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Ever felt like gettnig everyone together to strategize?

25 September 2019

Did making a strategy to work on amphibians have any real effect?

Back in 2009, we had a meeting to strategize about conservation research on amphibians in South Africa. The meeting was well attended, and consisted of a number of workshops where different groups tried to prioritise what should be done, and to which species. Together with other members of the workshop, we turned the results of this meeting into a book, which I edited, and was published by SANBI in early 2011. The book is available as a free pdf to download, and you can get your own copy here.

If you are stuck for names here, try downloading the book and going to the back page where they are all listed. There are many faces that have got older over the last 10 years!

While the book has attracted a steady number of citations over the years, its real value has been in demonstrating the agreed priorities of a community of South African herpetologists as to what needed to be done. In this way, it has leveraged funding for a great many projects and research programmes undertaken by various amphibian researchers in South Africa, both those who attended the 2009 meeting and some who didn’t.

This was the opinion of a similar group who met again in 2015 to decide whether or not the strategy had been worthwhile. For me, this was an uplifting experience as we often get so bogged down in the actual doing of something (in this case it was editing and writing much of the book, as well as conducting the IUCN red listing accounts that it also contained) that we miss or forget all about the big picture. Thus, there really is value in looking back and asking what the value was, and whether it’d be worth doing again.

Although it’s tempting to think that these meetings are all about the amphibians, they are actually all about the people. Building relationships and sharing visions for the future of research. To see who's in this photo and more about the day itself, take a look at the blog post from November 2015.

In the paper published today, together with a number of participants at the 2015 workshop, we tried to make a quantitative and qualitative assessment of research undertaken since the strategy was developed. We compared the 10 years prior to the strategy to the 10 years that followed, and we found:

  • A spike in the number of amphibian records for many species after the plan
  • A marked increase in the number of species descriptions for South African amphibians
  • The number of papers published had risen from 85 to 176,
    • with nearly a quarter of these on targeted taxa
  • An increase in the number of amphibian monitoring programs all over the country
  • The publication of a number of new amphibian books
    • Including books for children
    • And books in local languages
  • A surge in the number of MSc and PhDs awarded with amphibians as their primary subject.

In short, we found that compared to the 10 years before the strategy, the herpetological community in South Africa had resounding evidence of a profitable period, which many of those involved attribute, in part, to the existence of a common strategy document.

So strategizing does work; bringing people together and agreeing on common goals within a research community can aid both those already working in the field, but also give direction to emerging researchers. But this is not a static document, and any strategy needs refreshing with new people from within the community. Sadly, the same period has seen a number of retirements of leading figures in South African herpetology, but hasn’t seen the same number of replacements into permanent research positions. We have to hope that the large number of graduates produced will eventually find jobs where they can continue to come together to strategize for their future.

Read the Open Access paper here:

Measey, J., Tarrant, J., Rebelo, A.D., Turner, A.A., Du Preez, L.H., Mokhatla, M.M., Conradie, W. (2019) Has strategic planning made a difference to amphibianconservation research in South Africa? African Biodiversity & Conservation - Bothalia 49(1), a2428. https://doi.org/ 10.4102/abc.v49i1.2428

  Frogs  Lab  meetings

Natasha's Conversation piece

22 September 2019

Do you know whether it's friend or fo?

When alien species are moved to a new environment, they have a whole new set of predators and prey to become accustomed to. To determine whether the novel sensory inputs are predators or prey is very important, as this can translate to life or death. While adult frogs have sophisticated sensory organs, their tadpoles' senses are less developed but recognising predators is still very important.

In this popular piece for The Conversation, Natasha Kruger explains how African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, tadpoles reacted when they were exposed to smells from different species in France. Natasha explains how familiarity with some of the smells, like predatory diving beetles, might be more famliiar than others, like crayfish which are not-native in sub-Saharan Africa.

What did the tadpoles do? 

You can read Natasha's explaination in this excellent popular write-up.

Natasha's PhD has been investigating the role of tadpoles in the invasion of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis. We're looking forward to lots of revelations of how tadpoles differ from their adult forms. 

Kruger, N (2019) Invasive tadpoles can recognise potential predators in new environments. The Conversationhttps://theconversation.com/invasive-tadpoles-can-recognise-potential-predators-in-new-environments-119673 

  Frogs  Lab  Xenopus

Predicting what amphibians will be tomorrow's pets

20 September 2019

Predicting the amphibian pet trade

The continued increase in numbers of live amphibians traded as pets has resulted in a number of problems for the individuals traded and the remnants of populations left behind. Not only are numbers of individuals increasing, but the pet trade is constantly looking for new species to trade that will keep shoppers coming back to their outlets: now not only physical shops but also online stores. Predicting what will be traded in the future is difficult, because predicting the future is confounded by ignorance of what will happen. But if we could determine what is likely to be traded, we might be able to set in place measures that stop the most vulnerable or most invasive species from becoming tomorrow’s problems.

This is the premise that Nitya Mohanty and I started with when we set out to determine what the most popular traits in the current pet trade are for amphibians. We searched the literature for lists of traded amphibians around the globe and used the assembled list to test for traits that set these species apart from other non-traded amphibians. To do this, we used a published dataset of amphibian traits called AmphiBIO, although this did limit us to traits that they had used and recorded in adequate numbers.

The result of our endeavours a long list (443) of traded species, which we were able to test for taxonomic biases, finding that there are indeed biases including 6 overtraded families. Next we found that the species traded tend to be larger, with bigger range sizes, and a ‘larval’ breeding type. Lastly, we used these traits to make a list of which species have these traits but are not in our list. This is a list of what might be likely to be traded in future.

