Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fast Learners or Slow Movers?

Well, I'm excited to say that the actual experiment part of my research project is slowly coming to a close. Our last set of toads is in controlled feeding right now (that reminds me, I should feed them....), and next week we'll begin our last set of trials! I'm a little amazed that it's almost over. I mean, I've got 2 weeks left, and then all of my experiments will be done. Now, on to that video data collection and statistical analysis (gulp)......

During the trials we've conducted this fall, I've noticed a strange trend with the toads here in the lab. You see, they just don't move around as much as the toads in Panama. Why do I think this? Well for one thing, the toads here never try to escape the area. Never. The toads in Panama tried all the time! Are the toads here just beat down from living a life in cattle tanks? Do they no that there's no escape? Or is there something more to it?

The toads here that go through control trials really don't move around a lot. After the first one or two trials, when the realize there's no incentive to explore the arena, they all pretty much hope to one corner and sit. What's really interesting to me is that even the toads who have food in their trials, if they don't find it in the first one or two trials, express the same behavior. It's like they just don't care enough to look anymore. It's definitely an interesting phenomenon, and something I'd like to explore further.

The last learning trial of a control toad from Panama:

Compare that to the last learning trial of a control toad from the lab:

Kind of a big difference, huh? It's a very interesting phenomena, but right now, it's just making me frustrated. If a control toad doesn't even bother to move around the arena, how am I supposed to test to see if he can locate bowls on his last trial? The spatial component of this experiment just isn't working out - 4 of the 5 control toads never even moved to a bowl location, whether they be new or old.

What do you guys and gals make of this?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Grad School: It's not JUST about research...

Sometimes, life gets ahold of you and blocks of time disappear that you can't account for, no matter how hard you try. For example, it's October 27th - OCTOBER. Where did the semester GO? Where did 2011 go, for that matter? People always say that time speeds up as you get older, and I really think that's true.... I remember an hour seemed like forever when I was a kid, but now an hour is a blip on the radar and goes by in a second.

The theme of this busier-than-ever semester seems to be writing; aside from writing this blog (which I really, really try to make time for, I promise!) I have 2 manuscripts in progress, another 1 or 2 manuscript ideas waiting in the wings, several writing projects for my actual courses, and a wonderful surprise article for a Canadian museum magazine, which I was totally unprepared for but really excited about writing. This fall I also planned to attend 2 conferences, which means preparing a poster and a presentation as well. One of those is over and behind me (and was an INCREDIBLE experience), but the presentation is still to come, next month. I am also deep in the process of writing a fairly prestigious grant (which I probably won't get) and applying to a PhD program for next fall (which I probably -and hopefully- will get). With all of this going on, I am also spearheading a graduate student effort to revamp some of the teaching components of the TAs in our department, including a complete revision of an evaluation form and working with a doctoral-candidate-turned-post-doc to develop an inclusive training program for new graduate students. Oh, and also.... there's my research to work on. Whew.

This is by no means a "let's brag about my accomplishments" post, so I hope it's not coming off that way so far! My goal here was to show you that graduate school is definitely not just about the research. There are so many other things that you can get involved in, whether you plan to or not. A lot of the things I am doing are more for me because I love them and feel passionately about them, rather than actual requirements. Graduate school is a very unique time in a person's life. You have the opportunity to get involved in a lot of different things and try them on for size, see what you like and what you don't, and strategically plan your next move as an adult. I really feel like this is the time in my life where I am finally growing up. There are things I do now and opinions I have that are drastically different that what they were 2 years ago. I feel like I am ready to take on the next challenge - but first, I need to finish my research thesis and graduate!!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fine-scale behaviors vs. Coarse-scale movements

One of the central things I am focusing on with the toad experiments, besides learning, is exploratory behavior. This is something that has been very challenging to think about, because toads aren't usually thought of as 'explorers'. Most animals used for these types of experiments are mammals and birds, who have very specific behaviors that can be characterized as 'exploratory' (i.e. a mouse moving it's whiskers and sniffing an object, or a bird turning its head to look about itself). Toads, however, don't really have fine-scale movements that are historically classified as exploratory. From watching them for so long, I know that they will re-position their heads and bodies to see an object or area better, but it's very hard to tell if they're doing that from the camera angle that we have, which is what we need to get the entire arena in the video frame. It's a trade-off I had to make at the very beginning of the experiment - I couldn't have fine scale video that would capture all of the toads' behaviors, AND coarse-scale video that could capture the entire arena. Clearly, I chose coarse-scale. In the end, I'm more interest about the movement of the toads around the arena, rather than their movement in a specific area or context.

Coarse-scale: The whole arena is in the picture, but you can't really see what the toad is doing
(can you spot the toad in the picture?) 

Fine-scale: A great view of the toad's body position, posture and behavior, but we can't see the whole arena
(not good for pinpointing location within the arena)

BUT.... I'm still interested in exploratory behavior. So what to do, what to do?

Do you have any ideas for me? How can we still look at exploration without being able to see what the toad is doing up close?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Supporting Toads in California!

