I have a gharial in my office. What is a gharial you ask? Something Dr. Seuss dreamed up? No, actually it is a very distinctive crocodilian only found in a few river basins on the Indian subcontinent. They are highly aquatic, eat primarily fish and can reach over 20 feet in length and weigh over 2,000 pounds.
How do I get any work done with a hungry gharial in my office, you ask? Don’t I spend all day just avoiding it’s snapping jaws instead of grading tests or responding to email? Well, as you can see below, this particular gharial is rather dead.
I honestly have no idea what this huge gharial skull is doing in Wooster, Ohio. It appears to have been here for some years, but where it came from and who collected it has been lost to the mists of time. What I do know is that this is the skull of a male, as the bulbous growth on the tip of the snout is only found in males. Apparently, male gharials use this structure to amplify “hisses” that come out of the nostrils to attract females. On a still day, the sound of a gharial “hiss” can be heard for up to a kilometer. Unfortunately, gharial hisses are very infrequently heard these days as the species is listed as critically endangered. Fewer than 300 individuals are thought to currently exist and their current distribution is less than 2% of their former geographic range.
So, even if you went to India to try and see this ancient fish-eater, you’d be unlikely to see one. Come by my office instead, really, it won’t bite.
Again this year, I took College of Wooster students with me on a research trip to Trinidad and Tobago. Despite venomous snakes, landslides and fallen trees blocking roads, and locals that absolutely insist on driving on the left, we had a highly successful trip. Jess McQuigg (’13) completed the second year of a long term monitoring project on the Bloody Bay Poison Frog, Meredith Eyre (’13) obtained some interesting and hard-won data on the ecology of Fitzgerald’s marsupial frog and Jessica Pringle (’13) adeptly studied the parental care behaviors of the Tobago glass frog.
Henry McGee (’13) began an inventory of the freshwater fish of of Tobago and Patrick Brennan (’13) and Krista Koeller (’13) collected DNA samples for molecular phylogenetic projects on the origin of some of T&T’s lizards and snakes.
This year, we were based in the small village of Castara in Tobago where we lived and ate well, worked hard and made friends with Bingi the Fruit King among other Tobagonians. Congratulations to all the students for the successful completion of the field portion of their senior theses – now let’s analyze those data and/or get into the lab!
Just a few days ago, a paper came out in the journal Phyllomedusa by myself and former student Andrew Georgiadis (COW class of 2011). This paper, based in part on Andrew’s undergraduate thesis, describes parental care in male glass frogs (Hyalinobatrachium orientale) from the island of Tobago in the Caribbean.
What Andrew and I found was that males were often in direct contact with eggs on leaves overhanging streams. This seems likely to be an example of parental care as the males may increase the survival of their offspring by providing this care. Also, we found that developing embryos in the egg masses on the leaves will explosively hatch out of their egg capsules when prodded with foreceps or a stick. These “exploding embryos” can launch themselves up to 36 times their own body length! Stay tuned for future studies of these interesting behaviors in this species.
The last few days I’ve been at the 1st Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology being held in Ottawa, Canada. I’ve heard some amazing talks from the likes of Peter and Rosemary Grant, Dolph Schluter and Jonathon Losos. Lots of excitement about advances in the field, lots of good work going on. I gave my presentation this morning entitled “Speciation in reverse? Evidence for extensive gene flow and weak pre- and post-zygotic isolation in two hybridizing salamanders.”
Had some great Indian food to boot! Not a bad day…
A recent paper by Hedges and Conn, investigated the known skinks from the Caribbean region using morphological and molecular data. This is the first comprehensive attempt to understand the diversity of these interesting lizards using modern approaches. At the time this paper was published, 26 species in one genus were known from this region. Using a combination of morphological measures and DNA sequences, the authors identified a shocking 61 species in 16 genera! Many of these new species are island endemics, and the vast majority are endangered or (in some cases) already extinct. The Indian mongoose (introduced to many Caribbean islands during the sugar era) seems the likely culprit in the decline or extinction of many of these species.
This study shows the power of using integrative approaches to species delimitation and how, despite the very large number of known species on Earth, we are still in the “Age of Discovery”. Now that superficially similar species can be discerned from one another with the help of DNA sequences, studies like this one will continue to greatly add to the known life forms on our planet. Let’s just hope they’re not driven extinct by human foolishness before we are even aware they exist.