Amphibian Ambassadors

On the 27th October, Professor Amanda Bamford of the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, and I were invited special guests at a meeting in London of all the UK ambassadors of South and Central America. The meeting of the Group of Ambassadors of Latin America (GRULA) included a prestigious luncheon at the Intercontinental Hotel on Park Lane and a presentation by myself and Professor Bamford highlighting the outcomes that have materialised from the excellent relationship the University and Costa Rica have developed.


His Excellency Mr J. Enrique Castillo Barrantes, Prof. Amanda Bamford, and myself.

The special invitation follows years of important amphibian conservation work being carried out here at Manchester Museum and through the more recent creation of a student field course in Costa Rica and a holistic environmental education initiative developed by both of us.

The meeting, hosted by the Ambassador of Costa Rica, His Excellency Mr J. Enrique Castillo Barrantes, provided an excellent opportunity for us to show the University of Manchester’s commitment to developing effective international collaborations and potential in supporting teaching, research and world wide cooperation. His Excellency wholeheartedly thanked us saying ‘It was a great day for Costa Rica and its embassy in London. I am so proud that we can show the University of Manchester’s and Costa Rica’s commitment to science and environment protection’.

It really was a privilege to be invited as special guests to the meeting, a very special experience and one I will never forget. The opportunity to represent Manchester University and highlight the work we are able to do in respect of our collaborations with Costa Rica, and to also meet all the Ambassadors of Latin America, was such an honor. We greatly appreciate the relationship that we continue to build in support of all our joint Costa Rican efforts and hope our input at the meeting will facilitate many more opportunities for international collaboration and the development of academic links.

Professor Bamford says it was a unique occasion to present our work in Costa Rica; highlighting our collaborations with local schools, both in Costa Rica and Manchester. Importantly, we were able to showcase the University of Manchester students’ key role in developing many of the education resources used in our community environmental programmes.

Since the meeting several new developments have already started presenting themselves for the university, including the possibility of new student placement opportunities and research collaborations in other parts of Latin America.

Fit For The Crown


Male Anotheca spinosa © Matthew O’Donnell

One exciting species that we have been lucky enough to work with over the last couple of years is Anotheca spinosa a hylid frog found throughout Central America. Better known by its common name, the Coronated Tree frog is a rare species, little understood and understudied due to its cryptic nature.

These frogs spend the majority of their lives in and around tree hollows, they breed in these private ponds and even rear their tadpoles on a diet of unfertilised eggs. This means that they are infrequently observed in the wild and not a great deal is known about their behaviour.

One of the main reasons that we keep unusual species here in the Vivarium is to develop a greater understanding of their natural history, the more we know about these unique species the better equipped we will be to conserve them.

Myself and Adam recently published a previously unrecorded behaviour, observed in this species for the first time at Manchester Museum. We witnessed males using the bony crowns on their heads to combat each other, attempting to leaver each other out of the water filled tree hollow that they breed in.

Combative behaviour such as wrestling is witnessed in many species of amphibians especially in males competing against each other for the chance to breed. However the use of this species bony crown is something you would associate more with rutting stags rather than a tree frog!

For a more detailed account of our observations please follow this link, the note can be found in the most recent publication from Mesoamerican Herpetology and is free to access. You can also watch this combative behaviour in the short video clip below.


Combat behavior in captive male Coronated Treefrogs, Anotheca spinosa

The Coronated Tree Frog, Anotheca spinosa


All you need is… Chocolate!


White-faced Capuchin, Costa Rica (c) Andrew Gray

Of the four species of monkey that live in Costa Rica the White-faced Capuchin is the only one that is omnivorous, eating many things ranging from flowers to lizards. Mainly they like to eat fruits and seeds, and are particularly fond of cacao seeds, the basic material in the making of chocolate.

Fifty years ago, cacao plantations dominated the lowlands of Costa Rica. By 1984, chocolate trees still grew on more than 19,000 hectares of Costa Rican land, but around that same time the deadly monilia fungus arrived, killing off 80 percent of the country’s cacao plants. Most of the trees were uprooted and replaced with more profitable pineapple and palm oil farms. However, it seems Costa Rican cacao production is again on the rise … to meet the world’s increasing sweet taste for Chocolate.

291cc2b9acf2361d0e4776f5ee0c4088This month sees  Puerto Viejo’s Chocolate Festival 2016 come into full swing, and what better place in Costa Rica to have this event. If you are interested in wildlife, food, beach life, or just chilling and eating chocolate, this place a fabulous place to visit. We take our students to this area every year during our field course and they get to see how cacao is organically grown and chocolate is made first hand. They also get the opportunity to sample it on many occasions! One place we eat at is Bread & Chocolate, a super cafe I have been visiting for many years and can highly recommend for a fantastic breakfast or lunch.

