MAVERICK SCIENCE
  The University of Texas at Arlington College of Science Fall 2011  
Standing in the reptile room of the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center are, from left, Jonathan Campbell, director of the center; Eric Smith, curator and researcher; and Carl Franklin, the center's biological curator and collections manager.
Fine specimens
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 Pederson

   It'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
Carl Franklin, the center's biological curator and collections manager, displays a 14-foot-long king cobra specimen in the center's reptile room
research centers worldwide, in addition to photos and other data. Researchers also visit the center in person to study the species included in the collection, many of which are extremely rare or altogether extinct. The center is an invaluable
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."

'Drowning in chocolate'
   Campbell, one of the world's pre-eminent herpetologists, has been a faculty member at UT Arlington since 1983, but he was aware of the collection long before
that. He was born in the United States but spent most of his first 17 years living in various countries in Central and South America, including Guatemala, where he spent his high school years. He came to UT Arlington in the 1970s and earned an M.S. in Biology in 1977, adding numerous specimens to the collection through his own field expeditions. He earned a Ph.D. in Systematics and Ecology from the University of Kansas in 1982 before returning to UT Arlington the following year.
   Franklin is the facility's only full-time employee and is responsible for maintaining the collection, which is catalogued in detail, and for fulfilling research requests that come in year-round. Franklin clearly loves reptiles and amphibians and everything associated with them. While showing a visitor around the center, he goes to one of the 50-gallon barrels lining the back wall of the reptile room. He opens the lid, reaches his hand into the 140 proof ethanol which fills the barrel, and pulls out a large king cobra, 14 feet in length.
   I'm drowning in chocolate here," he says. "I'm getting to do exactly what I love and have always wanted to do since I was a kid. I've been hopelessly addicted to collecting reptiles and amphibians my whole life."
   Franklin, an Arlington native, earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from UT Arlington and has worked as a keeper at the Fort Worth Zoo and as a
research technician at the Dallas Zoo's herpetarium. He became involved with the UT Arlington collection as a work-study student in 1995. He assumed the
role of curator in 2004.
   The third member of the trio who run the center is Eric Smith, a curator and assistant professor of biology who, like Franklin, spends substantial time in the field adding to the center's collection each year. Born in Oklahoma City and raised in Caribbean Guatemala, Smith began sending specimens to the center in the late 1980s when he was still living in Guatemala, after meeting Campbell. After he earned a B.S. in Biology at the University of the Valley of Guatemala, he elected to come to UT Arlington for his graduate studies.
   I wanted to come here because the center has the largest collection of Guatemalan reptiles and amphibians in the world, and I wanted to study under
Dr. Campbell's direction," Smith said.
   The trio is assisted by graduate and post doctoral students for whom working at the center is a tremendous benefit early in their careers. There is ample work to be done: preparing and cataloguing incoming specimens; making specimens available to other researchers, including preserved animals and tissue samples; sharing information associated with the specimens; naming new species; research; and disseminating herpetological information to the general public and for the conservation of the specimens.
   The center is extremely important for a number of reasons," Smith said. "The collection is the core of our herpetology program, attracting a large percentage of our biology graduate students and being well known around the world. Our herpetology research involves faculty in the department working with genetics/genomics, ecology and behavior. Research using the collection involves many federally funded projects, international collaborations, researchers visiting our facilities, and undergraduate and graduate students from UTA and other schools."
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Bernard Harris Summer Camp Kids
The quest for samples often takes researchers to exotic but remote locales such as the mountains of Ecuador shown here in 2008, at far left. At top left, a mottled rock rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus lepidus), encountered during a trip to Coahuila, Mexico in 2007. At lower left, a yellow banded poison dart frog ( D e n d r o b a t e s l e u c ome l a s), found on a trip to Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela in 2007.