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Time well spent

Over the past month I have been travelling through North America, up from San Francisco to Vancouver, Canada. If you have been following the blog you will know of some of my recent exploits – however if not, you may want to take this opportunity to look back over my previous few posts.

Having come to the end of my trip I am able to reflect back on what an enriching experience it has been. While travelling northward I have visited many cultural and academic institutions, met fellow herpetologists, delivered lectures and found an array of interesting flora and fauna. Throughout this experience I have witnessed new practices and engagement activities, which I intend to share with work colleagues back in Manchester and use in developing what the museum can offer in the future, thus improving our already world-class institution.

The highlight of the trip for me was attending the World Congress of Herpetology. It was great to mix and share ideas with top international experts and proudly represent the University of Manchester. It has been an exceptionally interesting and fruitful trip. I would sincerely like to thank the University for supporting me, and am very grateful to all the people I have spent time with during my time in North America for making it so special.


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The Vancouver Aquarium

Atelopus varius zeteki, (c) Andrew Gray, Courtesy of The Vancouver Aquarium.

Before leaving British Colombia I wanted to visit The Vancouver Aquarium one more time. The public displays here are really excellent and a large area is dedicated to amphibian exhibits. It’s named ‘Frogs Forever’, and shows a huge array of amphibian species whilst covering subjects such as amphibian natural history, threats to survival, and of course frog conservation. It’s clear Darren’s been hard at work since leaving Manchester, and the improved exhibits are exceptional. Whilst visiting, it’s been a real pleasure for me to meet members of the team here. Its also been great to see some of the wonderful species being maintained behind the scenes, including the Critically Endangered Golden Frog, Atelopus zeteki (Pictured above)

As well as the frogs, I’ve also been greatly impressed with the work being carried out here with different fish species, and in particular the neotropical freshwater stingrays. These are naturally found in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, where in many cases they are more feared than piranhas by local people. This is due to the number of accidents that occur as the stingrays lay buried in the shallows of sandy beaches with a readiness to defend themselves with their venomous tail spines.

Tiger Stingray (Potamotrygon tigrina) (c) Andrew Gray, Courtesy The Vancouver Aquarium

At the aquarium, Senior Biologist Jennifer Reynolds is working with three species of stingray: Ocellated river stingrays (Potamotrygon motoro), Xingu River stingrays (Potamotrygon leopoldi), and Tiger stingrays (Potamotrygon tigrina).  Jennifer tells me she especially enjoys working with these animals because they are beautiful, inquisitive, and have a fascinating natural history. I have to agree.

Freshwater stingrays are ovoviviparous, giving birth to well-formed live young after a gestation period averaging 3-5 months.  Jennifer seems most proud of the Tiger Stingrays – a species with a complex and beautiful pattern of golden yellow and black which she considers the most beautiful of all the freshwater stingrays (pictured above).

Young Tiger Stingray (Potamotrygon tigrina) (c) Andrew Gray, Courtesy The Vancouver Aquarium

Tiger stingrays are notorious for being delicate, picky, and difficult to maintain in captivity. Jennifer has been working with them since 2003, and the tiger stingrays have now successfully reproduced twice at the aquarium. Only one other public aquarium in the world has successfully reproduced this species in captivity – the Shedd aquarium in Chicago.

The young stingrays require a great deal of care and specialized feeding, so are kept behind-the-scenes until they are stabilized, which takes an average of 6 months. I saw two of them which were born in April that Jennifer is rearing, and they were stunning.

Xingu River stingray (Potamotrygon leopoldi) (c) Andrew Gray, courtesy The Vancouver Aquarium

I also saw some of the female Xingu river rays that the aquarium had recently acquired to work towards breeding this species in captivity. Completely black with bright white polka-dots covering their bodies, these stingrays were also stunning (pictured left).



Whilst chatting with Jennifer, I learned about a worrisome dam project looming on the Brazilian river where these particular stingrays occur. The Belo Monte dam is a highly controversial project that has received a lot of international attention in the last few years, and particularly the last 6 months. While most concerns centre around the fate of the indigenous people, biologists are also very concerned about the fish. While a great deal of work has been done with this species, no one is quite sure what effect the dam will have on the wild population or their fragile ecosystem..

Learn more about the Belo Monte dam and sign the petition.

