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Professor to study biodiversity

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

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Media Contact: Traci Peterson, Office:817-272-9208, Cell:817-521-5494, tpeterso@uta.edu

When UT Arlington assistant biology professor Eric Smith was a graduate student in 1996, he and a fellow student, Michael Harvey, pulled out a globe and started looking for a new place to explore.

Eric Smith

Eric Smith

They chose Indonesia. A trip on a shoestring budget allowed them to spend ten days in the jungle looking for frogs, lizards, turtles and other life. The pair returned to Texas with some unique specimens and a desire to go back someday.

Now they can - with the help of a three-year, $725,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Starting later this year, Smith and Harvey will begin a three-year project to explore and catalogue new species in the Indonesian portion of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which includes the highlands of Sumatra and Java. Their team will include researchers from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the Bandung Institute of Technology and Brawijaya University in Indonesia, students from UT Arlington and Broward College in Florida and researchers from other universities.

“We calculated we were getting a new species of reptile or amphibian every four hours,” Smith said of his 1996 adventure. “So that’s how much work the area needed. It’s a huge place and it will take a long time to explore what is there.”

Smith is the lead investigator on the grant. He is also curator/researcher for UT Arlington’s Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center. He has done most of his research over the past 15 years in Central America and Mexico. Harvey, now an associate professor at Broward College in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is co-principal investigator. Both men are UT Arlington graduates.

“UT Arlington biology professors train students to explore science in the lab and make a global impact,” said Pamela Jansma, dean of the UT Arlington College of Science. “We are proud that the National Science Foundation has chosen to invest significantly in Eric Smith’s work.”

After the 1996 trip, Smith and Harvey published several scientific paper detailing discoveries from that trip, including the descriptions of three new species of flying frogs. Students and researchers at UT Arlington and at other institutions in the U.S., Europe and Asia are still analyzing and publishing papers on valuable specimens and samples collected on that first trip.

The discoveries of new species increase understanding about how animals evolve to adjust to their surroundings – knowledge that has led to medical advances. It also provides a catalogue useful in conservation planning and tracking the current global biodiversity crisis, scientists say. 

“I’m extremely excited about this research in Indonesia,” said Harvey. “Very few herpetologists have worked in Sumatra, and we expect to find some rather spectacular new species.”

Smith said bio-geographical research in the region has been limited, in part because of political difficulties and worries about safety. Those seem to be easing, he said.

“The amphibian and reptile fauna of Indonesia is as poorly known as U.S. fauna more than 100 years ago,” said Jonathan Campbell, chairman of the UT Arlington College of Science’s biology department. “This research is timely and crucial.  It undoubtedly will lead to the discovery of many species new to science, demonstrate that Indonesia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and provide thousands of specimens for analysis.”

The team will return part of what they find to UT Arlington for study and leave some specimens behind for Indonesian researchers, fueling collaboration for years to come, Smith said.

The Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center at UT Arlington houses more than 130,000 specimens and is one of the top herpetological collections in the U.S.

Eric Smith’s work is one example of the far-reaching research going on at UT Arlington, a comprehensive research institution of almost 33,500 students in the heart of North Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more. 

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The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.

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