Spike-thumbs and Mushroom-tongues (Part 1)

A Morning as a Herpetologist in Cusuco National Park

Exquisite Spike-thumb Frog (Plectrohyla exquisita) photographed at Cusuco National Park, Honduras by Hunter McCall of McCall Wildlife Photography
Exquisite Spike-thumb Frog (Plectrohyla exquisita)
Frogs in the Genus Plectrohyla are known as spike-thumb frogs.

Awake before dawn. The exact time depends on the animals that have also just woken up and are starting to get noisy. If it’s Mantled Howler Monkeys, you’ll be awake around 0430, Resplendent Quetzals and Lesson’s Motmots about 0530, but the noisiest animal of all is the Ornithologist. If you are unlucky enough to be sharing a tent with an Ornithologist, who needs to be out on transect at sparrow’s fart (Australian term meaning “really early in the morning”), you will be awoken between 0300 and 0400. Coffee is not served until 0600, so you have a decision to make; stay in your nice warm sleeping bag (overnight and morning temperatures can get a bit cool at 2000 metres/6500 feet above sea level) or get dressed and hope to catch a glimpse of the early birds, Highland Guan, Lesson’s Motmot, Resplendent Quetzal, Slate-colored Solitaire, or maybe a Crested Owl.

El Cusuco Salamander (Bolitoglossa diaphora) photographed at Cusuco National Park, Cortés Department, Honduras by Hunter McCall of McCall Wildlife Photography
El Cusuco Salamander (Bolitoglossa diaphora)
Salamanders in the Genus Bolitoglossa are known as mushroom-tongued salamanders.

Coffee, locally grown and roasted, is available starting around 0600, an hour before breakfast, and again around 1800, an hour before dinner. Coffee and cardamom are the major agricultural products of the region and large areas of forest, including within the core protected zone of the national park, have been cleared to make way for plantations. The endangered March’s Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis marchi) requires intact, closed canopy rainforest, which is exactly what is being cleared for agriculture. These snakes can spend weeks at a time in the canopy without having to come to the forest floor, so are particularly threatened by habitat fragmentation. George Lonsdale, Operation Wallacea’s Herpetology team leader for Cusuco National Park, has been studying the spatial ecology of the species using radio telemetry. Have a look at his Instagram feed (@georgelonsdale) for some awesome photography and a bit about his research.

Breakfast is at 0700. The cooks, locals from the nearby villages and often family members of our guides, have been up since at least 0500 preparing flour tortillas from scratch. The tortillas are served with honey or grape jam and if you’re lucky and no one in camp has a nut allergy, there might be peanut butter. Hopefully you’ve planned ahead and bought a bunch of the tiny, sweet bananas from one of the stalls set up by the locals; it’s hard to beat a fresh tortilla with peanut butter, honey, and sliced banana. You’ll also get corn flakes or oats with powdered milk. One of the many perks of studying amphibians and reptiles is that diurnal species often require a little warming up before they become active for the day, so your surveys start at 0800. If you are surveying a longer transect and suspect you may be out until after lunch at 1200, you can pick up a pre-ordered packed lunch of baleadas (a traditional Honduran dish composed of a flour tortilla folded in half and filled with refried beans and cheese, often mixed with a bit of scrambled egg).

Each camp, there were five open this year, has three or four established transects of varying lengths. The camps are located at altitudes ranging from about 1400m (Cortecito) to 1800m (Cantiles) and the transects, which range from 600m to over 3km in length, could take you up or down an additional 500m or so in elevation. Most start in or near camp, but others require a significant hike before even beginning the transect. The transects range from tracks wide enough to accomodate a car, to narrow, partially-cleared game trails. You won’t be surveying by yourself. At the very least, you will need a local guide who knows the forest and all its trails and wildlife.

