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MACROSCOPE

Lessons of the Lost

Amphibians are all but gone, bequeathing us lessons that must not be squandered

Joseph R. Mendelson III

2011-11MacroMendelsonFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageI learned great and terrible lessons in my first year of graduate work in 1989—more than I expected and more than I realized at the time. My advisor at the University of Texas at Arlington, Jonathan Campbell, arranged for me to spend a field season in Guatemala surveying the amphibians and reptiles in the environs of a coffee plantation near Pueblo Viejo, in the Department of Alta Verapaz. I was going it alone with no Spanish language skills in the midst of a brutal civil war. But there had never been any herpetological work done in this particular part of the country, so I balanced my apprehension with a vision of myself following in the footsteps of the intrepid tropical natural historians and explorers whose monographs I was intensely studying.

During that summer I assembled a good collection of reptiles from Pueblo Viejo, but only a poor collection of amphibians. We all assumed at the time that the paltry representation of amphibian specimens was due to my incomplete skills; where I come from in southern California, reptiles are common and amphibians are scarce. Twenty years later, it is clear to all herpetologists that I had arrived on the scene of a massacre. That field trip launched my research career as an amphibian taxonomist and, indeed, I discovered my first species of frog new to science at Pueblo Viejo. Since then I have had the pleasure of discovering and naming dozens of new species, but some of them I “discovered” on museum shelves and not in the field. My finds had become extinct before they were even named. I chose to become a herpetologist, not a paleontologist, because I enjoy working afield with live animals. Recent reflection has forced me to reconsider my academic title. I am a forensic taxonomist.




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