From frogs and lizards to snowy blizzards :)

For the past 20 years I’ve had a print of a favourite painting, carried with me from place to place. It depicts the most incredible garden imaginable, a contrast of rainforest, horticultural splendour, and Costa Rican animals that are ingrained in my soul – tropical birds, insects, and of course some of the most unusual amphibians on the planet! I now see it on my wall as I go down stairs each morning, the picture is a part of me.

Well, last week I was shocked to see the original.. hanging on a wall at the very place it depicts.. Wilson Botanical Garden. The incredible garden is owned by the Organisation for Tropical Studies and is part of Las Cruces tropical field station in Costa Rica. Its somewhere I’ve really wanted to visit for a long time and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Set 1200m high on a pacific coastal mountain range in Costa Rica, Las Cruces is just 5km from Panama. The array of tropical plants in the collection here was just incredible, surrounded by a rainforest dripping with ferns, mosses, palms, and bromeliads.

The temperature was a little cooler than I am used to in Costa Rica, but the topography allows for high diversity of flora and fauna – including an estimated 2,000 species of plants, more than 400 birds and 113 mammal species. Getting there took a little longer than expected but negotiating the Cerro de la Muerte (‘Mountain of Death’) road was well worth it – not least providing the most amazing close up view of a beautiful rare Quetzal and some absolutely stunning hummingbirds.

The special visit also provided a great opportunity to find an interesting rare and endangered tree frog that only occurs in very few places – Ptychohyla legleri.

Ptychohyla legleri (c) Andrew Gray

I was lucky enough to see an adult pair, and also their tadpoles, which live in only the cleanest natural spring water. Here they stick to the rocks with their sucker-like mouthparts and never stop feeding, hungry day and night. I kind of know that feeling.. maybe I was a Leglers tree frog in another life! 🙂  One things for sure, on reflection after just returning to a snowy UK, that mid-elevation rainforest in Costa Rica really didn’t seem that cold after all..

If you go to Costa Rica I highly recommend visiting Las Cruces and the Wilson Botanical Garden, you certainly won’t be disappointed. If you are a student interested in ecology, this is the place for you. OTS offers some wonderful opportunities to study at its research stations supported by leading biologists and top zoologists.

LAS CRUCES                 MANCHESTER FIELD COURSE             LA SELVA  

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From Snowy Blizzards to Frogs and Lizards: A Canadian at the Vivarium

My name is Katherine and I have the great pleasure of introducing myself as the new Curatorial Assistant at the Manchester Museum Vivarium. I recently completed my Masters of Research in Biosciences at Cardiff University where I studied the prey diversity associated with the diet of the Asian water monitor lizard (Varanus salvator) in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Malaysian Borneo.

My dissertation gave me the unique opportunity to study wildlife in the tropics, however my previous herpetological experience, and indeed my roots, come from a very different landscape.

Home for me is a small city in central Canada (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), where I completed my undergraduate studies in Environmental Biology. I went on to research reptiles and amphibians on the prairies with the Canadian Wildlife Services before moving to Vancouver, where I held the position of Aquarium Biologist Generalist at the Vancouver Aquarium. In addition to field work and husbandry experience, I’ve also had the good fortune of building upon my passion for education and public engagement, both through the Saskatoon Wildlife Federation ecology camps, and Vancouver’s Science World.

I very much look forward to both working with the host of incredible animals within the Vivarium collection, and the chance to engage with students who visit the museum, and share my enthusiasm for the conservation of the wealth of diversity on our planet. Thank you Manchester for the warm welcome!

Invertebrate involvement

Swallowtail Butterfly (c) Andrew Gray

Recently I was invited to attend the British invertebrate species survival meeting, organised by Jeff Lambert and kindly hosted by Coleg Cambria in Wales. It was a super venue and great to meet up with colleagues from various UK zoological collections as well as be introduced to new people, including some key individuals from the Zoological Society of London, Natural England, and Buglife UK.

During the meeting a list of invertebrates considered to be on the very brink of completely disappearing from the UK was presented. Until then I had no idea just how many of our rare invertebrate species were truly at imminent risk of vanishing.  

