Study abroad student from Vermont discovers new frog species in Ecuador

Jun 16, 2017 | 6 comments

By James Heflin

Mindee Goodrum, a School for International Studies (SIT) student, has tracked down a new frog species in Ecuador, bringing to three the number of new species and potential species identified by SIT students over the past year.

Study Abroad student Mindee Goodrum

Another student on the spring 2017 semester in Ecuador spotted a potential new type of ant, and last year a student on the same program found a possible new species of marsupial.

In Goodrum’s case, the frog has been confirmed as a new species by the scientist who first spotted it a few years ago, Santiago Ron of PUCE University and Natural History Museum of Quito. At first he doubted whether the frog was a new species, but Goodrum’s photos proved it to him and his colleagues from the museum and the University of Texas. Their findings are expected to be published soon, and the frog will be be named for a coffee company that contributes to cloud forest conservation.

Ecuador is a particularly good place for students who want to study biology and ecosystems, said Xavier Silva, academic director for SIT’s Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation program. “Ecuador has a lot of ecological diversity and habitat types. New species are discovered an average of two times per year, which is amazing. In other parts of the world it might be one new species every 10 years.”

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Silva has a PhD in entomology from the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. He said the frog discovery was confirmed quickly primarily because its genus includes only a few species for comparison. Not so with the marsupial, he said. “Mammals are more elusive, and you need more individuals to confirm it.”

The ant may take longer still because there are around 150 species in its genus.

Goodrum, a St. Michael’s College senior, helped identify a new species of frog while on an SIT Study Abroad program in Ecuador this spring. Goodrum, of Saco, Maine, is an environmental science major. She said her field work with SIT was “definitely an adventure.” Because she was studying frogs, she had to work at night.

“We’d leave around 3 or 5 o’clock. There were five different study locations, and they’d usually take an hour to hike to.”

In one case, the trip involved crossing a river by gondola. Once there, she and mentor Juan Pablo Reyes Puig, headlamps aglow, walked a 500-meter path looking for frogs.

“I was a little nervous the first few nights,” Goodrum said. “I saw a few lemur-looking mammals, and there were some rustlings we couldn’t pinpoint.”

Before long, though, she grew accustomed to the sounds and sights of the cloud forest night.

“Our basic goal was to get a survey of the population of frogs at the reserve. There were sites at different elevations and different micro-habitats, and we compared the differences in population between the sites.”

Goodrum said she found the first individual the second week out.

“I was still learning the species, and my advisor was helping me with the identification. I was on the lookout for that genus — it’s much more rare. It’s typically out in the day and not as abundant.”

On the SIT Ecuador program students venture deep into the Amazon and visit the Galapagos Islands, the famous site of Charles Darwin’s studies that helped form his theory of evolution.

“The work was challenging — kind of rare for study abroad,” Goodrum said.

Because students do hands-on scientific work, the competitive program requires them to have a strong interest in the field, high grades, and a background in biology and environmental studies, Silva said. And their work is often vital, he added

“If its habitat is destroyed, a species disappears altogether. This one that Mindee discovered lives in an area of only 1,000 acres. This is why in Ecuador we still find new species every year, and why preservation of these habitats is so important. You can easily lose two or three species in a very small area.”

SIT’s Ecuador program attracts students from a wide range of universities, many of them working with well-known professors.

“We also have a network of reserves and national parks, and we work with local scientists,” said Silva. “We work in every corner of the country.”

For Goodrum, the rewards that come from SIT’s rigorous academic focus are considerable.

“I hope to be part of the paper where they’re going to describe the new species,” she said.

She may also seek publication of her Independent Study Project, which is a core component of most SIT Study Abroad programs.
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Credit: The Brattleboro Reformer, www.reformer.com

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