This week I'm heading to Anaheim for the National Association of Biology Teachers Professional Development Conference (NABT for short). This is my first national conference by myself; I'm really excited! Better yet, I will be presenting a poster about Adventures in Toading, and it's use for connecting research to education. I'm hoping to reach a new audience and make some new contacts, and also learn about what science teachers really need from outreach programs such as this one.

I'm heading out on Wednesday afternoon and won't be back until Sunday night, but you can definitely expect a post about the conference next week. Until then, here's a great resource that I just linked on my main page:

The Texas Parks and Wildlife website for amphibian conservation and outreach - they have a ton of information about Texas frogs and toads, how to go "frogging", and how to get involved with amphibian research. You can read my synopsis at the bottom of this page.  They also have a PowerPoint presentation with great slides highlighting the most common anurans in Texas. Check out two of my favorites here:

That's all for now - see you in California! :)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

And so it goes...

So the research is a'going - nothing new to report this week, just more of the same. We're a little over halfway done with set 2 toads, and they're doing basically the same things that the Panama toads did... which is good, I think. I won't really know until I get all of the data collected and analyzed, which will be sometime around the winter break... so we'll see what happens!

For now, this great website appeared in my inbox this morning:

SpongeLab has all sorts of great games and simulations for learning about STEM fields. You have to register to use the resources on the website, but it's free so far as I can tell, so it's totally worth it. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Data, data, everywhere, and not a trend to believe!

Am I talking about my data? No, thank Darwin.

Today I'd like to talk about a problem that we're continually facing as a society; the overload of information that reaches our ears and eyes - especially in the form of numbers! It seems like I can't turn on the TV these days without seeing some new statistic about what will kill me or what kind of food I should eat. Seriously people, do I eat the egg yolks or not?? Make up your minds!

I'm currently taking a statistics course taught by a brilliant biological statistician at Texas Tech. He's one of those teachers that you just sit and absorb; I imagine if I was a scholar at the School of Athens, I would feel the same way about Plato or Socrates, but I digress. Statistics is what I want to talk about today. Numbers. It's hard to know what numbers to believe; how do we tell the fact from the fiction?

Unfortunately, the only way to find out what's real is to fact-check every piece of information you see. The best way to do this is get on Google Scholar and find the primary resource. Thankfully in science, the peer-review process of publication almost always weeds out those claims that are based in fiction or "noisy" data. But sometimes, those papers still slip through the cracks. We only know as much as those who've done science before us, and we can only do as much as the current technology allows us to. Sometimes it's hard to believe that at one time it was commonly thought that the Earth was flat - and that notion was probably based on something science-like!

So why am I taking the time to talk about this? Well, I think it's important that I (and you and everyone else) don't just absorb all of the information we hear, no matter what the source - with popular media, you never really know the source of the information. The only way to find the true meaning behind all the numbers is to look at the numbers yourself!

And on that note, an interesting email came through my inbox this morning; a post about using climate change and other "hot" environmental topics' data sets to boost inquiry learning in the classroom. Don't worry, I have a link: Macroecology Environmental Education. This website, funded through the ESA (Ecological Society of America), has valuable information about how to use data sets in the classroom, and some resources and links to example data sets. This sort of resource exemplifies one of the hardest parts of science to translate for students; we know what we know because of numbers. Mind effectively blown.

How do you feel about data sets? Do large batches of numbers make you want to scream and run away? Don't worry, you're not alone! :)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Working overtime - good stuff :)

This week's post is going to be short and sweet - I've been hard to put some finishing touches on my personal portfolio website. Without further ado - here it is! :)

Website Link:

Please leave me comments on things you'd like to see, or ways I can make the information easier to access. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

♬ You can't always get what you want ♬

So we just finished round 1 of trials back here is Lubbock, and unfortunately, things aren't going quite as planned. If you remember, my hypothesis about the lab toads (from the invasive range) is that:

Cane toads from the invasive range (S. Florida) are, on average, more exploratory and better learners than toads from the native range (Panama).

Why did I think this? Well, when an animal is invasive, it is more likely to encounter novel (new) environments and items. High exploration and mobility would allow toads to gather more information. If the toads use this information to locate food resources, then they are learning.

However as I said, things aren't going quite as planned. Why not, you ask? Well, I'm honestly not sure. You see, we have a confounding factor. A confounding factor is something that may alter the response variable (in this case, the behavior of the toads in the arena) without prior knowledge. In the first round of trials, the confounding factor seems to be... moonlight.

Yes, the moonlight. The bulb that I went out of my way to purchase and install in the arena room. I didn't think about it beforehand, but the bulb is purple/blue tinged to "mimic" moonlight. We discovered over the summer that blue colored plastic has an interesting effect on the toads; they seem to calm down and stop struggling. We termed this blue plastic "the blue cone of silence", and thought nothing of it other than being a funny anecdote. Well, fast forward to the beginning of the first round of trials. Arena set up, lighting in place, toads are ready - and they hardly move at all. And of course, it just so happened that the first day of trials I tested all 3 experimental group individuals in this round - so I have no idea if they were just unmotivated, if the light affected them adversely, or if there's something else going on altogether. I immediately switched back to using the low-intensity LED lights I had used in the pilot study, but the damage had already been done. Oh well, such is science sometimes!