Dr Sarah Henshall from the superb organisation ‘Buglife’ also highlighted a new conservation programme, ‘Back from the Brink’, being run by Natural England and the Partnership for Species Conservation – a coalition of seven of the UK’s leading wildlife charities. By working together at sites across the country, ‘Back from the Brink’ will aim to save 20 species from extinction and help another 118 species that are under threat move to a more certain future. 

Ladybird Spider (c) Andrew Gray

It was also fabulous to hear more of how the rare Ladybird Spider conservation programme was developing – with great success it seems – successfully extending new populations from only 3 sites in the UK to now more than 15 within the last few years. This is one of my favourite spiders and I am very much hoping that in the future Manchester University can also support conservation research with the species. We also discussed several very rare beetles found in the UK, including the beautiful Tansy Beetle, Chrysolina graminis, and also Pot Beetles (Genus Cryptocephalus).

These really interesting beetles urgently require public involvement in their monitoring in order to help evaluate their current UK status and thus conservation requirements. Programmes that involve such valuable public involvement across Europe are already proving hugely successful, such as for the European Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus)

Ladybird Spider

Back from the Brink

Buglife UK

Facing out at Maggie’s

Today I visited Maggie’s, Manchester, a wonderful centre that provides free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends. It was an incredible place to witness and follows the ideas about cancer care originally laid out by Maggie Keswick Jencks. It was built in the grounds of NHS cancer hospital, Christies, and is a place with professional qualified staff on hand to offer the support people need. The atmosphere was extremely peaceful and friendly, and provided places for patients to meet other people or simply sit quietly with a great cup of tea.

My visit was organised by Wendy Gallagher, our Arts and Health Partnership Manager within the Learning and Engagement departments at the Whitworth Art Gallery and here at Manchester Museum. It was in support of the centre, and particularly a new project, ‘Facing Out’, involving local artist and portrait painter, Lucy Burscough.

‘Facing Out’ is a two-year project that explores how engaging with artworks and art practice can improve resilience and well-being in people whose faces have been affected by facial cancers and surgical reconstruction. Lucy will be creating a series of portraits of people who have altered appearances due to facial reconstruction following cancer. The project is designed to create beautiful paintings of these beautiful people and raise awareness of the challenges that confront those living with facial disfigurement.

Well, I met Lucy, and also the lady who features in her latest portrait, Annie, a wonderful lady with a big smile and kind face. She had just has facial surgery. She was so positive and loved the presentation I gave about our amphibian work. Straight away she told me how much she enjoyed visiting the Museum’s Vivarium with her grandchildren to see all our creatures, and particularly how much she loved our daily handling table that allows our visitors to experience the animals up close. That was music to my ears.

‘Facing Out’ also includes a series of workshops delivered by Lucy and by artists working in music, poetry and horticulture, all also inspired by The Whitworth artworks and by objects from Manchester Museum’s collections, the reason I was afforded the privilege of supporting the project today. It was quite an experience, with special people to share time with, in the specially designed Centre that was a work of art in itself.

‘Facing Out’ will be exhibited at the Whitworth Art Gallery in early 2019.

Lucy Burscough

Manchester Science Festival, October 2017

MAGGIES CENTRE

 

A Picture of Success

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Adult Male Hypsiboas picturatus © Matthew O’Donnell

One of our latest additions to the collection here in the Vivarium at Manchester Museum is a fascinating species of tree frog from South America, Hypsiboas picturatus. Commonly known as the Pictured or Imbabura tree frog, it occurs in the humid tropical rainforest of the pacific lowlands of Columbia and Ecuador.

Very little is known about this species, including its breeding habits, which brings the excitement of a new challenge. Over the last few months we have been conditioning our adult group in order to attempt to breed them, as preparation is key to all of our breeding successes.

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Rainforest stream setup at Manchester Museum  © Matthew O’Donnell

Once we were happy that the frogs were in excellent shape we introduced them to our large stream vivarium which we had adjusted especially for them. In this setup we were able to replicate the conditions of a steamy rainforest in northern Ecuador, in the midst of the rainy season (the time when a lot of frogs breed).

