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Communicating Science

06/19/2015

Communicating science is perhaps the most important thing we will do in our career as scientists and conservationists. But how do you do it? How do you address the public without sounding too much like a boring science professor or ending up giving the impression that you are a stunt man from one of those crazy animal shows on TV?
 
During my time as a scientist, which goes back as far as my first show-and-tell in middle school, I have learned that people are always curious about what they don’t know, and this curiosity can quickly be turned into a fascination, or better yet, a passion for learning new things. People today have so much access to information and everything is a screen scroll away, but still, nothing beats the real thing.

Like the smell of a good book that no Kindle can provide, no web page (or Frog Blog) can transmit what it feels like to discover a new frog, or better yet, to find a frog that was thought to be extinct. Trekking for seven hours up and down a mountain trying to find the last patches of forest and finding after such a day that they are still in place and beaming with more frogs than you thought were possible is a unique feeling for someone studying amphibian conservation. And I want to tell you that story, and I want to do it in person so I can get you as passionate about wildlife conservation as I am, but I can’t do it every day. Only on rare occasions do we get to migrate out of our murky dens (our offices) and our playgrounds (the field) and into the real world, but when we do, we get to see peoples reactions and interact with folks in a unique way.


Talking to the public at the Arneson River Theater during the Since Café from the International Herpetological Symposium about two of our most charismatic species we are helping bring back from extinction in Ecuador, the black Cajas harlequin toad and the wampukrum. You can see Becky adding some emotion to my talk…
 
A few weeks ago, a selected group of herpetologists—people studying reptiles and amphibians—got a chance to do just that at the International Herpetological Symposium, which was held May 27-29 in San Antonio, hosted by the San Antonio Zoo. Not only that, we got a chance to participate on a Science Café open to the public on the Arneson River Theater in San Antonio’s famous River Walk, where not only fellow snake and frog buddies registered for the symposium heard our talks, but also regular tourists, visitors and interested people got a chance to hear and then ask me about our work with the wampukrum toad and the black Cajas harlequin toad in Ecuador and also hear about our efforts to save more than 35 species of frogs in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And of course, we had Becky the backyard frog to help us draw attention from our guests!
 

Work meetings are always a great time to catch up with colleagues and friends. Here I am with fellow amphibian conservationist and amazing photographer and communicator, Robin Moore.  He accompanied us on our first visit to Haiti and helped collect some of the frogs that we still house at our amphibian breeding facility for critically endangered Haitian frogs. He also took many of the iconic images from these frogs that helped bring the plight of these amphibians to the general public.
 
It is very rewarding to see people’s genuine interest in conservation and to see peoples desire to learn and protect these new found endangered and fascinating animals that we work so hard to preserve.
 

The cool thing about going to these meetings at zoos is being able to see animal collections that are unique to each zoo. This is the first time I get to see a Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops mangshanensis), endemic to China and with an estimated population of about 500 individuals in existence. It is extremely vulnerable, threatened by habitat loss and collection for the illegal pet trade.


Sometimes the unique species kept in zoo’s conservation programs are right from your own back yard! The San Antonio Zoo, like the Philadelphia Zoo is also a pioneer in conserving Caribbean land frogs of the genus Eleutherodactylus. Jennifer Stabile, Director of Conservation and Research at San Antonio Zoo, currently has breeding programs for the common coquí (Eleutherodactylus coqui – above) and the endangered Mona island coquí (E. monensis – below).