The good news is that we're starting round 2 on Monday of next week, with 5 more toads. Hopefully I'll be able to discern what's really going on, and make further predictions about the behavior of the lab toads. Until then, I'm working hard on about 6 other writing projects, and trying to finish gathering my data from this summer. The life of a graduate student is busy, busy, busy!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

When it comes to science, is it better to be a face or a name?

Hi folks,

Sorry I skipped out on Tuesday - I only have myself to blame, no excuse. :( Actually, I do have an excuse - I started toad trials on Monday, and this week has proven to be a little hectic. Oh, well, cest la vie right?

I'll share some info about the project next time, but for now I wanted to talk about an interesting topic; the 'faces' of science. There are a great many scientists who contribute to their respective fields, yet most of them are unknown by the public. I mean, think about it - how many Nobel prize winners can you name? Fortunately, because no one really becomes a scientist in order to be famous (although everyone hopes for that 'breakthrough' that gets their name out there)!

Some scientists are so well known that anyone can recognize them by name, but can you name these well-known thinkers by their faces?

From top to bottom, we have Galileo Galilee, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Gregor Mendel, Thomas Edison, Watson and Crick, and Albert Einstein. How many of these did you guess right? Do you know what each scientist is responsible for contributing to the field?

Don't feel too bad if you didn't recognize many of these scientists - most lived long before the use of video cameras or photography. Today's technological advancements make it much easier to identify people as "famous".

Here are a few of the more contemporary "faces of science" that you may recognize:

You may have been able to name these right off the bat! Top to bottom: Jack Hannah, Jeff Corwin, Steve Irwin, Jane Goodall, and Steven Hawking (OK, so he's not a conservationist, but he's a cool scientist!) Of these "modern scientists", do you know what they contributed to each of their respective fields?

Now here's some food for thought: Is it better to be well-known for who you are, or for what you did?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Toads and Animal Behavior - go together like PB & J!

Not that toads are tasty, or I would eat them, but more along the lines that toads are used to study all different kinds of animal behavior.

Today is a pretty crazy one for me, so I'm going to take the cop out method and show you something cool online (but I did remember to post!!).

I give you... the cutest toad to ever roam New Mexico (ok, I might be a tiny bit biased)

New Mexico Spadefoot Toad (Spea multiplicata)

This site contains a fantastic learning module on research done with this species at UNC. It's a little involved (maybe 8th-12th graders only), but the information and the pictures are great!

Before I go, I bet you're all wondering how those cinder blocks turned out, hmm? Well, check it out:

 They're not exactly the same size, but they'll do just fine for what I need! :) I should have the arena setup completed tomorrow, in order to start trials on Monday. I'll have lots of pictures and updates for you on Tuesday. Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When Designing an Experiment, Creativity is the Key!

In the next few days I'm going to try and start 'mobile blogging' - that is, start blogging from my smart phone. I'm hoping this will keep me on track with remembering to do updates on the right days. Unfortunately, I've got schedules in 3 places right now (desktop calendar, google calendar and iPhone reminders) and none of the are quite synced up. I'm working on this, too - the first couple of weeks back at school are always crazy with commitments, and I clearly need a better way to keep track of it all. But enough about me, let's talk about science!

We're gearing up to start the first set of trials with the Lubbock toads next week, so this week has been mainly about getting the arena set back up. As you may know, the arena we used in Panama was considered 'semi-outdoors' (since it was under a concrete block house, with a concrete floor), however the arena we use in the lab is in a completely controlled environment. Our lab is actually in a basement, so we control everything; temperature, humidity, light, and noise. This can be good, but it can also be time consuming to set up. For example, I need to make sure that the lighting during arena trials is as close to natural moonlight levels as possible. Clearly, it is challenging to mimic the moon! Lucky for us, you can purchase light bulbs that 'mimic' moonlight - that is to say, they should have the same light intensity as the low levels of light that radiate off the moon.
I purchased two of these bulbs and two light fixtures, and I plan to get those set up in the next couple of days.

If you've got your 'scientist hat' on, I bet you're thinking, "but how do we really know if these bulbs are the the same as the moonlight in Panama??" Well, that is a great question. Unfortunately, we don't know..... but we can test it! We can use a spectrophotometer to measure the intensity of the light emitted bythe moonlight bulbs(usually measured in watts). We can then compare this to measurements of actual light intensity from the moon taken in Gamboa. Since moonlight is actually a range of intensities, from dark nights with no moon to nights that are very bright with a full moon, it is likely that the moonlight bulbs will fall somewhere within that range. I'll post pictures as soon as I get the bulbs set up, and show you how it's done!