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One of our adult female Hypsiboas picturatus exhibiting stunning pattern and colours © Matthew O’Donnell

After a few fine adjustments and a few anxious days we finally got some spawn! The tadpoles have now hatched and are growing well on a broad diet of algae and insect protein. We will be monitoring their development closely and will hope to publish our findings to further develop current scientific knowledge of this stunning species.

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Hypsiboas picturatus tadpole at the Vivarium, Manchester Museum © Matthew O’Donnell

Ecuador – Raising the rarest         Patience is a virtue           Matt’s Page

Brockholes!

Hornbeam Tree, Brockholes (c) Andrew Gray

I recently visited Brockholes, a local Nature Reserve run by the Lancashire. Manchester, and Merseyside Wildlife Trusts. It’s a place I have been meaning to visit for quite some time and was very pleasantly surprised by what I found – it really was a great place, a proper wildlife haven and excellent environmental education centre that really impressed me.

Brockholes has been established for 10 years, and during that time has developed into a very special place. There is so much to see there, whether you are a wildlife novice or a birding expert. Recent months have had exciting new bird sightings, including a Pallid Harrier and an Osprey.

Water Lily in full bloom at Brockholes (c) Andrew Gray

The really wide variety of habitats, including lakes, streams, mature woodland, and of course the River Ribble, which also flows through Brockholes, makes for some great wildlife watching – otters are also regularly seen on this stretch of the Ribble too!

The ever expanding amount of wildlife that calls Brockholes home evolves throughout the various seasons, and at the moment the reserve is full of colour, with the many wildflowers that attract different types of dragonfly and butterflies, such as the Gatekeeper and Common Blue.

Toad on his toadstool at Brockholes (c) Andrew Gray

I saw lots of Peacock butterflies during my visit, one of my favourites, as well as coming across 3 species of amphibian within the first half an hour.

You wouldn’t think for a minute Brockholes is just next to a major motorway junction (where the M6 and M61 meet), but that just makes it even more accessible. For anyone wanting to experience wildlife in the heart of Lancashire I highly recommend a visit, its packed with things to see and do for literally everyone!

BROCKHOLES

 

The Inside Story

Frogs represent 88% of living amphibians and have a skeletal shape unique among land-dwelling vertebrates. Although frogs seem to be specially adapted to jumping, they actually engage in a wide range of locomotion styles – walking and running, climbing, swimming, and burrowing, in addition to jumping and hopping.

Laura Porro, a post doc researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, part of the University of London, is an evolutionary biomechanist and palaeontologist investigating the link between form and function in living and extinct vertebrates. She studies the evolution of feeding and locomotion in a wide range of taxa – primarily fossil and living amphibians and reptiles, and early tetrapods – through medical imaging and 3D visualisation, biomechanical modelling and experiments.

First Laura uses micro CT (computed tomography) scanning at the University of Cambridge to capture skeletal shape. CT scans produce a series of digital slices of the specimen – essentially, a 3D X-ray. She uses specialised imaging software to digitally separate the skeleton from the surrounding tissues, producing 3D skeletal models.

CT scan showing skeleton of the Lemur Leaf Frog, Agalychnis lemur

On its own, CT scanning is a great tool to capture skeletal shape – however, the X-rays have a difficult time distinguishing different soft tissues from one another. Newly-developed staining methods now permit Laura to visualise and separate soft tissue masses – individual muscles, nerves and organs – allowing her to see all of the internal structures in place without any destructive dissections. Combined with 3D PDF technology, these digital dissections – including those of rare taxa – can be shared with students and researchers around the world.

Working with some of the rare frogs from Manchester Museum’s herpetology collection has provided Laura and her research group with access to some of the rarest and most unusual amphibians, such as the the bizarre Crowned Tree Frog, Anotheca spinosa.

Screenshot of 3D fully moveable model produced from a specimen of the Crowned Tree Frog Anotheca spinosa.

Anatomical information gained from staining and scanning these specimens will form the basis of unique biomechanical models used to simulate walking and jumping in these animals for Laura’s project. Our team will also receive highly detailed digital dissections of some of the rarest frog taxa in the world, all providing an extremely valuable resource for both teaching and new cutting edge research.

Digital dissection of the model organism Xenopus laevis

Combat behaviour in Male Anotheca spinosa

Follow Laura on Twitter