Jodi Rowley is a National Geographic grantee discovering and documenting the diversity, ecology and conservation status of highly threatened amphibians in the forested mountains of Vietnam.
I spend a lot of time photographing frog eyes. It’s perhaps not the first thing people think of when they hear of an expedition in search of amphibians, but I spend hours and hours every day sitting at camp and taking snaps of amphibian (mostly frog) eyes, feet, bellies and thighs. These photographs of amphibian “bits” are so important because they are often incredibly useful in identifying known species- or describing new species. Sometimes the easiest way to tell frog species apart is by eye color, or thigh pattern!
So every morning, as soon as I wake up, I begin photographing the frogs we found the night before. In addition to the close-ups of various amphibian body-parts, I take the more typical, and perhaps more ‘pretty’ photographs of the amphibian, sitting on whatever habitat it naturally hangs out on (trees for tree-frogs, leaves from the forest floor for ground-dwelling frogs). After the photographing is done, the team and I then record as much information as possible about each amphibian.
For each amphibian we record exactly where and when we found it (latitude, longitude and altitude, as well as whether it was sitting on a leaf or a rock, for example), and whether or not we took a photograph of it during our night survey. We now record details such as sex (body size and shape often give this away- males are often smaller, for example), and the species name- if we know it.
Sometimes we can’t identify a species that we find, either because it’s a new species, or because the species looks nearly identical to a handful of species.In these instances, we give the frog a code-name, such as “orange-belly” or “green-eyes”, and will switch names in our database later on, once we identify the species.
All of this information is recorded in little waterproof notebooks. It’s extremely important that they are waterproof, as our expeditions are almost all during the monsoon season and we spend most of the night in streams, into which notebooks have been known to fall!
On this particular day, we finished taking photographs and notes in about four hours, ate lunch, and then I used the satellite phone to call my mother and let her know we were doing okay. I then checked in on my clothes, hanging on our makeshift clothesline in the forest- it’s now been almost two days since I washed them, and they’re still damp (bordering on wet), and starting to smell like mold.
This is the norm for us in for the forest, and one of the reasons I tend to become extra-girly when I return from the field, actually wearing jewellery and dresses as opposed to the same smelly, wet, muddy clothes (including the attractive combination of pants tucked into my socks) that I’ve been wearing for days (see below).
At about 4.30pm, two of our team returned from the village (an entire day round-trip), where they had bought more supplies; chicken, 3 litres of home-made rice wine and a dozen tiny, rock-hard peaches. I watched the chicken being prepared for dinner; we now have chicken innards splattered on rocks around the stream (which is also our washing area- mildly concerning).
After dinner, we all get ready far too early, and had to sit in our wet gear until nightfall- we each only have a few changes of clothes so unless conditions are very dry (which they rarely are), we have to put on the same smelly, wet, and overall very unappealing clothes every night.
As night falls, we head to a much larger stream. It’s interesting how the species change with stream size. Gone are the tiny frogs that hang out in the shallow pools at the side of the stream. In their place are several species of Cascade and Torrent Frogs- specially adapted for living in rapids and waterfalls, with huge, powerful legs for jumping and tackling strong currents, and toe-pads for gripping slippery rocks.
Unfortunately, humans (especially myself) aren’t as well adapted to life in a swiftly flowing stream full of slippery boulders. Even though it isn’t raining, my clothes are saturated yet again!