Meanwhile, back at the lab, we have another slight logistical problem.You see, a long time ago, way back in April, I met with my committee to discuss my research proposal. When I talked about comparing data between the Panama and Florida toad populations and using the same arena in both places, one of my committee members asked me if cinder blocks in Panama are the same size as cinder blocks in the U.S. "Of course they are!" I said, and he chuckled and shook his head. Fast forward 2 months, to early June when I am setting up my arena in Panama, and low and behold, the blocks are differently sized! Luckily, they are the same in height and width, but Panamanian cinder blocks just so happen to be 1 1/2 inches (approx.) longer than American cinder blocks. Now I know, and you do too, in case that shows up on Jeopardy one day. So anyways, I knew this was going to be an issue I would need to deal with, but I put it out of my mind and told myself I would deal with it when I returned to Lubbock.

So, here I am, back in Lubbock and dealing with the issue. I checked out a few masonry companies around town, but it seems the standard is 16" long for cinder blocks (I need 17 1/2"). Then I had one of those rare moments of genius - extend the blocks I already have! But how? I looked into clay and plaster, but most of these materials are messy, expensive, and apparently don't hold up well in moist situations. What to do, what to do. Then, I had yet another moment of truth: 

Concrete! Of course! I used concrete in the past to make pretty sturdy stepping stones, so why not make little block-extensions? So with that, I ran my idea by my advisor, and was off to Home Depot for supplies. I found fast-drying concrete, some 1"x3" unfinished wood, wood screws and a circular saw (that I bought on my own - every lady needs power tools). Two days and a lot of measuring and cutting later, and here's what I got: 

Modifying some instructions I found online for making pavers, I made wooden frames and filled them 1" deep with sand. Then I marked off where I should fill the cement to, and coated the wood in vegetable oil (to keep the cement from sticking). Here's what the frame looks like full of concrete :

I made 5 total frames and filled them up. I need 13 total extenders, so I'll need to do this 2 more times. 

After about 24 hours of setting, we'll see what the concrete blocks look like, and if they're usable, then we're good to go! 

Sometimes, all you need is a little inspiration, and something that seems like a problem can turn into a craft project. :)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life, through the eyes of scientists

While perusing the internet this afternoon, I found an amazing blog and some great posts about humanity and the self, and psychological research in general. While most of it would probably bore or confuse you, I think this whimsically beautiful video is definitely worth sharing.

A Record Of Life from Owen Gatley and Luke Jinks on Vimeo.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Well, I've already messed up my schedule. I apologize. I will post Thursday's message at noon today.

Until then, please enjoy this video that was posted on my labmate's Facebook account this morning:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Research: What's in it for me?

Since school starts this week for most of the country (including us at Texas Tech!), I thought I'd use this week's posts to talk about the value of research. We always hear about research related to cancer or stem cells or new cures for disease, and often we will read about this study or that study that found medicines safe to use. But what about all of the other research that goes on outside of the medical field? Occasionally we'll hear about a new, innovative behavior that we've never seen before, but often times these discoveries are buried under tons of headlines about medical research. I'm definitely not putting down medical research or casting aside its importance, but I think the public (aka you guys and gals) should be made more aware of the different kinds of research that go on. If you are interested in science but aren't interested in medicine, there is still a TON of stuff you can do, and many possible careers out there for you!

Often times when I'm out with a new group of people and I'm asked what I do for a living, I say "I'm a behavioral ecologist". Now, I think we can all agree that most people have no idea what that is, and so they ask what I do. Then I say, "well, I study frogs". Sometimes it's left at that, but sometimes they want to know more. I usually explain a little about my research and about what I'm looking for in the toads. Usually people are satisfied with that, but once or twice I've had people say, "OK, so then what? Why should I care if toads are smart?" Well, you know what I say to them? "BINGO! I wish everyone asked me that question!"

So, why should YOU care if toads are smart? Two words: invasive potential. I may be looking at how toads learn about novel environments, but what I'm really interested in is invasive potential, or the likelihood of a non-native species to become established (breeding and flourishing on its own) after being introduced to an area that it is not normally found in. Invasive species are a huge problem all over the world; they can potentially outcompete native species, change the community structure of the environment, and in the worst cases, cause local extinction (or extirpation) of native species. If learning about potential resources and remembering their locations increases invasive potential, then we are one step closer to not only understanding why some translocated species become invasive, but to possibly predicting what species might become invasive in the future and proactively stopping that from happening. 

And so, that's why you should care if toads are smart. Are you convinced?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Learning vs. Memory: What's the Difference?

As I mentioned in Tuesday's post, I attended the ESA conference in Austin last week. It was quite a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the 2 behavior-related topic sessions that I was able to attend. Both of my favorite talks were, of course, about spatial mobility and foraging theory (if I were a brainiac modeling scientist, I would be a theoretical mathematician. Optimal theory makes me weak in the knees). During the Q&A of a particularly fascinating talk, someone asked the speaker to clarify a point from the presentation, which ultimately led to the question, "What's the difference between learning and memory?" The speaker stammied a bit and came up with the answer, but I left the session with a slight nagging feeling at the back of my brain.

