Doing Natural History

Where did the Bolitoglossan salamander come from?

What is Evolutionary Success?


In the 1930s and 1940s Schmidt, Smith, Stuart, and Taylor described the diversity and abundance of species they saw in the Guatemalan highlands. In 1969 the first expedition from the MVZ traveled to western Guatemala with the intent of learning more about the species diversity, adaptive radiation, and evolutionary success of the local amphibian and reptilian fauna. Museum director David Wake and doctoral student James Lynch and coworkers braved regions with few navigable roads and the occasional army patrol searching for guerillas in order to study the unique niches created by the tropical environment. They had to create their own map because they were working "in 'areas controladas', maps for which were not released as they are guerilla tools." In Guatemala they found amphibians taking shelter in the cool, moist environment under logs, rocks, and inside bromeliads, the rosette shaped water-trapping plants of the tropics.

As the civil war heated up in the 1970s Guatemala became unsafe. In 1977 Elias and Jackson had an encounter with a Guatemalan soldier with a machine gun, "a fearsome instrument". At one point Lynch was taken into custody by soldiers who had received reports of guerillas at the roadside. The MVZ worked there through 1979 and did not return until 2005. Although the civil war had died down before then, MVZers had in the meantime developed projects in Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Who joined the Guatemalan salamander expeditions?


MVZ Director David Wake, who had first gone to collect in Guatemala in 1969, made a return trip with his doctoral student James Lynch in 1970. Lynch later wrote of Wake, “One could not ask for a more generous and competent major professor, nor a more highly valued friend”. Along with their Guatemalan assistant Roberto Andrino and the aid of local children knowledgeable about the area, Wake and Lynch collected in regions near San Marcos and Escuintla. “Local kid here knew salamanders – referred to them as Niñas dormidas (sleeping children) – evidently a common name throughout Guatemala”. Local people provided information on where to look and sometimes brought in specimens. Following Wake’s return to Berkeley, Lynch stayed in Guatemala and met up with Lynne Houck and Richard Bruce Bury, other MVZ students. Their expedition was aided by the hospitality of a local coffee grower in Escuintla, who supplied lodging and a guide to the researchers. Over the first decade of work there (1969-79), many collaborators joined the MVZ field work and published on the Guatemalan salamander radiation, including Paul Elias, Brad Shafer, Nancy Staub, Gabriella Parra-Olea, Ted Papenfuss, Marvalee Wake, Robert Seib, E. J. Koford, and James Wood.

What tools and supplies were needed for collecting in the tropical jungle?


Elias recorded a "List of goods brought" (for a 5 day trip into a site), which included "rain pants, coat, hat - "total rain to around 28 inches in less than a week!" - a machete, and 2 full changes of clothes with one extra pr. sox." Machetes were used for clearing trails where none existed and for cutting bromeliads from the trees. On 9 June, Lynch and Roberto opened 40 Bromeliads in San Martin, recording the distance from the ground (8’ to 25’ above the ground). An MVZ camper was used primarily for transportation until it was “[d]iscovered that all but two of the bolts securing camper-pickup body to frame of truck had been sheared or stripped” and they were forced to briefly borrow a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Vehicular problems persisted and only a few days later, Lynch wrote, ”Drove from Tonolá to Tehuautepec, with one flat tire and attempted police bribe (evaded) along the way.” [J.F. Lynch July 8, 1970]

Some specimens were prepared directly in the field while others were taken back alive. On July 3, 1980 Lynch received a surprise gift from a local: "4 baby crocodiles… one had just died and we preserved it." Some specimens were immersed in dilute chloretone solution, fixed in formaldehyde, and stored in ethanol, all within a few hours of being captured. Others were brought back alive for later preservation.

What did they write down in field notes?

Lynch field note salamanders

Continuing in the Grinnell tradition, Lynch’s and others' field notes provide a detailed picture of the fauna and their surrounding habitat. In a deviation from the traditional MVZ field trips that collected a wide range of vertebrates, these collectors focused solely on studying amphibians and some reptiles. Their field notes describe where each animal was found, filling in the ecological and geographical background of every specimen they deposited in the museum. Entries range from the typical: “Forest on the higher reaches is moist, bromeliads abundant and large ” to the atypical: “saw an Anolis crassulus (lizard) – I almost fell off a sheer ledge trying to catch it – it got away.” Hand drawn maps of where they went enable current and future researchers to find their routes and collecting areas. Thoughts and diagrams about the patterns they were observing are found in their notes: "Do the salamander species assort by altitude or by vegetation type (predicted by rainfall)?"