Animal-sleuthing scientist courts danger to save nature

A Cambodian jungle under threat of illegal logging.
A Cambodian jungle under threat of illegal logging.

December 8, 2011

By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( The group of scientists from Malaysia, Cambodia and the United States pushed into unexplored jungle territory of Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains this August intent on discovering new species of amphibians and reptiles. They took along two armed forest rangers because the scientists also intended to stay alive.

The region is known for illegal logging activity and the outlaw tree-cutters don’t like intruders. The loggers would have been particularly unhappy if they knew the scientists intended to help the government thwart their destructive activities in the dense jungles of the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary.

After the scientists set up camp near a river with the armed rangers situated nearby, a group of loggers wielding AK-47s set up their own camp 200 meters away to watch the newcomers. At one point the rangers and loggers, on either side of the scientists’ campsite, brandished their weapons at each other. “I thought I was going to end up as collateral damage in an O.K. Corral-like shoot out,” said Dr. Lee Grismer, herpetologist and biology professor at La Sierra University.

His colleague and expedition partner Evan Quah, a post-graduate student at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang had similar concerns. “There were times that I was really worried about our safety there,” he said. “They could have easily finished us off and dumped our bodies in some remote part of the jungle where nobody would ever find us.”

It was the rainy season and along with facing down gun-toting loggers and the usual dangers of cobras, kraits, pit vipers and the like, Grismer and his colleagues also faced lethal strains of malaria. The expedition’s hazards were all in a day’s fieldwork for Grismer. The long-time scientist has endured broken bones, sickness, blood-sucking leeches, falls from cliffs and dodged abandoned land mines to ultimately find more than 80 new species of pit vipers, geckos and other lizards, amphibians and reptiles over the past 35 years. His hunting grounds are primarily the remote jungles, mountains and islands of Southeast Asia and his chief goal is conservation.

Home sweet home. The Cambodian jungle campsite where Dr. Grismer and colleagues encountered armed illegal loggers.
Home sweet home. The Cambodian jungle campsite where Dr. Grismer and colleagues encountered armed illegal loggers.

Grismer organized this summer’s multi-nation animal-sleuthing trip and departed for Cambodia’s jungles determined to lead the group despite suffering an excruciating back fracture during a weight-lifting exercise a few weeks prior to the journey.

His sacrifices were rewarded and his push for jungle preservation bolstered. The trek produced 58 frog, toad, lizard and snake species and data that indicated an extended range for an amazing frog with green blood and turquoise bones as well as for a legless, blind lizard species. “This adds a huge body of data to the conservation efforts in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary,” Grismer said. “This will help the Ministry of the Environment generate funds to support efforts to keep out the loggers. It adds to the reasoning of why the area needs to be protected.”

Grismer will return to Cambodia in March to collect the specimens from the Natural History Museum at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. He and his students will analyze the specimens at La Sierra and publish their findings in the Cambodian Journal of Natural History. During that trip he plans to explore islands off the southern coast of Cambodia, a region formerly utilized by the Khmer Rouge and so remote no scientists have been there, Grismer said. It took three years to acquire the government’s permission to enter the area, he said.

Why save the lizard?

Grismer’s hazardous field research supports his calling and cause, his reason for enduring the danger, dirt, fatigue and pain involved in discovering new creatures and new behavioral patterns; he uses the species documentation to help save pristine portions of Planet Earth from ever-encroaching development, and to educate the public on the importance of preserving the chain of life.

“The issue is, if we knowingly let some little lizard go extinct, we’re sending an unmistakable message to governments and lay people that letting some species go extinct is acceptable,” he said. If certain key species are allowed to die out, it could disrupt major ecosystems and in so doing, destroy communities, said Grismer. “The general public has real concerns about extinction and unfortunately some scientists are giving only party-line answers.”

Grismer lays out the argument in the March 2011 edition of the Malaysian Naturalist in an article titled “Reptiles Go Extinct …Does it Affect Us?”  Grismer writes, “Species, any species (and some more than others), are worth protecting at least on principle alone. …If we allow the extinction of selected species then where do we draw the line? Who decides which species stay and which are expendable? What criteria are used to decide this?”

Conservation in Southeast Asia is still emerging and is reliant on scientific data for its advancement. “We’re at the front line right now discovering new species and earmarking new locations that will need to be afforded protection soon,” said Quah. “I cannot stress enough the importance of the data that Dr. Grismer and his other colleagues are collecting in the field. We’re only beginning to find out what is out there and this is all invaluable data that will help us build baseline data for future work for the conservation of these species.”

New frog species with green blood and turquoise bones.
New frog species with green blood and turquoise bones.

Following the Cambodia expedition, Grismer took another trip with two La Sierra students in September to find and study amphibians and reptiles in Peninsular Malaysia. In between these excursions he represented Southeast Asia at a meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Aug. 29 – Sept. 3 in Beijing, a roundtable of the top scientists in the world who gathered to discuss the ongoing devastation of various snake populations throughout Asia.