Bread & Chocolate

Puerto Viejo Chocolate Festival

13501548_241146962935964_9121610611448663288_nIn Costa Rica or not, a big chocolate fan, or know someone that is, chocolate always goes down well on the menu!

This Costa Rican lime-drizzled chocolate and coconut cake, inspired directly by my daughter visiting Puerto Viejo on the tropical Caribbean coast with me many years ago is bound to hit the spot. For the full recipe and easy making instructions why not check out:

OMG foodie uk


Our visit to the Vivarium

On the 22nd of August, after having had contact with Andrew for over a year, we finally went to visit the Vivarium in Manchester. After dropping our stuff at the Chancellor’s Hotel, we met at the Museum. We discussed many things involving our thesis project, the Vivarium itself and the work that is currently done there. Afterwards, we went to the Vivarium and got a tour backstage, where we got to meet all the species that are currently being kept at the Vivarium. The frogs and toads look very healthy and well-taken care of.

The next day, Andrew and Adam took us to the Lake District National Park, to look for herpetofauna in the English scenery. The weather was perfect! We found quite some slow worms, adders, lizards and toads in the field! Here in the Netherlands, you can’t find this many slow worms in one area!

On our last day, we went to the Museum again, this time to view everything the Museum has to offer. What a great job they have done on involving the visitors, allowing us to really want to understand the science found there. We said our goodbyes to Adam, and received a beautiful painting of the Lemur leaf frog, which currently holds a very special place in our living room.
How fortunate we are to have met such passionate and generous people. Andrew and Adam truly want what’s best for herpetofauna and the global environment. We can’t wait to go there again soon!

An introduction of new Dutch students

Hello, we are Dick Lock and Fleur van der Sterren, Dutch Wildlife Management students at the Van Hall-Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. In September, we started our final thesis in corporation with the Vivarium. This thesis will be on a very special population of Harlequin toads in Suriname. But that is a whole other story and we will keep you updated over time as this is still in its early stages. Andrew Gray asked us to introduce ourselves and tell/show some of our experiences of our previous trip through the Balkans.

I will start of first, my name is Dick Lock, I’ve been interested in herpetofauna since I was about 12. I knew I wanted wildlife to be a part of my future job. So I decided to start the study Ecology & Wildlife. During this study I’ve been on study trips and internships around the world such as Spain, Greece, South Africa, Thailand and the most important for me: Suriname. Here, I fell in love with the country and its incredible flora and fauna. So much that I went back during my next study, Wildlife Management, to guide tours there in 2014 for two months and later in 2015 went on another 6 month internship together with Fleur.

Hi everyone, I’m Fleur! My main interest is Wildlife Disease, which covers broad health-related issues among wildlife populations around the globe. My love for herpetofauna only started in 2013, as my main focus was mammals before that. When we went on a study trip to Poland, I found my first spadefoot toad. For everyone who doesn’t know what it looks like: a small toad with eyes which seem way too big for its head. After having placed it back on the ground, it immediately started digging backwards with its hind feet, to place itself under moss, glaring at me. This was the first time I caught myself thinking of amphibians as being cute and innocent creatures. This led me to the Dutch Wildlife Health Center in Utrecht, where I combined these two interests with research on Ranavirus (a virus affecting amphibians). And after our internship in Suriname, I was completely sold. Amphibians truly are the marvels of science.


Triglav National Park view

Well, now our experience in the Balkans! We teamed up with Martijn, also a Wildlife Manager, but specialized in birds. And Jos, a Forestry student specialized mainly in dragonflies and butterflies. The four of us decided to figure out a route that would bring us to many great spots and National Parks. However we did not only wanted to make this a typical holiday but also some sort of a study trip so we contacted some researchers in the hope of joining them and learning from them.

In the picture below you can see a part of our route. We started out at Fleur’s family in Germany and headed of for the following locations: Triglav National Park (Slovenia), Velebit National Park (Croatia), Sutjeska National Park  (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Durmitor National Park (Montenegro), Uvac Special Nature Reserve (Serbia), Prokletije National Park (Kosovo), Valbona valley (Albania), Skadar lake (Montenegro), Hutovo Blato National Park (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Trebinje (Bosnia and Herzegovina).