Operation Wallacea (Opwall) employs members of the local community to support the project in a number of ways, from guides for the scientists, to cooks, to drivers who shuttle people and supplies up and down the mountain, to mochileros or porters who carry supplies to the satellite camps (up to a six hour hike from the nearest road). A team of two mochileros can carry a portable petrol generator, critical for charging a car battery used to charge the batteries for our radios (our primary form of communication between survey teams and camps), on their heads over rugged rainforest trails, over and under fallen vegetation, up and down the mountain, to reach the satellite camps. Tents, hammocks, food, survey equipment, everything needed for the satellite camps comes and goes on the backs of mochileros.

Besides your machete and radio-wielding guide, you will almost always be accompanied by a group of students. As I mentioned in my previous post, “Home from Honduras,” this project attracts students from all over the world. Groups of high school students and university Research Assistants who come to Honduras with Opwall spend one week in the rainforest and one week at a marine research site on Utila, the smallest of Honduras’ major Bay Islands. At Cusuco, they typically spend half the week at Base Camp and half the week at one of the eastern satellite camps (Cantiles or Guanales). During this time, they have an opportunity to participate in each of the scientific surveys, diurnal and nocturnal herp surveys, bird point counts and mist netting, bat mist netting, small mammal trapping, surveying for mammal tracks and signs, pitfall trapping for invertebrates, light trapping for nocturnal insects, and habitat surveys. University students may also choose to collect data for an undergraduate level dissertation or thesis, in which case they spend six to eight weeks in Cusuco working closely with the biologists working with their chosen taxa. On most surveys, students are able to do just about everything the scientists are able to do. Handling of venomous or especially bitey reptiles is an obvious exception. Even as a biologist, handling of wildlife is kept to a minimum, allowing for the collection of valuable morphometric data while limiting potential stress to the animal.

Shoulderspot Anole (Norops [Anolis] ocelloscapularis) photographed at Cusuco National Park, Cortés Department, Honduras by Hunter McCall of McCall Wildlife Photography
Shoulderspot Anole (Norops [Anolis] ocelloscapularis)
Anoles were among the most commonly encountered herps during diurnal surveys.
After you give the students a brief introduction to the herpetology projects at Cusuco and establish the ground rules, i.e. what can be caught and when, you and your guide lead the students at a slow pace down the transect, searching for amphibians and reptiles in the trees, on shrubs, on the ground, and under leaf litter. When you, the students, or more likely, your guide, spots a herp, the chase is on. Once the animal is in hand, or in the case of amphibians, in a plastic bag (used to prevent spreading disease between amphibians and to prevent whatever might be on our hands from damaging the animals’ sensitive skin), you help the students collect a whole suite of morphometric data. The exact data collected depend on the Class of the animal, but generally you help the students identify the species, determine sex and possibly age, weigh, measure snout-vent length (distance from tip of snout to cloaca), and measure tail length (if applicable). When you encounter an adult Copan Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla soralia), Copan Stream Frog (Ptychohyla hypomykter), or adults of either Plectrohyla (Spike-thumb Frog) species, you have the added step of swabbing. For more on why we swab these species, see my previous post “Help Hunter Help Honduran Herps” and for how we swab, read my upcoming post “Spike-thumbs and Mushroom-tongues (Part 2)” When you finish, you release the animal exactly where you found it and continue to move slowly down the transect until you reach the end. Depending on how quickly you walk and how often you stop to catch and process animals, this may take you between two and four hours, though usually the students have to return to camp a bit earlier so they don’t miss their morning lecture. Once you reach the end of the transect, the survey is finished and you return to camp in time for lunch at 1200.

Each day in Cusuco National Park was different, but this is more or less a typical morning. In the next post, I’ll tell you about what happens the rest of the day, including processing venomous snakes and doing nocturnal river surveys. While you’re waiting for the next post, have a look at the new photos I’m posting in the Honduras Gallery. You can also follow me on Instagram (@mccallwildlifephotography). The photos I post on Instagram come with a fun fact or short description of the species that don’t usually make it to the website.

Please feel free to ask questions in the Comments section below or send me a message via the Contact Me page.

March's Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis marchi) photographed at Cusuco National Park, Cortés Department, Honduras by Hunter McCall of McCall Wildlife Photography
March’s Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis marchi)

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