UT Arlington's Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center houses one of the finest herpetology collections in the nation, and its array of rare snakes, frogs, lizards and turtles is sought out by researchers around the world.
By Greg PedersonIt's a large room, containing row after row of sturdy, eight-foot high, multi-level shelves. On each shelf are rows of restaurant size glass jars. At first, it's hard for a visitor to tell what's in the jars, but a closer inspection leaves no doubt.
They're full of snakes — lots and lots of snakes. And other reptiles.
To anyone with herpetophobia, or fear of reptiles and amphibians, the room is their worst nightmare. But to herpetologists — those who study such creatures — it's a dream come true.
The room houses specimens of reptiles – snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles and alligators. A room of similar size next door holds amphibians – frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians. The specimens are the focal point of one of the jewels of UT Arlington, the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center. Tucked away in an unassuming building off Davis Street on the west side of campus, its vast collection of specimens is used by researchers from around the world.
"We have one of the premier herpetology programs in the United States," says center director and Department of Biology professor and chair Jonathan Campbell. "Not only are we serving ourselves and our own faculty for teaching, but we also serve research needs from across the country and the world. We collaborate with all the top museums nationwide. It's looked at with envy by our colleagues around the nation, not only for the size of the collection but the quality of the specimens."
The center houses over 130,000 specimens, comprised from approximately 4,000 species and collected from at least 90 countries — places as near as
a few blocks away in Arlington to as far away as Africa and Asia. Central and South American specimens are plentiful — the center's Guatemalan collection
is the most extensive in the world. In terms of sheer numbers, the collection is the largest of its type in Texas, and is among the top 15 in the United States,
while also being the newest — having been in existence for only about 50 years. The center loans tissue samples and whole specimens to universities and
educational tool for UT Arlington biology students and those who aspire to careers spent tramping through remote jungles and forests, seeking snakes and turtles. The ollection is also used by those studying ecology, evolution and a variety of other scientific subjects.
The center serves a critical role in preserving a record of species in many places where they no longer exist. Decades of destruction of forests, jungles and wetlands around the world has led to the extinction of an untold number of species, many of which were never even seen by human eyes. In many cases, the center houses the only known sample of a species.
In addition to habitat destruction, disease has also taken a significant toll. The issue of large-scale losses of amphibian species was first debated in the late 1980s and has since been confirmed. One disease in particular which has evastated amphibian species is chytridiomycosis, which is caused by a pathogenic fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, and is found in water and moist environments where amphibians live. It has spread worldwide, and little is known about it.
"Chytrid is really impacting a large number of amphibians,"Campbell said. "In some places in the tropics, 50 percent or more of the amphibian species are gone."
One example of the importance of the center's mission is the golden toad (Bufo periglenes), which was once plentiful in the high-altitude, cloud-covered tropical forests above Monteverde, Costa Rica. The golden toad is believed to have fallen victim to the chytrid fungus.
"The golden toad is the poster amphibian for the loss of amphibian species and is now believed to be extinct in nature," said Carl Franklin, biological curator and collections manager for the center. "We have two of them, a male and a female, in our collection."
The loss of species from habitat destruction, disease and other causes makes the center's work all the more important, as the discovery and preservation of previously unknown species is often a race against time.
The vast majority of the collection has been gathered out in the jungles, at the end of dirt roads where the forest is being cleared, and these specimens would have been lost forever," Campbell said. "Nobody would have ever seen them again if we hadn't taken them and preserved them. It's the best record of many of these specimens, sometimes the only record."
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