If you have questions about freshwater stingrays, you can contact Jennifer O. Reynolds at jenoreynolds@gmail.com or see her photo collection HERE


Alpine Ascents

Yesterday, Sunday, Darren and I took a break from the Herpetological Congress to go to Whistler Mountain, which during the summer months is transformed from being Canada’s ski capital to a wonderful outdoor resort centre where visitors can enjoy mountain biking, paragliding, and hiking at all levels – including reaching the highest peak over 7,000ft. The views from the top were absolutely breathtaking.

In the past month I’ve hiked a wide range of trails at different altitudes, from lowlands to higher sub alpine elevations. Here, many of the open forests and meadows have offered me a wonderful opportunity to experience a complete rainbow of colourful wild flowers. The sub alpine area, which extends from an elevation of approximately 1000 metres to 1800 metres (3,000 to 6,000 feet) has typically poorer, less developed soil and is generally covered in snow much earlier  than the lower elevations. It stays buried well into the spring and early summer, when an abundance of colour can be seen.Yesterday was no exception, as the Whistler-Blackcomb mountainous area is particularly good for seeing a huge variety of beautiful wild plants flowering at this time of year. Here are a few:


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Oregon Frogs Spotted

Whilst in Vancouver I have been catching up with my good friend and past work colleague Darren Smy. Darren you may remember helped initiate the frogblog back in September 2008. He moved out to Canada to become one of the senior biologists at the Vancouver Aquarium, where he now oversees their superb amphibian collection.

Oregon Spotted Frog, Rana pretiosa (c) Andrew Gray. Courtesy of the Vancouver Aquarium

One of the threatened species Darren is working with is the Oregon Spotted Frog, Rana pretiosa (meaning “Precious frog”), Canada’s most at risk amphibian. Due to the lack of breeding and rearing habitats suitable to the frog in the wild, different methods of captive rearing and re-introductions are being carried out to help conserve it.

The frogs are highly aquatic and reach a length of up to 10cms.  They range in color from green to reddish-brown, and as their common name suggests, they have black spots on the head and back. The species is also identifiable by the reddish sides and slightly upturned eyes, positioned to help it remain partly submerged but able see above the water level (pictured).

Oregon Spotted Frog (c) Andrew Gray, Courtesy of The Vancouver Aquarium

The first collection in the world to have bred this species in captivity, the Vancouver Aquarium are working closely with the Oregon Spotted Frog Recovery Team to support the last remaining populations in Canada. It’s a wonderful project and the aquarium have dedicated many resources to the project, including a growing number of biosecure housings.

Here is Darren explaining some of the finer points of how the frogs are maintained for their successful captive breeding and development:



Canadian frog tales

At the moment I’m in Vancouver, where next week I will be attending the 7th World Congress in Herpetology. It’s an event I’ve been really looking forward to, and the opportunity of representing the Museum and University in my subject together with meeting up with international colleagues will be a real pleasure. The selection of lectures and symposia scheduled for the congress promise to be excellent.

Tadpole of Tailed frog, Ascaphus truei, (c) Andrew Gray

Whilst in Canada, I am also taking time out to enjoy the nature of this beautiful country and yesterday spent a wonderful day hiking up a waterfall nearby. Whilst doing so, I decided to look for one of the most unusual frogs to occur here – a species called the Tailed Frog, Ascaphus truei.

It’s a species that is very rare to find and lives and breeds in clear, very cold, fast-flowing mountain streams. The falls are over 1000ft tall and the walk over the boulders was a little treacherous, but great fun. With the almost deafening sound of rushing water by the falls any call these frogs produced would be useless, so they don’t bother, and have not even developed a vocal sac or eardrum.

Mouthparts of Tailed Frog, Ascaphus truei, (c) Andrew Gray

The males of this species do have a little ‘tail’, used during reproduction to internally fertilise females to stop the sperm from being washed away in the fast water. The females lay their eggs on rocks and boulders in the streams and the tadpoles have adapted an unusual sucker-like mouth to help them adhere to the rocks to stop them being washed away. They also have rows of tiny teeth to enable them to feed on the algae that grows on the rocks (pictured). It’s a really remarkable species that takes many years to develop from tadpole to frog and then can live for over 20 years when adult.

Seeing Seattle

For the past 5 days I have been spending time with Ron Gagliardo, International Amphibian Training Officer for the Amphibian Ark. The opportunity to share knowledge and our passions has been wonderful and Ron has also kindly taken time out to show me the sights of Seattle, where he is now based. Ron works out of Woodland Park Zoo, where I have witnessed first hand some of the great research being conducted with the captive husbandry of endangered local frog species. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ron for his time, hospitality, and continued friendship.