A few days later, I was still thinking about this question. As scientists, we have a tendency to define the world around us in very discreet terms. We label things, categorize them, give them names and describe their behaviors. But when you think about the types of words you can use to describe a particular behavior or action, we seem to see a gray area. For example, one of the "hot topics" in Animal Behavior right now is animal personalities, and there are quite a few papers by several authors who attempt to define the terminology used in this field. The unfortunate thing is that everyone defines terms different, so to someone outside of the field or a novice just picking it up, it's very confusing to figure out what is actually meant by all of these different words. Are these researchers correctly identifying key differences in the words we use to think about their branch of science, or are they all just re-describing the same phenomena in a slightly different way?

If you think about the words "Learning" and "Memory" in a general way, you would imagine that they are probably the same. In the world of behavior and learning, however, they really do mean different things.

Memory is, as one would think, remembering information. For example, let's say remembering where something is located in space. When you go to Walmart you park your car, go inside and go shopping, then return to your car. But how do you get back to your car? Do you walk up and down all of the aisles looking at the different cars until you see yours? Usually we remember where we park our cars and take the shortest possible route to get back to them (because it's 100 degrees and I don't want my ice cream to melt!). This is memory. But would you say that you learned where your car is parked? Probably not.

Learning, as defined broadly, is a relatively permanent change in behavior, resulting from experience. The speaker at ESA defined learning as "constantly updating the information that you use to make decisions." Say you discover a secret parking area on the side of the Walmart building that always has a few empty spots and is a lot closer than where you normally park. If the next time you go to Walmart, you check this new area to see if a spot is open first, then that's learning. You've updated your information about available parking spots and are using the new information to benefit yourself.

It's important to define vocabulary in science writing, because concepts that are very close in meaning in layman's terms tend to have slightly different meanings than one might think. What do you think the difference is between "Learning" and "Memory"? How about the difference between those words and "Acquiring Information"?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back in Action for Fall 2011!

Hi everybody!

Thank you for bearing with me while I took a short break - between wrapping up the last few days of trials, packing all of our equipment and gear (not to mention my own things!), and heading back to the U.S., it was quite a busy couple of weeks.

In order to keep Adventures in Toading alive and running this fall, I've made an executive decision. Instead of posting information as I get it and kind of being all over the place, I'm going to do scheduled posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Having a schedule will be better for me (because I will have set times and days to post, and I won't forget during the busy school year), and better for you as well (you'll know exactly when I'll be putting up new information).

On Tuesdays, I'll post about research - either mine, a lab mate's or something that's been recently published that I find interesting and relevant. I am also planning to do 2 special feature posts each month; a "How To" which will talk about how to build experimental setups, put together ideas, and create other general items and strategies for conducting a research project. The other will be a "Real World Update", which will cover information from a recent journal article that is particularly relevant to the real world, and could even influence you!

On Thursdays, I'll post general discussion topics such as Animal Behavior, careers as a scientist, the science stigma, and so forth. Feel free to use these discussion topics in class or with your friends, or leave a comment with your opinion. I'm excited to hear what everyone has to say.

Since today is Tuesday, it's time for my research update. I am pleased to report that almost everything went off without a hitch this summer; I've got complete experiment data for 20 cane toads, and 5 trials worth of data for 7 leaf litter toads. This means lots of video analysis for me in the next few weeks. I am about halfway done running the cane toad videos through Ethovision, but I still have to do all of the leaf litter toads. I didn't pay any attention to what was going on during those trials, but there were some mealworms missing from bowls, so it will be interesting to see if they actually ate, or if the mealworms were just escaping (the little ones are really good at crawling out or burrowing down into the tape that covers the bowls). So yeah, video analysis is in my future. Also, I'll be going back to Lubbock at the end of this week, and rebuilding the arena in the cane toad lab. Then, in a few weeks, we'll be starting the whole experiment all over again with the toads from the lab. Busy, busy fun times for me!

As a parting note, I'll leave you with a video from the Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2011 Conference, which was here in Austin, Texas last week. Professional conferences like these gather a large crowd - ESA usually has about 4,000 attendees! - and serve as a giant venue for ecologists to get together, talk about research, network, and do other ecology-related activities. This year's conference was in the live music capital of the world, so of course there was a local band playing every day at lunch break. And of course, no matter how old or young, in the field or not, ecologists just know how to have fun. :)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Panama Facts and more!

Here's a link to a youtube page with some great information about Panama and the people and animals that live there, put together by Montclair State University.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It's Crunch Time!

Hi folks,

I'm writing to say that I'm sorry. Why, you ask? Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to sign off for a little while. You see, I'm right in the thick of set 2 trials with the cane toads, and as you saw from my last post, I've got 13 (well, 11 really) leaf litter toads that are being conditioned and will start trials at the end of this week. This is absolutely GREAT news, being that I'll be able to collect data on 20 cane toads and at least 8 leaf litter toads by the end of the summer.

So why the disappearing act? Even though I'm excited to have so much going on, it also means a lot of work for me. I'm leaving in just a few weeks, so I've got to hurry up and get everything done! When I'm testing 3 groups of 2 species of toads, one at night and the other during the day, I'm working 14+ hours every single day. I can honestly say that I'm very excited, and the prospect of working so much doesn't phase me, but I know I'm not going to have much time to do anything else.... and that includes writing blog posts. So sayonara for now; I'll write when I can, but please don't expect to see anything new until the middle of August. Ahhh, who am I kidding - I'm sure I'll write a couple in between now and then, but maybe, maybe once a week at the most.

