Monday, November 28, 2016

How Can I Help?

As we near the end of the semester, I am growing increasingly anxious about what to do next. I have one more semester at Duke, and then I plan on taking a gap year before going to grad school to specialize in herpetology. I’ve always said I wanted to do conservation biology with herpetofauna, to study the animals I love in a way that allows me to help them. But how on earth do I turn that desire into anything tangible?
As we move from field station to field station here in Costa Rica, I keep hearing people say how much we still don’t know about all of the herps that live here. This has especially been true here in Monteverde. We met Mark Wainwright, who is somewhat of a celebrity among the biologists in Costa Rica. He literally wrote the book on mammal identifications here, and he knows an amazing amount about birds and herpetofauna too. But as he educated us on the variety of calls frogs use to communicate different messages, it became apparent how much information we were missing. Although a frog may call for advertisement, aggression, distress, warning, release from amplexus, or courtship; the majority we hear (and therefore are able to record) are for advertisement. Of the 65 or so species found in Monteverde alone, how many sounds are yet unknown? And if we don’t even know what sounds these frogs make, just think of all the information on their morphology, adaptations, and behaviors that remain to be studied! There are species that go missing for years at a time and then pop back up seemingly from out of nowhere. There are also population crashes and occasional recoveries and then unexplained range expansions or contractions. There are a myriad of things we don’t know, studies that could be done, and information to be discovered. The possibilities are enthralling.
And yet when I think ahead to our independent projects at Palo Verde, I’m at a loss. I’ve been brainstorming all kinds of questions and designs, but the small scale of these projects (only four days of data collection) is quite limiting. And I find myself asking more and more frequently – how can I study something that will provide useful information? This is still just the beginning of my research endeavors, so I realize it’s probably aiming way too high to expect anything important to come from such a study. But it feels almost wasteful not to strive for that when we have the opportunity to work in such important ecosystems as the dwindling dry forests or seasonal wetlands in Palo Verde.
I’m generally of the opinion that the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worthwhile. However, in the current situation of political disarray, climate change, under-regulation of environmental risks, and all the other problems that we as humans have created, I feel that the subjects of studies being done now and in the coming years are of the utmost importance. These organisms cannot afford for us to squander time finding out interesting trivia. Populations of amphibians and reptiles are dwindling worldwide, and there isn’t much time left to change course. There may not be any time left at all. So we must use every possible resource to find helpful answers.
Going back to where I started – I still don’t know exactly which species, or for that matter even which order of herpetofauna to specialize in. And this project may simply be a stepping-stone as I learn how to design studies and begin to enter the research world. But I do know that somehow, in the long term, I will find a way to put my time and energy to use working toward the preservation of these incredible animals. 

Madison Harman
Duke University

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