Climate change and infectious diseases have already had fatal consequences for wildlife in Costa Rica, and these threats only keep increasing with a rapidly changing planet.
Dr Robert Puschendorf, Lecturer in Biological Sciences, researches how certain species can survive these threats, and how this could strengthen future conservation efforts.
A passion for nature
"My passion for biology started early on, I was an outdoor child and very keen to play in nature. I was born and grew up in Costa Rica and I loved playing with frogs, especially when spending weekends out with the family as we would visit a lot of national parks. There are a lot of streams and rivers that, back then, were crawling with colourful frogs, but many of these colourful forest jewels vanished by the time I became a teen.
"Since then I've followed a lifelong obsession with how we can mitigate the constant erosion of our planet's natural systems and its biodiversity. Thankfully, I was able to turn this passion into a career."
"My research spans several areas. One element of this is identifying and describing the diversity of life we see, usually amphibians and reptiles in Costa Rican and Australian ecosystems. Other projects look more specifically at how the wildlife in these ecosystems responds to environmental challenges.
"Climate change is now undeniably one of the biggest threats we are facing.
"We have got so many strong signs of a human-induced mass extinction, and while greenhouse gas emissions do not seem to be declining anytime soon, the question in the meantime is: what can we do? This is why I am focusing on those surviving populations, and trying to understand how they adapt and persist despite a changing climate and emerging infectious diseases."
Discovering new and previously thought extinct species
"Early on, while spending a lot of time in the field, I discovered that in both Costa Rica and Australia, ‘extinct’ species could be found in areas where they were not expected, such as in dry forests when they were thought to be distributed in rainforest or cloud forest. These populations occurred in coexistence to the pathogen that once wiped them out and can now be used, for example, to repopulate areas they vanished from.
"Costa Rica specifically is a really exciting place to conduct research in. As it is a small country, you can drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in less than a day, and in two hours you can be at 3400 meters above sea level.
"Its rich tropical biodiversity means you can still find and describe many new species of organisms."
A few years ago, along with Brian Kubicki and Stanley Salazar, Dr Puschendorf discovered a new species of glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium dianae) in Costa Rica. Glass frogs are named as such because of their translucent abdominal skin, which allows the internal organs to be visible to the naked eye.
Speaking of the discovery at the time, Dr Robert Puschendorf said:
"This is the kind of find we hope will inspire future generations of biologists to keep searching, being curious and exploring. We now have wonderful molecular tools, we can rapidly barcode organisms and identify them, but understanding the biology of a species fundamentally requires like in this case, hard work in the field.
"Having both those skills in the field and the laboratory, but mostly the passion to discover is what makes biology such an exciting career.”
Life in the field
"When I am researching out there, I tend to wake up early and then plan the field day in front of a map. At the sites, we usually run transects along a stream or in the forest and then capture, sample and photograph pretty much any amphibian or reptile we catch. We then release them at the same place of capture.
"Because we are working with amphibians and reptiles that can be both diurnal and nocturnal, we have to sample day and night, so there is little sleep involved. Depending on the project, we might also do radio tracking, sample tadpoles or use thermal cameras to document the environments these organisms are found in."
"The kind of research I do never stops. These days, a lot of it is driven by my students and their interests. I try to be as flexible as possible and let them develop their own ideas, and it has really paid off because I am really proud of the work they have produced. Personally, I want to move into more active conservation.
"We are currently planning a project that involves a critically endangered species of frog that is likely to require some sort of intervention if it is going to persist into the future. Basically its habitat is rapidly changing into something unsuitable and it might otherwise disappear due to climate change.
"My research ties into everything I teach, from Geographical Information Systems (GIS) based work, to molecular ecology, to principles of conservation."
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