I'll have lots to share when I get back to Lubbock and start analyzing my data, so please, please come back and see me in August when school starts back up again! Until then I'll be running as many trials as I can, packing up my equipment (and clothes!) and heading back to Austin, and attending the ESA conference this year!

Happy Toading!

P.S. I'll leave you with this great Capybara family that lives behind the Gamboa Resort. There's about a dozen (or more!), and they've been hanging around everytime we've gone to the pool this summer.

*All photo and video in this post is courtesy of Lynne Beaty*

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Swallow Your Food!

I'm about to start the next round of trials tonight, so I apologize for not writing something longer today. Because you're all such good readers and stopped by anyways, here are a few great pictures from the last two days:

This is definitely my favorite photo of the summer! We picked up this cane toad (in my left hand, farther away) earlier in the night, and of course didn't have anything to put him in. Later, we found this beautiful Goliath Tree Frog and I *really* needed to pick him up (hence the flashlight in my mouth). Notice the antennae sticking out? He just had a very yummy meal... :)

On Monday my advisor came back into town and brought Mason, one of my favorite undergrads! They are doing a separate project with the Leaf Litter Toads, and brought me 9 toads this morning. It was a bit of a shuffle, but I got everybody housed in their own containers and safely tucked away with food and water. These guys take a bit longer to start eating meal worms (about 7 days), so I wanted to get them all settled ASAP so I could start training them. 

These last two are pictures of the 'scaled down' arena for the little toads. Remember those hop tests we did way back in June? Well, it looks like the little toads' hop length is about half the size of the larger cane toads, and their jump length is about a third the size. We took the difference and made the arena 5/12 smaller (I know, it seems a little silly), which worked out to be a nice, even 40 inches across! 

I can't wait for these little toads to start eating so we can see what they'll do in the arena. OK, I'm off to start more cane toad trials! 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Analyzing the Videos: Drawing a Line in the Dirt

Once all of the arena zones are drawn, it's time to analyze the video in Ethovision. This is the easiest step by far. Simply put, I import the video into Ethovision, make sure that the detection setting are set so that the program recognizes the toad as the 'subject', and I click 'record'. Then I wait for an hour! :) The program is very cool, it traces the path of the toad and analyzes all sorts of information about it. Here's a picture of a path from a food toad's 1st trial in the arena:

And here's a picture of the path of the same toad during the 6th trial:

What kind of differences do you notice about the path that this toad took? Does it look like he visited any of the food bowls? Can you tell if he ate any of the food? 

After you make your predictions, watch the video of the 6th trial below. The trial is sped up to 10x the normal speed so you won't have to watch an hour of a toad exploring (like I do!). 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Getting Ready for Round #2!

Well, we're back from Bocas del Toro, which was a great adventure (though not entirely relaxing). It was very quiet and deserted because it is the off-season, meaning that tourists usually wait until the drier, "winter" months to visit. We enjoyed snorkeling and hanging out at the beach for a few days before returning to Gamboa.

Meanwhile, in Gamboa, We've collected 9 toads and are almost ready to start our second set of trials! On Sunday I'll continue the saga and write about more video analysis in Ethovision, and show you an example of one of the toad videos from this last set of trials.

Right now, I'd like to share an amazing website that I just found, Canopy in the Clouds. This website embodies everything I'd like to do with Adventures in Toading in the future; it's got tons of activities and lesson plans, a 3-D, interactive Cloud Forest, and information about the wildlife and ecosystems that you can find in the cloud forests of Central America. There's even a Spanish version of the page, which is something I hope to do with AIT by the end of the summer. :)

Buenas noches, y voy a escribir más en este domingo!
(Good night, and I'll write more this Sunday!)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Not only anteaters eat ants :)

We're heading to Bocas del Toro for a couple of days to enjoy the sum (I hope!) and the surf, but I'll leave you with a great find from this morning; a Northern Tamandua!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Toad Arena: The multi-layed approach

So, to continue with my "setup" series, today I'm going to talk about what I do with the toad videos once I get them! That's right folks, I am done with my first set of trials, which means I have about 65 videos that I now need to analyze. Are you keeping up with the math? 10 toads x 7 trials each = 70 trials and 70 videos. So why do I only have 65? Well, I goofed up. Around trial 4, I put a food toad in a control treatment. Sadly, because this is a learning experiment, everything that toad did after the goof could be a repercussion of being put in the wrong trial. This toad was being taught that there was a mealworm in each bowl, every time he went to the arena. Because I accidental gave him a 'control' trial, meaning no mealworms in the bowl, he had conflicting information which would most likely affect his behavior for every trial after that.

Oh, well. Sometimes in life, you make mistakes, but as long as you learn from them, it's OK. I definitely will be triple-checking to make sure that I have the right treatment for each toad from now on!!!

So yeah, back to the original point of this post. I have 65 videos of toads running around arenas, looking for food. Now what am I supposed to do?