The species Grismer, his students and colleagues have discovered and documented helped stop the development of an airport on Tioman Island in 2007 that was intended to handle large commercial jets. Their data also helped mitigate the building of a tourist cable car line up the side of the Bintang Mountain Range in northwestern Peninsular Malaysia. “[That development] would just destroy the top of the mountain which harbors a significant chunk of Malaysian biodiversity,” Grismer said. “The first step in conservation is to discover what’s there.”

Through public presentations, the scientists’ work and findings are becoming increasingly popular with Malaysian communities and are used by park officials to keep developers at bay. “That gives them power. It’s a chip they can use to lobby for more protection and for government funds,” he said.

Publishing a milestone

Grismer can add to his information arsenal a milestone volume he published earlier this year. In June, publisher Edition Chimaira in Frankfurt, Germany released his 728-page book that incorporates 15 years of his fieldwork on the lizards of Peninsular Malaysia with extensive research of leading biologists from the 1700s onward. The groundbreaking work is the first comprehensive collection of biological, historical and habitat data on lizards in the Malaysian peninsula. It includes more than 700 photographs, most taken by Grismer.

Grismer attended book release events in June, in Frankfurt and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in late November attended book events and workshops in Malaysia.

The book describes in detailed depictions and colorful photographs the history, migration patterns and identifying physical characteristics of 128 lizards including their scientific names, common English names and local Malay names when known.

La Sierra student Ariel Loredo, Dr. Eric Dugan, and La Sierra biology Professor Lee Grismer in Malaysia examine two lizard species.
La Sierra student Ariel Loredo, Dr. Eric Dugan, and La Sierra biology Professor Lee Grismer in Malaysia examine two lizard species.

Numerous photographs, often with frogs and other creatures painstakingly posed in the foreground, provide a panoramic view of jungle streams and waterfalls, the mist-swirled mountains of Banjaran Bintang above Sungai Perak, the Dragon’s Back karst towers in the sunset at Perlis and the sandy beach habitat of Pulau Redang, Terengganu edged with an emerald ocean.

Some shots took a little more effort than others. A photograph of a deadly Red-headed Krait, a snake 16 times more poisonous than a cobra, can be viewed in a depiction of a small jungle stream environment in Pulau Tioman, Pahang. The reptile has a bright red head and black body fading into a bright red lower torso and tail. In an effort to pose the virulent creature, Grismer repeatedly captured and freed the reptile to tire it, then managed to snap just the right shot as the snake swirled its body on top of a log near the jungle stream.

The book includes a series of photos of eight tan and black-ringed geckos that look like cousins. While the geckos originated from the same forest gecko ancestors found in the jungles of northern Malaysia, over time as sea levels rose, climates changed, the geckos separated and migrated onto different mountaintops, lowlands and islands of Southern Thailand and much of Peninsular Malaysia.

Grismer believes the forest gecko line, whose scientific name is Cytrodactylus pulchellus, may have branched off into at least eight different gecko species whose body structures and colorings, while resembling the original species, reflect their adaption to their ‘new’ homes around the country.

Now it’s up to analysis of the geckos’ DNA by Grismer’s former student and La Sierra alumnus Perry L. Wood, Jr. in the lab of Dr. Tod Jackman at Villanova University to support Grimser’s hypothesis of the separateness of these animals. It will also identify when the lineages separated, Grismer said. If confirmed, the multiple new species designation will be a surprising find for the scientist.

Grismer’s discoveries have captured the attention of international news media and resulted in a 2005 television show called “Reptile Kings” for Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet. He has taught biology at La Sierra University since 1994. In addition to his own scientific excursions to Southeast Asia and his work with scientists at the Science University of Malaysia, Grismer takes La Sierra students annually on trips to the jungles. They return from their explorations half a world away with changed worldviews and vast amounts of knowledge.

Got it! Ariel Loredo shows an animal captured during a 'herping' expedition in the jungle.
Got it! Ariel Loredo shows an animal captured during a 'herping' expedition in the jungle.

Student sleuth

Ariel Loredo, a senior biology and pre-veterinary science major, participated in the research expedition in Malaysia this September with Grismer and other students. The trip consisted of nighttime hunts in the humid rainforest, mangrove swamps, in caves and on cold, slippery mountain slopes for reptiles that are active at night. Loredo collected six specimens of slug snakes and discovered through genetic analysis that one is a new species.

It was her first trip to Malaysia, a metamorphic experience that involved treks through rainforests vibrant with chattering monkeys, Asian elephants and civic cats, dinners in exotic cities, and the discomfort of blood-sucking leeches that crawled up her legs during rain showers. A significant moment involved a lesson in how to hold a poisonous mangrove snake safely. “It was a fantastic, exhilarating experience standing in the middle of the river with this huge, dangerous snake wrapping its tail around my arm,” Loredo said.

She discovered an intense interest in field research which she says will be a large part of her life as a scientist and veterinarian. “I owe this revelation largely to Dr. Grismer, not just for giving me the opportunity to go on this trip, but also for his excellent mentorship,” Loredo said. “I learned more about biology than I could ever learn in a class. I learned more about myself.”


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  • Last update on  December 21, 2011