In Valbona Valley, Albania, Catherine Bohne was awaiting us. We’ve helped her with making a list of rare insect species in the great mountainous area with huge potential. She needed a list like this because the Albanian government is planning to blow up a part of the mountain range in order to make room for a hydropower installation. She is trying to contact as many specialists as possible to create a list of protected species and present it to the government in order to stop devastating projects like this. Unfortunately, the bad weather conditions in combination with food poisoning, did not favour us. Eventually, we were able to successfully gather DNA material from bear scats, which will be analyzed in Slovenia, to indicate the density of the bear population in Valbona Valley.

In Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, we were in the company of Brian Lewarne. He guided us through the area and taught us many things about the hidden underground karst ecosystem in this area. He showed us some of the entrances to this ecosystem inhabiting the rare Proteus! This salamander can grow up to 33cm in this area (in some areas even up to 50cm), it has no pigment, no eyes, external gills, internal lungs, can age up to 120 years and can go without food for at least 15 years! This is practically all that is known about this animal, all of them being extraordinary! Brian is trying his best to gather more information about the secret life of these animals, and also to battle illegal trade and habitat pollution! We have helped him measuring water qualities at different sites and doing a biometric essay on a Proteus.


Biometric essay of Proteus (Proteus anguinus)

The summer is a great time for insects, so we encountered many beautiful and rare species. However for birds and herpetofauna the summer is not such a good time. Nevertheless we managed to keep up our goal of 1 snake every day of the 23 day roadtrip. These were some of the herpetological highlights:

Thank you for reading our story, we hoped you enjoyed it and its photos! We will keep you updated on the work performed during our thesis and stay at the Vivarium!

Dick and Fleur

Harlequin Toad Update

Atelopus 7Regular readers of our blog may remember that earlier in the year we acquired a group of Harlequin toads, Atelopus sp., which have since been housed within our public viewing area opposite our Lemur Leaf Frogs. It has been a while since our post about how the new arrivals were settling in, and we thought we would post a short update about how they have been doing.

After a long period of providing the toads with a simulated dry season, the time has now come to begin the wet season cycle, which may (if we are lucky!) lead to a successful spawning.


HarlequAtelopus 3in toads are some of the most endangered amphibians on the planet, they occur from Costa Rica in Central America and down throughout the Amazon region of South America where they live along the banks of streams, and when the time is right they deposit strings of eggs within the streams flowing water.

During this time, male toads become very territorial and spend a large portion of their day calling to defend their chosen area. In order to accommodate the habits of these small toads, we have constructed a large breeding enclosure in The Vivarium containing a flowing stream, and plenty of space for the males to set up their territories and compete for the attention of our female.

We have selected some of our most dominant male toads which have now been introduced into this breeding enclosure, we can keep track of individuals as they are all uniquely patterned and also vary in colour, as can be seen in the images, which has allowed us to give each toad an ID number and closely monitor the progress of each individual. Shortly, the female will be introduced to the males and time will tell if we achieve a successful spawning!

Atelopus breeding tank

A large stream enclosure for breeding attempts of Atelopus Harlequin toads (c) Adam Bland.

                        Harlequin Heaven                  The Toad That Broke The Mould

Talking English.. with animals

IMG_4654Whereas over the past month I have been brushing up on my Spanish, since arriving back from Costa Rica to work this week and facing a busy teaching schedule, it seems I’m now losing my voice, in whichever language is spoken!

Both Adam and I have had an incredibly busy but highly productive week, and its been a great pleasure for us both to engage with the various groups, from toddlers in our baby explorers and pupils from various schools in our Habitat Explorers, to groups of adults from our local community.

One such session that Adam delivered this week, Talk English, supported a project to help people to learn to speak English.  Up to 200 different languages are spoken in Manchester, which has a population of just under 500,000. Some people cannot not speak English well or even at all, so this project being led by our City Council aims to support them especially.

We got some fabulous feedback on Adam’s superb presentation:  “Your calm, informative explanation helped us to understand the animals better and placate any fears that we had, particularly regarding the snake. We finished the tour in the Vivarium and all but one of the learners remained behind saying they wanted to have more time to look at the animals and stated they would be bringing their children to visit in the summer holidays. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and passion for the animals! “Best wishes, Mazamil.

IMG_4648aWe also got some great feedback from schools visits, including Trinity & St Micheals Primary School from Croston in Lancashire. Their pupils were so inspired that several have featured the visits on their own brilliant blogs!  –  which you can find and follow below.

Adam and I would like to thank all our group visitors this week, and are thrilled to know that the sessions we are providing are being so well received.

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