Although we just conducted this work on amphibians, a similar approach could be taken for other popular groups that are often traded as pets, such as reptiles or birds. We also acknowledge that there are many more traits that are likely to make popular pets, such as colour and calls. Using this predictive framework would allow policy makers to decide whether or not to control the potential for future species to be traded, getting one step ahead of the unpredictable trade in pets.

Keen readers of the blog will remember that Nitya heard that this paper was accepted only minutes before he was due to present on it at the recent HAA meeting in Cape St Francis (see blog post here). And those of you with longer memories will realise that this is not the first time we have published on amphibians in the pet trade as there was a MeaseyLab publication on amphibians in YouTube videos (see here for the blog post & here to read that paper).

Mohanty, N.P. & Measey, J. (in press) The global pet trade in amphibians: species traits, taxonomic bias, and future directions. Biodiversity & Conservation. DOI: 10.1007/s10531-019-01857-x

  Frogs  Lab

BRICS countries call for invasion networks

19 September 2019

Brazil, Russia, India, China and South African (BRICS) authors all call for action to build capacity in invasion science

BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South African) countries are rapidly developing economies, with a large proportion of their populations having subsistence livelihoods. Their rapid development means that they are exporting ever increasing amounts of goods to the rest of the world, and with them are likely to be propagules of invasive species. Not only this, but these countries are increasingly importing goods from around the world, and are suffering from an ever growing list of similar invasive species. 

When problems are shared, such as invasive species in BRICS countries, a network is an attractive solution to share experiences and solutions in a meaningful way. South Africa already has an exemplary example of a facilitated network in invasion biology: the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (or CIB as we are more commonly called). 


Last November, the CIB hosted a workshop on facilitated networks in Invasion Science (see blogpage here). As was said back then, we were formulating a policy piece, which is now published as a perspective piece in PLoS Biology.

Measey, J., Visser, V., Dgebuadze, Y., Inderjit, Li, B., Dechoum, M.S., Ziller, S.R. & Richardson, D.M. (2019) The world needs BRICS countries to build capacity in invasion science. PLoS Biology https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000404

  Lab  meetings

What's the big idea?

17 September 2019

What’s the big idea?

In previous blog posts (see here), I’ve talked about the importance of having a hypothesis, and building that hypothesis in a logical framework within the introduction (see here). The introduction serves to inform the reader about why this particular hypothesis was chosen, introducing both the response and determinate variables, as well as the presumed mechanism by which the hypothesis can be falsified (or upheld).

In this post, I take the lead from my recent talk for the Herpetological Association of Africa (see blog post here), in which I talked about the need for herpetologists to respond to bigger theories in biological sciences.

This message was the result of work done in the MeaseyLab (but not yet completed!) on invasion hypotheses, where we (Nitya, James, Sarah, Natasha and I) checked 850+ papers on alien herps to see which of 33 common invasion hypotheses they had tested. The answer was disappointing, with <1% having used an invasion hypothesis.

In my talk, I suggested that this might not be true only of papers on herpetological invasions, but also of herpetology in general (although I concede that some areas, such as herp physiology are actually quite good). Further, I contend that using these wider hypotheses or theories would actually be good for the authors concerned, as it would likely garner them a wider audience. Moreover, a greater number of biologists might come to realise how valuable reptiles and amphibians are as models in biology.

So where would we find all of these big ideas?

There are quite a few papers that synthesise hypotheses in various areas of biology. Here I provide two, but I will endeavour to add more as I come across them… so watch this space (although not too keenly).

The first is by Mark Velland on theories in community ecology

The next is by Jane Catford on hypotheses in invasion biology, but I encourage you to look for more up to date versions (the newest is by Enders et al 2018, but this’ll change in time).

Each of these papers will give you a list of big ideas, together with the citations for seminal papers that have built them. You will note that many of these theories are very old with many dating back to Darwin.

Of course, there are many ways to approach and test these theories, but if you don’t know about them, then your work may actually make a considerable contribution to upholding or refuting them, but go totally unrecognised. When the significance of your work isn’t realised, it’s unlikely that it’ll be widely read and used.

Let’s face it, if all the effort of the work that we put into papers is just going to get buried, then is it really worth it? The work that we do is also really expensive, so making it as relevant as we can to a wide an audience possible is something that we should be concerned about.

So, I encourage you to stand on the shoulders of giants by using big ideas in your introduction. Make sure that the data that you collect can actually be used to respond to some of these big ideas. Then make sure that you cite them, giving them the importance that they deserve (yes, even as key words) so that others can find your work, and you might even find that one day, your work has shoulders that are broad enough for others to stand on!

The take home message:

1. As herpetologists we are not engaging with theories from ‘the literature’

2. Herps are great models [even snakes]

3.We have a lot to donate to many areas of biology, but we need to engage

Reading the literature can really expand your mind and horizons. When undertaking a literature review [or when reviewing a paper], take the time to think about not only what has been tested, but what could have been.

Further Reading

Catford, J.A., Jansson, R. and Nilsson, C., 2009. Reducing redundancy in invasion ecology by integrating hypotheses into a single theoretical framework. Diversity and Distributions15(1), 22-40.

Enders, M., Hütt, M.T. and Jeschke, J.M., 2018. Drawing a map of invasion biology based on a network of hypotheses. Ecosphere9(3), p.e02146.

Vellend, M., 2010. Conceptual synthesis in community ecology. The Quarterly review of biology85(2), 183-206.

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