Evan Leslie Harris is a British Liberal Democrat politician. He was the Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon from 1997 to 2010, losing his seat in the 2010 general election by 176 votes to Conservative Nicola Blackwood.
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I am a herpetologist (study of reptiles and amphibians - I focus on amphibians) who has researched frogs and (primarily) population ecology. Some of my comments on recent toad posts were quite popular, and I realised people might have some questions about amphibians!
My background is a Bachelor of Science majoring in biology, and I have an honours and PhD where I researched the population ecology of the green and golden bell frog (Litoria aurea) - an endangered pond frog in Australia. I did a two-year postdoc in Hong Kong (studying birds, using my population ecology skills) and am now in a teaching position at the University of Hong Kong.
When you tell people your a herpatoligist, have you ever had someone think you studied herpies?
Why did you decide to go into this field.
Which subspecies was your favorite to study and interact with?
I grew up on a farm in Australia. When I was in high school, I started to discover the diversity of frogs on the property (current count is 13 species) and started to really enjoy looking for them/photographing them. Then I discovered their plight due to the chytrid fungus and wanted to help. Research seemed the logical choice.
The common green tree frog was one of the first frogs I found on the farm and is still one of my favourite frogs to interact with. They're super docile and lovely.
What kind of classes did you have to do for your PhD?
In the Australian system, there isn't any coursework. If you need a skill, you learn it on the job, learn from journals, learn from someone who knows or go to a workshop. Workshops I went to were mostly for statistics, particularly analysis of mark-recapture data.
What is the strangest thing you've learned about reptiles and/or amphibians?
What's your favorite animal?
The levels of parental care are what always astound me. There are species that raise their tadpoles in their stomach (sadly extinct, but my old lab is working to resurrect them), Darwin's frogs raise theirs in their vocal sacs, Pipa pipa raise their eggs in their back skin, Assa darlingtoni raise their tadpoles in pouches (I've worked on this species). There are a huge number of species who will guard their eggs - even though they are almost completely harmless. Here's a father protecting his eggs
Also, there's a super common species in eastern Australia where the males will fight using a sharp thumb bone that protrudes through their skin. You often find males completely covered in scars.
Hey Dr. Pickett, thanks for doing this. What's something going on in your field that you wish the public knew more about?
The global amphibian declines. Until the 80s, amphibians were remarkably resilient to humans. They hadn't declined much compared to mammals, birds or other groups. Despite their reputation for being sensitive.
But, a single disease (a chytrid fungus) has completely changed that. And now, in the past few years, another chytrid has started wiping out European salamanders. If this chytrid gets into the Americas, we're going to have another major extinction event in just thirty years (North America has an incredible diversity of salamanders).
We need to stop moving frogs around the world. This shouldn't be hard. Crack down on the amphibian pet trade and stop trading live frogs for food. Doesn't look promising though.
Hi! This is exactly the field I am studying currently, herpetology rocks! What is your least favorite part of your job? What do you think of the chytrid fungus problem?
Also, I'll be finishing my bachelors in a couple of years and plan to pursue further education in herpetology and evolutionary biology. Any tips?
1) Academia is incredibly flawed, but I'll choose just one issue. Academic careers are defined by high 'impact', which is essentially how many citations your papers receive. The highest impact papers in conservation are those that describe the problem. This is an important part of conservation, but because these papers get the most citations, people who publish them are more successful, they get a higher proportion of the grants and get the positions where they can actually do research.
Conservation biology has described many problems to death. And yet, people who continue to publish about, say, how deforestation is bad for biodiversity continue to get citations and therefore the jobs. And a lot of the people who try and actually work on these problems get squeezed out of the system.
2) Chytrid breaks my heart, and shy of pulling species out of the wild, I don't see a way forward. It's impossible to manage a disease on a large scale and in the wild. There are some examples of recovery, but it is bleak.
3) Use your undergrad to volunteer as much as possible! Get yourself known as a reliable and intelligent worker by as many people in the field as you can.
I missed this AMA at the time but hope it isn't too late to ask a question. I am obsessed with amphibians myself and have always had a thing for the gastric brooding frog which I presume was what you referred to here. I would die a happy man if I could ever see one. What do you think the chances are of them still being around in the wild and how close is your old lab to being able to clone them?
I'd say chances of finding them in the wild are close to zero. They are the most searched for of the extinct frogs in Australia. I think there's good chance of finding a few species that have disappeared, but not Rheos.
Last time I heard an update, the lab had gotten fertilised eggs to the blastula stage, but they don't progress further. There was a documentary about it last week in Australia, but I haven't watched it yet (don't know if this link will work for you). It may be more up-to-date than my information, but I hadn't heard any major developments in a while. A lot of cloning is trial and error, and it's made especially harder because they're working with 30-year-old cells from the bottom of a freezer.
