Andrew crawford is Associate Professor of biology at Universidad de los Andes and member of the Smithsonian Tropical Research institute. His research on amphibian evolutionary genetics covers plenty of terrain in Colombia, from the Pacific coast with its poison dart frogs to the discovery with a team of scientists of a new species in the cloud forests of the high Andes. As a frog expert, Crawford spoke with The City Paper about the many threats facing this species in the country.
The City Paper (TCP): Andrew, what motivated you to come to Colombia and study amphibians?
Andrew Crawford (AC): When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago there was a programme called the Organization of Tropical Studies that connects students with Costa Rica. That got me to Costa Rica, and those were the coolest two months of my life. That was in 1995, but I still needed a thesis, and as I like frogs, and they are easy to study, I found out about the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in the former Canal Zone of Panama. I applied for a fellowship for a few months, and finished my Ph.D. on the frogs of Costa Rica. I learned a lot about the history of these organisms across Central America, but the more I studied them, the more I needed samples from Panama and Mexico. Then, I started putting the whole story of dirt frogs together. That’s not their scientific name, but an appropriate one, because they look like dirt, live in the dirt, are as common as dirt, and as old as dirt. You won’t see them in any calendars.
TCP: So, your Central America experience was key to your Colombia connection.
AC: When I would catch one frog on one side of Costa Rica, I would ask myself, where could the closest relative be? Nicaragua maybe, Honduras, Mexico? My research started expanding out. Back in Panama with my post-doctoral research at STRI and National Science Foundation, the perspective started getting bigger. I asked myself that if I really wanted to solve the larger problem of the relationships between specific species, what place could be next? Colombia. Also, at the Smithsonian in Panama, there were lots of Colombian students with very good reputations. I kept thinking to myself: “Wow, these Colombian students are sharp.” Befriending one affiliated with Los Andes University, in 2005, I was invited to Bogotá and by chance, met another “gringo” associated with Fulbright. We were mere postdocs who didn’t have real jobs. But, it was easier to get a fellowship then, than now. Thirteen years ago, researchers in the United States were not “hot” on Colombia: drugs, kidnapping, all that. In 2006, I applied to be a Visiting Professor at Los Andes, and was given a desk.
TCP: Did the security risk affect your first outings to the jungle to study frogs?
AC: I am not an extreme adventure guy by any means. I want to do what’s safe. If someone said to me then, “don’t go there,” I didn’t. I wasn’t keen on pushing the envelope. I did manage to go to Quibdó and Arací on the Pacific coast. That was highly adventurous for me because the Lonely Planet didn’t cover the Chocó. When I finally got there, I said: “Wow, I’m actually beyond the Lonely Planet!”
TCP: What did you find among the frog population of the Chocó back then?
AC: When I was living in the former Canal Zone, I would hear the red-eye tree frog every wet season from behind my house. In Arací, I heard the same calling. When I finally caught one, it had a very different color pattern. This was a cool discovery that nobody reported, and knew that I could use some of my Panama research to help guide me to what was new in the Chocó. Colombia became part of a bio-geographic strategy with its mix of organisms from the north and others from the south. If I had gone directly from Costa Rica to the Amazon, everything would have been new. If you know your Central American frogs, it won’t help you in the Amazon. Frogs are kind of stay at home guys.
TCP: Had you imagined, once in Colombia, the level of frog biodiversity?
AC: Colombia has 800 amphibians and most of them are frogs. The country is number two in the world in terms of its frog diversity; and, also wins for having the world’s most poisonous frog: the all-yellow dart frog. The Dendrobates leucomelas has been very well documented along the Pacific and gets all the attention, but there are many more because anything that has poison and is colorful is also a dart frog. If you see a bright colorful frog in the daytime stay away from it.
TCP: When biologists refer to a “dangerous” frog, what can happen if you come across one during a hike in the rainforest?
AC: It will kill anyone who tries to eat it or if the toxin gets under your skin. It won’t attack you like a scorpion. The dart frog is pure defense. There were several cases recently at Bogotá’s International Airport of people smuggling these frogs in suitcases. There’s a huge market out there for these “pets.” Sadly, 90% of them die before they reach their destination. It’s a massacre, but collectors are willing to pay a lot of money for a new color pattern, species and the most poisonous.
TCP: After your first trip to Colombia in 2005, you set your sights on permanent tenure at Los Andes University. How did this happen?
AC: The Fulbright visiting professor deal was for just one semester, but as they paid so well, I stayed for the year. But when I got to back to Panama, I realized Los Andes was nice, Colombia was a great country and I found the regionalism tremendous. I started applying to come back, and got an offer in 2006. My aim was – and still is – to use frogs to study the origins of biodiversity. That’s a great question for Colombia and a classic question in biology. Why are there so many species?
