minneapolis to start a postdoc.
We have ten days in North Carolina to get DNA samples from three species breeding there. Our target for the first five days is the Kentucky Warbler, a golden bird with a black mask whose population is declining. It is a highly local bird, meaning that we can’t just find them anywhere within the shaded region of a large-scale range map: we need specific location information. We get this information from eBird, following birders’ reported sightings to a place about an hour south of Raleigh called Howell Woods.
“How did y’all find us?” asks the manager of Howell Woods. “There’s folks on our road that don’t know we exist, but somehow we get birders from Europe asking about Kentucky Warbler and Mississippi Kite. I never understand it.”
Ranitomeya imitator giving his tadpole a piggy-back ride. Photo by John Clare*
You can find poison frogs at zoos, aquaria, and some museums now: tiny and colorful, often hard to see in the vegetation-rich tank until— oh! all those little blue things, that’s them! They’re so pretty! You watch for a while, and they sit on their leaves unmoving, doing accurate impressions of the plastic toy frogs being sold in the gift shop, until you get bored and move on to the next exhibit.
They have a secret: they have rich lives full of interesting behaviors. They just aren’t interested in doing those behaviors in front of you.
We spend a lot of time looking for junco nests in my field work, which means we spend a lot of time looking at the ground, which means we see a lot of these little guys:
Pacific tree frogs come in two main flavors: brown and green.
Some frogs stay the same color for their entire lives, but some can change from brown to green, or vice versa, depending on whether the background is dark (brown) or light (green). You can see how this might be handy if you want to blend in with the background.
You can’t see me!
Considering how much time we spent in the field, and that one of my field assistants was by natural inclination a herpetologist, we found surprisingly few herps (reptiles and amphibians) this summer.
Pacific treefrog (subspecies: Sierran treefrog)
This guy comes in brown or green. The two morphs look very different from each other:
Photo by M. LaBarbera