Sort of off topic, but the third link you posted was so cute! Is that the scientific name for frog? :)
Litoria splendida is the scientific name for the Magnificent tree frog. They're only found in the north-west of Australia and are, as the name suggests, splendid. They live in gorges and are characterised by a large gland on the top of their head, gorgeous sulphur-coloured spots, and seem to be the largest frogs in Australia.
On a scale from 1 to Valacyclovir, how often do people make jokes about the scientific name of your profession?
IRL, infrequently. On reddit...
Do you ever eat frog legs?
I do not - it would make me sad. And I live in Hong Kong, so there is ample opportunity.
Which do you prefer, toads or frogs?
I guess toads, but that's a very tough question.
Do you have any pets?
Nah, my apartment is only 250 square ft. I don't have the space.
How much do herpetologists make? And do you plan on teaching forever or do you want to do something different after?
I only know numbers for Australia and Hong Kong. You can either work in private industry (as an environmental consultant), who make 50k+. Senior levels can pay pretty well. There's a decent amount of work in consulting, a lot of my herpo friends are consultants now.
You can work in the public service (env. scientists, museums etc.). In Australia, these jobs pay nicely, in HK they do not.
You can work in academia. Pay varies wildly. In Australia, PhD earn very little (20-30k). Similar in HK, but they also need to pay fees, which take about a third of their income. After PhD, Australian pay is nice (70-90k for a postdoc), but the job security is horrendous. HK, pay is worse at the postdoc level, but quickly overtakes Australia after the postdoc level. Profs are paid very well.
There are also NGOs for conservation work. Generally pay is very low.
I'm enjoying teaching for now, but I suspect this may change in the future. I am itching to do more conservation work.
How long did it take you to finish your studies?
I got through the system pretty quickly. Three years of undergrad, a year of honours (honours isn't very common internationally - it's essentially a one year research program) and three years of PhD.
In the US, it's common for people to do a 3-4 year undergrad, 2 year masters and 5 year PhD. I'm pretty glad I didn't go through the US system.
which common creature should we enjoy now that is likely to become endangered very soon?
Go to the wet tropics. Enjoy everything there, because it's amazing and we can't seem to stop destroying it. And explore at night, that's when forests come alive.
Sadly I can't view that in the UK but I'd love to watch it.
It might be found elsewhere - that's just what popped up on my Facebook feed.
I hope I'm not too late for this! So, the Tasmanian Tree Frog population is being absolutely decimated by chytrid (along with so many others, but I'm a loyal Tasmanian), although luckily seems to be free of chytrid in the World Heritage Wilderness area.
Question one: What can people do to assist with chytrid, such as tips to limit the spread, or reporting cases etc?
Question two: What is a common misconception most people have about frogs/toads that you'd love to correct?
1) The main thing is if you handle one frog, don't handle another. Normal people have little risk of spreading it, as it dies pretty easily. Also, in Australia, it's pretty much spread everywhere that it will. Doesn't mean we shouldn't be careful, cause there could be more dangerous strains, but it spreads very fast naturally.
2) Not really a misconception, but.. Australians treat cane toads like they aren't animals. They are. If you have to kill them (which I think we do), do it as humanely as possible.
If you had to transform into one reptile or amphibian and be it for the remainder of your life, what would it be and why?
Saltwater crocodile. They live a long time, spend most their day basking and won't get eaten by anything (except maybe humans).
What made you pick a reptile over an amphibian?
Extant amphibians only really meet two out of the three reasons I gave. But, if I can choose extinct animals. I'd go with Eryops. Cause they do meet those criteria, and they're badass.
Hi Dr Evan. Why you choose this job? You have interest in frog before? It is good I just not see before. I am live in Vietnam we eat the frog here (ếch) very good but I do not like they have the small bone. From professional what you think if people eat the frog? Many the young people not do because there is more love for the animal sometime.
I chose it because I wanted to help frogs - we had them on the farm where I grew up (wild frogs, not farmed frogs).
I don't like eating frogs - it would make me sad. There are also issues with the frog trade, which is causing some species to decline.
As a fan of The Simpsons I feel obligated to ask: If you discovered a new species of frog in Australia, would you consider naming it a Chazzwazzer? Thanks for your time.
Technically, the chazzwazzer was an introduced frog. But I'd definitely consider it. My Nan discovered a frog, but it was decades before the Simpsons.
Any particular frog organisations that you would recommend need financial support? I occasionally donate to the Cairns Frog Hospital, but I like to make a frog related donation every year before tax time (they are my favourite animals)
Aww, bless! 💚
The amphibian research centre based in Melbourne has done some amazing work. Particularly with saving corroborees from chytrid.
what do you think of the situation in venezuela?
It's pretty fucked up when the bakers are getting arrested.