Lucky for me, I have this handy program called Ethovision XT that will make a path of where the toad goes and tell me all sorts of things about the path. It can tell me which bowls the toad visits and in what order. It can tell me how long the toad spends in what areas of the arena. It can even tell me how fast the toad is moving (or at least, it's average speed). But just like any computer program, it comes as a blank slate, and I have to tell the program all of the things I want it to record. Ethovision is kind of fun once you get the hang of it because it's all about creating 'zones', or drawing pictures. Here is how I decided what zones to draw in order to get the information I need:

First, I started with a blank arena:

Next, I identified which part of the video is actually the arena (in pink). I also put in circles to identify where the bowls are located (in blue):

Ok, that's it, right? Nope! There's all sorts of other information I might want to know, too. For example, I might want to know how much time the toad is spending around the margin, or wall, of the arena vs. in the middle (frogs and toads have a tendency to hang around walls). I'll draw a circle in the middle of the arena and mark the inside and outside as different zones:

I might also want to know how much time the toad is spending on the bricks and cinder blocks vs. on the ground. When I tested this arena in Texas, the 4 toads I used mostly stayed on the ground. It would be interesting to see if there is a difference between these toads and the toads in the lab. To do this, I can trace the blocks in the arena (in light yellow) and make them different zones that the ground:

I might also want to know if there is a side bias. A side bias could happen if the toads are particularly attracted to one part of the arena or another. Because our arena in Gamboa is outside and there are factors we can't control (like street lights and other frogs calling), it's important to know if the toads are staying in one part of the arena longer than the rest. To do this, I split the arena into 4 equal parts, like quadrants of a graph (in yellow):

The last thing I want to know is how long it takes the toads to first enter the arena (or leave the origin). This can be accomplished by drawing a zone that the toads have to pass through if they want to leave the flower pot (in green above).

And that's it! That's all the information (probably) that I want to know about where the toads go during the trials. Next I 'run' the trials through Ethovision, and it records the path of the toad and tells me things about where it goes.

I'm excited to see what happens - I wonder if the toads will follow the same path every time they visit the arena, or if they will go to different areas each time? What do you think? Do you think your answer depends on if there is food in the bowls or not?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Will you take the path less traveled?

Well folks, sorry it's been a while since I've written, but I've been diligently crunching numbers and putting toads through trials in the arena. Long days and even longer nights! Let me give you a little breakdown of what a toad trial is like:

Step 1: Set up all of the equipment. This really just requires me to plug everything in and turn it all on. Not too hard. Remember that camera and infrared lights I have set up over the arena? 

The lights get plugged in, and the camera cord runs to a little room just beyond the dryer in the picture. In that room is a DVR box that transcribes the camera feed and plays the picture onto a computer monitor. I don't have a picture of the actual machines, but I'll take one tonight and post it later on. Here is a picture of what the arena looks like in the dark, from the camera's point of view:

Pretty neat, huh?! From here, I can watch the toads as they explore the arena. The video is in black and white, so it's a little hard to see, but I can get an idea of where they are going, what they are doing, and when then visit different areas of the trial arena. 

Step 2: Get the trials ready! Each night I have a schedule of which toads will be tested and in what order. We randomize the order in which toads get tested just in case there is any effect of toads going at the same time each night, or in the same order. What does that mean? Well, instead of toads going in order 1,2,3,4,5, they may go 3,5,2,4,1, or 2,4,3,5,1, etc. etc. There are lots of ways to randomly select what order you will do things, and some great random number generators online. 

I have 10 toads per set of trials, and 2 treatments : 10 toads / 2 treatments = 5 toads per treatment. Just to refresh your memory, my treatments are 'food' for toads that get mealworms in their bowls, and 'control' for toads that get empty bowls during trials. How do I decide which toads get which treatments? You guessed it - it's randomized! 

Note: Even though toads are randomly assigned their treatment group, they keep the same treatment group for the entire experiment. 

Now I look at the schedule, and decide if the next toad is in the food treatment. If so, I put a mealworm in each bowl in the arena. What's a mealworm?

Mealworms are the immature form of a darkling beetle, Tenebrio molitor. They are often used to feed reptiles, amphibians, birds and even fish that are kept in captive situations. We could also feed the cane toads crickets, but those are a little harder to get in Panama, and they have a tendency to escape out of the bowls! :)

Step 3: I press 'record' on the DVR box, and put the toad into the arena. Every toad gets moved in his own little flower pot, and is placed in the same spot to start:

Step 3: I wait for 60 minutes. During this time, the toads are (hopefully) exploring the arena and finding the food in the bowls. The toads that are in the control group will not find any food :(, so I'm not really sure what they do, but we'll find out when we.....

Step 4: Watch the video! Once the trial is done, I put the toad back in his happy home (or holding tank). If the toad was a control toad, then he gets a mealworm since he didn't have a chance to find any during the trial. I can download the video onto my computer and start to analyze it while I run the next trial. 

And voila! This is how it goes every night for 14 nights in a row. Tonight is night 12, so I am almost done with this group. When we're all finished, we'll feed them a nice big meal and send them on their way back to their original homes, like nothing ever happened!

