Notes from the Field: Protecting Amphibian Biodiversity in Peru

You heard recently from one of our education experts about how the Detroit Zoological Society is working with Peruvian schools to conserve the rainforest through outreach and education. Conservation of the biodiversity in the Peruvian rainforest has been a priority of the Detroit Zoological Society for over a decade, and we have many programs in the rainforest that help to achieve this goal. One of our programs focuses specifically on amphibians, and that is where I have the great fortune to visit this incredible location.

Boana calcarata

There are over 600 species of frogs in Peru, with more species discovered every day. With this high number of species, Peru is called a “biodiversity hotspot.” These “hotspots” are very important to monitor for changes, because while there are many species they are all very dependent on one another. Small changes can cause drastic effects. Amphibians are some of the most sensitive animals, because their skin absorbs everything in the environment. If amphibians begins to get sick or have difficulty surviving, that is an excellent clue that something is wrong in the environment. All over the world, amphibians are currently having difficulty with changes we are seeing in the environment- because we are seeing global changes, it is extra important to study the animals in areas like the Amazon, where amphibians are in higher concentration, to try and understand patterns in these changes.

Boana calcarata call image

The convict tree frog (Boana calcarata) is a frog found in the Napo River region. This sound recording and image were made by the National Amphibian Conservation Center during a survey.

In order to keep an eye on the amphibians in the Peruvian Amazon, staff from the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center conducts surveys for frogs twice a year. This means we physically go out and look for frogs. Because we know we cannot possibly see all the frogs, also record the songs of frogs at night. Hearing the songs can help us guess numbers of animals singing and help us to hear the songs of species that are difficult to find on visual surveying. In addition to surveys, we monitor weather data in the Napo River valley. We have our own weather station that collects year-round information about the valley region. We also use small data loggers to collect immediate, specific “microclimate” changes where we visualize species breeding (for example: on a specific plant or under leaf litter). The weather data helps us understand both immediate changes in behavior of frogs, as well as changes in populations over time.

Weather stationDr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves downloads six months’ data from the weather station.

While data collection and surveying are important, fostering appreciation of animals in the local community is the primary goal of the visits to Peru. Our hope is that educating the community and creating excitement in future generations will help to preserve these animals for the future. The “Club de Protectores de Anfibios,” or Amphibian Protectors Club, is a club comprised of high school students that are local to the Napo River valley region. The club was founded in order to help impart enthusiasm for amphibians and the environment.

In Peru, there are many misconceptions surrounding frogs. There is a general belief that frogs are bad luck and should be kept away from homes. When the Detroit Zoo staff visited the Amphibian Protectors Club in June of 2019, the club members taught us how the Amphibian Protectors Club is changing the community. The club members performed a play in which they explained another local belief is that a woman will become pregnant if she spends time around frogs. Told from the perspective of high school students, this was a chilling superstition. Through the play, the students explained that by participating in the club they have learned not only that this is a myth, but also frogs are important for human health and humans need to protect frogs. The club members have taught their friends and families frogs are important and have begun to see more frogs in their villages since this change in attitude.

Night HikeAn Amphibian Protector’s Club member observes a frog up close on a night hike.

The students from the club went on an overnight excursion with the National Amphibian Conservation Center staff, where we visited one of our regular field research sites. We took a late night hike in order to see frogs calling and breeding at this special location. At this site, we saw species of frogs the students do not commonly see in their villages. After a good night rest, the club rose early in the morning to hike to the nearby canopy walkway- a breathtaking experience where the club members were able to look down on the rainforest from the treetops. While these students live in the rainforest, many of them have not seen their tropical home from this perspective. They were inspired by this view, observing the unique habitat of rare and diverse species. One club member called it “the view of the animals,” and asked very advanced questions about some of the plants and insects he observed.

