What initially motivated me to go on this trip was my fascination with herpetology. Reptiles and amphibians are often misunderstood and underappreciated creatures, and the opportunity to visit the Ecuadorian rain forest where biodiversity of these creatures is abundant has been incredible to say the least.
It rained all night and sporadically during the day, so that special day at Shiripuno was an especially lucky one for finding frogs and snakes. On our day hike we saw two crested forest toads that camouflage so well they’re easily mistaken for fallen leaves, and a red backed dendrobatid (poison dart frog). When Erin Dailey and I were setting up our research project we saw an Amazon horned frog, also known as a pacman frog, that can grow so large it will feed on mice! It had beautiful markings on its back to help it camouflage with the leaf litter around it, so it can sit and wait for prey instead of searching it out. The yellow lines curving throughout its face looked electric and mesmerizing.
At dinner I showed Dr. Moore the pictures of the pacman frog, and he just about jumped out of his seat from excitement and jealousy. We went out for a night hike to look for it and other critters lurking in the night. We didn’t find the pacman frog again, but found other amazing amphibians and reptiles. First we saw a caecilians (the third and often forgotten group of amphibians after frogs and salamanders) feasting on a large earthworm in the middle of the trail. It was one of the strangest and most interesting things I’ve seen on this trip. It resembled a snake but was more tubular and very slimy. Those who tried to grasp it couldn’t hold it in their hands for longer than a few seconds. As we continued, we found 3 giant monkey tree frogs, bright green frogs with serrated-like sides and pale gray eyes with a prominent black slit. We were extremely lucky and got to watch it wax itself with its legs for a moment. As we approached a stream filled with fallen leaves, we began to search for Pipa pipa (an aquatic frog) and Mata mata (an aquatic turtle). Dr. Hopkins amazingly enough was able to find a Pipa pipa within all the leaf litter underwater. I could hardly even see it before he pulled it out from its hiding place. It still baffles me that he even spotted it in the first place. Under the leaf litter it resembled a brown crab, but once it was brought to the surface it looked prehistoric. It had a flattened head as if it had been stepped on and very long slender front toes. Last time Dr. Hopkins visited the lowland rainforest finding a Pipa pipa was his goal and now I can see why.
Walking back from the stream we saw two snail eating snakes, one of which was a banded calico snake with a beautiful pattern of white and black bands that faded into a browner banded pattern. This was one of my favorite night hikes yet due to the diversity of herps we saw. It’s amazing how these animals have these perfect adaptations to blend in in their special niche within the rainforest. With these incredible features that allow them to camouflage so well, it makes me wonder what other creatures are looking back on us as we venture through their home.
~ Virginia Tech student Caroline Tribble
Follow the Adventure! You are invited to follow the VT Ecuador students as they report back from South America during their 3-week journey, May 16-June 7. They will be blogging @VTResearch and posting to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #VTEcuador. – See more at: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/ResearchBlog/#sthash.g5Fc56wz.dpuf