Next time, I'll continue the saga and show you exactly how I analyze the videos. Stay tuned! :)

Monday, June 20, 2011

It rains in Gamboa

Despite the strange dryness of the beginning of the month, it looks like the rainy season is here to stay!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Trials are a'running!

Hi all!

I've run 4 total nights of trials and here's the breakdown so far:

- I am testing 10 cane toads right now, 5 each night (which is 5 hours total of video recording!)
- Of my 10 toads, 5 have food in their arena bowls ('food' treatment) and 5 do not ('control' treatment)
- Every toad that has the 'food' treatment ate on the first night (YAY!). For those of you who read about my research, this means that each toad only has to go through 6 total trials (equals 12 nights of work).

That doesn't seem like a whole lot, but it is 6 1/2 hours of experiments a night (5 hours of trials + setup, breakdown, and switching between toads), and at least 6 hours of video analysis every day. That's right; 12 days straight of 12+ hours days. Eeeep!

But so far, it's been worth it. Here's a picture of what the arena looks like finished:

I had to extend the walls up about 1.5 feet in order for the toads not to be able to jump out. Lesson learned in the lab - it's always good to try it out first, before you actually get to the field! Here's a picture of the inside:

Note that you can't see any of the leaf litter that we spent hours tearing up. :( oh well, at least the dirt works well. Finally, here's a picture of the PVC contraption at the top that holds the camera and the 4 infrared lights (one at each corner):

Pretty groovy, huh? It's like a giant K'nex set - the whole arena is made up of 1 or 2 foot segments of PVC that all fit together, so it can be broken down and packed up when I'm not using it. 

I don't have enough data yet to show you much, so I'll leave you with a toadily awesome photo shoot:

Me and a large female toad. :)

Large female toad by herself. She was not pleased (I woke her up to take the photos!)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My milk frog brings and the (fe)males to the yard...

Tonight we start cane toad trials - so excited! I am hoping that the toads will be hungry enough to visit more than one or two food bowls (which is what they did in Lubbock). We'll see what happens. I'll report back in a few days, when both groups have gone and I have a general idea of what's going on.

Now, however, I'd like to tell you a little story about an unexpected visitor to our house last week:

Who is this little guy? I'll give you a hint - he's about the size of a Gladiator Tree Frog (which is what we thought he was at first). Upon further inspection, we found that he had interesting toad-like bumps all over his skin:

AND he was very, very sticky. Did you guess the milk frog, Trachycephalus venulosus? Then you're right! Este es la rana favorita de Ximena (Ximena's favorite frog), so she was very excited to see it, since it's actually not very common in Gamboa. What luck, he was sitting right under our house at the meeting table, just waiting for us to take pictures of him! As he was being handed around the group so we could all feel his sticky skin, he leaped from my hand onto Ximena's shirt (sadly, no picture), and splashed milky secretion into my eye! At first I thought it was fine, but after a few minutes my eye started to itch and burn really bad. I could still see, so I  said "Ummm, I think I got splashed in the eye....", walked calmly over to the sink, and began flushing my eye out with water. The calm, quick reaction paid off, and as the night progressed my eye stopped burning and was OK. Lesson learned: always watch out for your eyes, mouth, and nose; you never know what might splash off of something!!

Have you every gotten something weird in your eye? What did you do? Did you panic, or react calmly?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hoppity hop hop - hop tests!

So I ran into a slight dilemma when I got to Panama. Actually, we (my committee and I) knew this would be a dilemma, but I couldn't do anything about it until I got here. You see, the problem with comparing exploration and learn between two species is that, well, they're two different species! Nothing is really the same for either the Cane toads or the Leaf litter toads; they're different sizes, they eat different things, they live in different habitats... and they move at different rates. So naturally, the testing arena for the smaller leaf litter toads should be smaller than the testing arena for the cane toads. Right? Most people would agree with me, but then the question arises; how much smaller?

At first, I scaled the leaf litter toad arena down by body size. Leaf litter toads are about 1/3 of the size of cane toads (on average), so the arena should be 1/3 the size. Makes sense, right? Well, this is what that would actually mean:

Seems a little...... little. I mean really, 32 inches across? That's less that 3 feet! The leaf litter toads are small, but they aren't that small. So the only thing to do was come down here, catch a few, and see how fast they move. Enter: the idea of the hop test!

To scale the arena accurately, we have to look not just at body size, but at overall range of mobility (i.e. how far can the toads move in a single hop or jump?). To do this, I'll take 5 toads of each species, put them in an empty arena for 10 minutes, and measure their hop and jump length. Sounds tricky, right? Well, it would be, except that we have an A-maze-ing program called Ethovision, which will follow the toads and take all sorts of measurements for us! So far, I've measured 3 cane toads and 2 leaf litter toads so far, and I've got a few more to do before I can make any conclusions. 

Given that the leaf litter toads are 1/3 of the size of the cane toads, what would you predict their range of movement to look like? Would you predict that they would move more or less than the cane toads? Which toad species do you think can hop the farthest? Jump the farthest?

Check back to see if your predictions are right! :)