TCP: How old is the frog community?
AC: Through genetics, we can understand the origin of all species, and as frogs are sisters to the rest of the tetrapods, reptiles, birds and mammals, this makes them very old. In fact, they haven’t changed a lot in 150 million years. When you see a frog fossil, it is very clearly a frog.
TCP: Biodiversity is a term that’s used a lot in this country, but are we taking our biodiversity for granted?
AC: If we give up on conservation and don’t save our frogs, there’s one possible outcome: they’re gone! The situation is bad because trafficking is getting worse. In a post-conflict, it’s much easier to get to these frogs, and as deforestation accelerates, we are losing entire populations. The disease has also claimed many species. All these factors without thinking about how bad herbicides and pesticides are.
TCP: There’s an anecdote regarding your role with the sticker album Jet, very popular among children in this country. Can you explain?
AC: I helped with the genetic analysis of the Pristimantis dorado, a small golden frog native to the forests of Colombia. Before it appeared in the Chocolates Jet album, Mauricio Rivera-Correa of the University of Antioquia named it after mythical El Dorado, because it seemed a nice way of saying that with the post-conflict, the new riches of Colombia is the “Green economy” – our biodiversity.
TCP: We have spoken about threats to the frog population at home, but what is happening globally?
AC: In the world, we just hit 8,000 frogs officially. What is most interesting, however, is that to find a new mammal is something that doesn’t happen every day, and as the numbers of new species is going down every year, amphibians are bucking the trend. The number of new frogs we are finding has not slowed at all – it just goes up and up. It would be irresponsible to try and guess when this might stop – but, so far – one could easily imagine 9,000 or 16,000 frog species in the world. And in Colombia, our 800 frogs could easily double.
TCP: Yet, it seems that frogs are suffering from so many external factors.
AC: Yes, frogs are getting hit in many different ways. It really is a disaster. Many of our micro-endemic species haven’t been seen again in the high-altitude páramos. In the mountains, we have lost forests to cattle ranching and crop clearing. Another cause for declining populations is the chytrid fungal disease that wipes out half the frogs that get infected. If it’s not the fungus, another threat can be fish farming. Our frogs face one insult after another.
TCP: As a leading expert on amphibians, what are your more recent discoveries?
AC: I have been doing a lot of research on how sensitive frogs are to the environment along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. They live in extreme environments with harsh summers and very little water. Some of the questions we are asking ourselves are: How do they survive? Where do they come from? Did they move down from Central America, or did they live in the Amazon and crossed over the Andes? What I can tell you from the radiation of the frog population is that the vast majority on the planet come from southern South America. We are finding an unexpected connection between Colombia’s coastal frogs with those in Chile and Argentina.
TCP: Have you seen at Los Andes an increase among biology students who want to study frogs?
AC: Reporting on frogs gets people excited, and for some reason, in my field of research – Herpetology – there are more students studying frogs than other creepy crawlies. Frogs tend to attract the press due to the many threats they face.
TCP: Your name was recently mentioned with two large seizures at El Dorado airport involving animal traffickers. Why did the National Police call on you?
AC: The National Police wanted to check the frogs which survived fungal disease before putting them back in the wild. My laboratory did the checking. As the yellow dart frog only exists in one tiny patch in Colombia, it can be collected out of existence, and the police know where they exist. It seemed that someone close to the traffickers snitched as they were leaving the forest with suitcases.
The weird thing is with these frogs is that they have distinctive patterns depending on which forest they inhabit. So, the authorities can know where animal traffickers are operating depending on the frogs they have caught.
TCP: Do you think there is a concerted effort by the Ministry of Environment and National Police to protect frogs against traffickers?
AC: Awareness of the problem is definitely on the increase, and I am involved with developing the Amphibian Action Plan of the Ministry of the Environment. A key element to the Plan de Acción de Anfibios is to combat illegal trade. We have to assume that with these busts, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
TCP: Do communities try and stop traffickers from taking their frogs?
AC: It’s very imperative to tell a community that they have “special frogs,” in order to give them a sense of pride. Secondly, there are pilot projects to protect certain species through sustainable harvesting, and this can bring in money for vulnerable communities.
TCP: So you are not very optimistic about the future of Colombia’s “kermits”?
AC: When I came to Colombia 13 years ago, I would say: “Wow, look at all this biodiversity.” Then, someone who had been here 30 years would respond: “Andrew, this is nothing compared to what was once here.” It comes down to shifting baselines with each generation. I would like to be able to say something optimistic, but as far as conservation of our frogs is concerned, I think things will get worse before they get better.