Working and volunteering in amphibian research.
Dr Chris Gleed-Owen, former Chair of the British Herpetological Society
(CGO Ecology Ltd, 27a Ridgefield Gardens, Christchurch, Dorset, BH23 4QG)
Why amphibian research?
Amphibian research is a globally-important endeavour, and in an age of increased awareness about conservation issues and crises, amphibians are right up there in the headlines. For several decades now a ‘Global Amphibian Decline’ has been recognised, with multiple contributing factors, but for many species a common result – crashing populations, and even extinction.
We’re all familiar with frogs and toads (the Anura, or tailless amphibians), and with newts (part of the salamander family of Caudata, tailed amphibians). These make up most of the world’s amphibian species, but there are others - the Gymnophiona or ‘caecilians’, a Tropical group of subterranean, limbless, snake-like amphibians - about which we know very little.
So why get involved in amphibian research? Amphibians are sensitive animals, with soft porous skins, lifecycles that typically require water and land, and often very specific habitat requirements. They are recognised indicators of ecosystem health, and bellwethers of climate change, habitat loss and deterioration, novel pathogens, and invasive alien species..
How to get involved
Most opportunities to get involved in amphibian research as a career are via higher education and academia. However, increasingly, students and gap-year travellers are volunteering (and indeed paying to work!) on amphibian research and conservation projects around the world. And even in the UK, there are many opportunities for volunteering to improve your skills.
There are no dedicated courses in herpetology (study of amphibians and reptiles) in the UK, but many Universities have herpetologists on their staff: Bangor, Brighton, Exeter (Falmouth campus), Exeter, Kent, Lincoln, Liverpool John Moores, Manchester Metropolitan, Manchester, Open, Plymouth, Queen's Belfast, and Salford Manchester. For more information, the British Herpetological Society (BHS) produces an advice sheet entitled Studying herpetology in the UK, which can be downloaded at its website www.thebhs.org.
Once you’ve studied a degree course, if you’re still keen on amphibian research as a career, you can proceed to a higher degree (masters or doctorate). If the amphibian bug has truly bitten you, then you can search for academic research positions or ‘postdocs’ (few and far between), or take the more common route into academic: through a lectureship in a biological or conservation science subject.
If you don’t have the time or inclination for an amphibian-focused career change, there are also opportunities for getting involved in amphibian research and conservation work on a voluntary basis.
The place to start is the Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARGUK, www.arguk.org), a national network of volunteer groups, where you can find your local group (usually county-based), or information on national projects that you can contribute to locally.
There is also the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC, www.arc-trust.org) which coordinates national conservation and research projects, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL, www.zsl.org) which runs national and international projects.
Some recent projects
Chytrid sampling across the UK
A major contributory factor in Global Amphibian Declines is a fungus called ‘chytrid’, which affects amphibians’ skin. It has reached the UK, but its extent and effects are not fully understood. In 2011, ZSL partnered with ARGUK, ARC and the BHS to take skin swabs from thousands of frogs, toads and newts across the UK. Swabbing kits were sent to local volunteers, who selected a breeding pond where they could catch at least 30 amphibians with ease. Each one was swabbed on the belly and beneath the legs, and the labelled swabs sent back to ZSL.
Around 400 volunteers swabbed 6,000 amphibians at 200 ponds, and it was a great example of partnership working. Biosecurity was an essential part of the project, and all surveyors fastidiously cleaned and disinfected boots, nets and kit beforehand and afterwards. Worryingly, chytrid was identified across the UK, but thankfully no mortalities were implicated.
NARRS amphibian surveys
This is a project that anyone can get involved with, anywhere in the country. All you need is a few hours to spare for training and surveys. The National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (www.narrs.org.uk) coordinated by ARC invites you to carry out springtime amphibian surveys in a randomly-selected pond within reach of your home. Training is provided at a series of workshops, and the scheme has been running since 2007.
Several hundred volunteers have surveyed over 500 ponds across the UK, creating a unique snapshot of how well amphibians are doing here at present. Surveys are repeated on a six-year cycle, to identify any trends or patterns.
This ARC-run project was an off-shoot of the grass-roots network of ‘Toads on Roads’ patrollers. Volunteers go out on damp March evenings, bucket in hand, helping toads across roads to their breeding ponds. In order to study whether road mortality was having an effect on toad size, volunteers were asked to measure the toads they rescued.
The possibilities are almost endless when you start looking at amphibian work abroad, especially in the Subtropics and Tropics. Amphibian diversity is much greater in warmer climes, and many countries have pressing conservation challenges and interesting research avenues. Outside the US, Europe and the West in general, however, the career options tend to be less financially rewarding, so few take it as a long-term career path. People actually pay quite a lot of money to volunteer with Tropical amphibians, so finding a way of getting paid to do it as a profession is difficult.
Don’t expect an expensive tropical trip to be a gateway to a UK career in conservation or research either. It can enhance your CV for UK work to a degree, but only if the skills gained are directly relevant to species here. A few volunteering sessions in the UK, surveying amphibians, are a much better bet for improving your chances in the UK job market.
As many people will attest, a couple of months surveying frogs in a tropical forest will be rewarding, but relatively expensive. If you do decide to take such a trip, you should understand what you expect to achieve from it. Treat it as a life experience, and perhaps a tester to see if it’s a subject you want to explore further.
There are many options out there, but I’ve heard great things about research expeditions organised by Rowland Griffin. Currently he is organising an expedition to Laguna del Tigre National Park in Guatemala, from 5-18th December 2015, to study the effects of El Niño on amphibian populations. Cost: £995 plus your flights. See www.explorewithindigo.com for info.
Opportunities in the UK?
If an overseas trip is just a pipe-dream, and amphibian work in the UK is a more realistic proposal, then what options are available currently? Well it’s the autumn now, and most amphibians are hibernating already. Survey and research projects generally won’t restart until March, so you’ve got a bit of time to make contacts and do some reading. John Wilkinson’s new Amphibian Survey and Monitoring Handbook (Pelagic Publishing) should be a good start.
There are also habitat management volunteering opportunities throughout the winter, and these are a great way of learning from others, and making new contacts.
Try finding your local amphibian and reptile group via ARGUK (www.arguk.org) to see what projects they have on and get on their email list. Contact ARC (www.arc-trust.org) and ask to be allocated a NARRS survey pond next spring. You can also join them for winter habitat management tasks.
Also keep your eye out for other new projects. For example, there is a lot of talk about a new threat to newts in Europe; a worrying new amphibian pathogen called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal for short. Researchers are keeping an eye on it, and it may well become the next big volunteer-based amphibian research project to get involved with in the UK.
Lastly, if you’re currently a student, why not consider an amphibian-related dissertation project? The BHS (www.thebhs.org) offers student grants to assist with fieldwork and laboratory costs.