Canopy

This was an incredibly rewarding trip. The students showed us that their appreciation for the amphibians is making a difference. While I will not see them in person for a few months, the students will continue to speak with me over a WhatsApp chat (they named our group “Whatsappos,” because “sapo” means toad in Spanish). While I am away, the club meets monthly to survey in their home towns and the students will send me photos and descriptions of frogs the see. Over the app, we talk about the species and have a question and answer session. Their excitement is inspiring and infectious, and I am confident their enthusiasm will be what helps save species.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves is the director of the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

 

 

Notes from the Field: Adopt-A-School Assessments in the Amazon

When the boat beached for the third time on a sand bar, we knew we were in for a long day. Late autumn means low water in the Peruvian Amazon, requiring more walking than boating to get around. I was in the rainforest with a Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) colleague, representatives from our Peruvian partner, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment (CONAPAC), and several volunteer educators from the nearby city of Iquitos. We were conducting our annual end of the school-year evaluations in the Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School program communities and we were in for a long, hot day.

The Adopt-A-School program is a decades-long partnership between the DZS and CONAPAC, using donations to provide educational supplies to schools, teachers and students in rural Amazonia. The program ensures that students have the materials necessary to earn a basic education and build an understanding of the complex and globally important region they call home.

The evaluations we conduct each fall coincide with the end of the school year in Peru – late November to early December – and are a great opportunity to focus on each community’s strengths and challenges.

The experienced boat drivers know when to call it quits and ours realized there was no viable path down the parched river. He dropped off us off on a muddy river bank and we gathered our supplies and trudged up the bank to a path on the jungle’s edge. An easy half hour walk brought us to a familiar animal sanctuary and a long dock that stretched into the tributary we needed to travel up to get to our assigned communities.

The dock stretched toward the water but ended on a muddy beach, not quite reaching the shallow, murky water. At first, the damp mud was easy to traverse, the sand holding firm. Then the river bank dropped off and the choice was to wade through the mucky water or climb the bank and walk through giant grasses that stood 10 to 12 feet tall. We chose the grasses.

After another half hour of battling grass stalks as thick as sapling trees and covered with spines, the river’s edge dropped back down to a sandy pathway. We gratefully slid down and continued our walk. Soon, a wooden boat about 10 feet long with a small outboard motor came towards us. After some negotiation, all 11 of us piled on board. We carefully balanced our bags and ourselves for an easier, albeit slow ride up the shallow river. A full three hours after we set out, my small team and I arrived at one of the communities that we were assigned to evaluate.

Community evaluations are a critical part of the Adopt-A-School program. They confirm that participants are holding true to the contract of sustainable resource use, prioritizing education, and organized leadership in exchange for support from CONAPAC and the DZS. All 55 communities were visited and vetted through a comprehensive rubric that addressed environmental, educational and institutional management. The vast majority of the communities were rated as “good” or “excellent”; three were placed on a watch list and one was unfortunately cut from the program due to a breach of contract.

This community has faced some challenges over the past several years. Record floods wiped out crops and unsteady leadership let the community bakery and drinking-water purification plant fall into disarray. CONAPAC offered support in restarting the bakery to make it a potential profit source. Turning raw materials into a finished product has a higher profit margin and bread is a constant need in surrounding communities. CONAPAC also offered training and materials to restart and refurbish the water purification plant, ensuring there would be clean drinking water available. The community declined both offers.

When the evaluation team arrived to assess the community, they came across a large path of bare earth; huge machines had clear-cut a road into the rainforest. The community acknowledged that they had contracted with a lumber company who had cut a path into the forest, removing dozens of large, old-growth trees for a relatively nominal amount of money. The community leadership was neither remorseful nor willing to work with CONAPAC on other projects that would allow them to profit in an environmentally sustainable way. The evaluation team discussed and unanimously decided to remove the community from the Adopt-A-School program.

There is always an open door for communities removed from the Adopt-A-School program to rejoin. The process is careful and thoughtful, involving several community visits to ensure a change in either leadership or practice has prepared them to be a successful partner again. Many of the 54 communities currently in the program have participated for more than a decade and are both dedicated to protecting the rainforest and appreciative of the educational opportunities it provides for their children.

To learn more about the Adopt-A-School program and how you can make a difference in the life of a child in the Amazon rainforest, please visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/ and choose
“Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School Program” from the drop-down menu.

Our upcoming volunteer expedition is scheduled from March 25 to April 2, and spots are still available. Volunteers will help deliver donated school supplies to these communities in need along the Amazon and Napo rivers . For more information, visit detroitzoo.org/about/travel-programs/amazon-travel-program/ or contact clannoyehall@dzs.org and/or adewey@dzs.org.

Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.