Undergraduate researchers help build worldwide amphibian database

Kira Walker/Staff

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UC Berkeley junior John Cavagnaro spends his days at a computer in the back of the campus’ Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, dutifully typing up detailed entries on amphibians. His work may seem ordinary or even humdrum on the surface, but contributions such as his have been essential to the work of biologists around the globe.

Cavagnaro’s entries appear on AmphibiaWeb, a UC Berkeley-based amphibian database that recently chronicled the discovery of the 7,000th amphibian species, an astonishing achievement considering that biologists were aware of less than 5,500 species in 2002.

These recent amphibian discoveries — which now total 7,021 — offer a glint of optimism during a time of massive amphibian extinctions, which herpetologists have struggled to explain for years.

“(It’s) good news in the middle of all this bad stuff,” said David Wake, professor emeritus of integrative biology and founder of AmphibiaWeb.

Wake founded AmphibiaWeb in 2000 at the encouragement of several UC Berkeley students who were in his herpetology class during the previous year. Much of his class focused on the distressing loss of amphibian species around the globe — a loss which was discussed often in individual scientific journals but was not being cataloged by any central database.

At the end of the first year of the class, two undergraduate students suggested establishing a website to address this issue.

“I didn’t know anything about websites, but their enthusiasm was infectious,” Wake said. “It all really started with undergrads.”

Wake then began to invite students enrolled in the campus Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program to contribute to his groundbreaking project, which was quickly noticed by members of the international herpetological community.

“We went live in the year 2000, and undergrads were in it from the (beginning),” he said, adding that an undergrad even designed the AmphibiaWeb logo. “We discovered URAP was a great way to get students.”

Partly as a result of this outreach, the number of students going into herpetology has exploded and the field has experienced a renaissance of interest and discovery, according to Wake.

“We’ve attracted the attention of dynamic, young biologists who are attracted to (the field) by the challenge (of discovering new species),” Wake said. “That’s why I like to stay around young people — because they see the world ahead of them while people my age see the world behind them. I want to give hope to young people to see the world that could be theirs.”

UC Berkeley undergraduates continue to be the pillars of the project, even as the site has grown and continues to be used by eminent herpetologists and curious citizens alike.

“Nowadays, because of increased awareness, all these people want to participate and AmphibiaWeb is trying to develop more direct citizen science,” said Michelle Koo, a staff curator at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

In fact, a major discovery made on AmphibiaWeb last year was by a non-scientist. A Connecticut National Guard sergeant in Iraq posted a picture of a frog that was far outside its known living range.  The picture became a bit of a phenomenon among biologists and the story was picked up by the national media.

“In 2000 when (AmphibiaWeb) launched we couldn’t have imagined this immediate sort of response from citizens that we wouldn’t normally deal with,” Koo said. “If it turns on one or two more people to amphibians then it’s definitely (been) worthwhile.”

Sara Grossman is the lead research and ideas reporter.

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