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Eben Gering

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Sasha GreenspanSasha Greenspan

What is your Job description?

I am a research assistant for a tropical herpetologist/graduate student who goes to Florida International University in Miami.

What do you study now?

I help with an ongoing research project on recent dramatic declines in terrestrial amphibian and reptile populations in Central American lowland rainforest sites. Most of our study sites are located at a biological research station in Costa Rica, where there is a large stand of old-growth rainforest that is presumably unharmed by the agricultural and industrial areas around it. The project will soon be expanded to include study sites in other Central American countries. There are many hypotheses concerning these declines, such as disease outbreaks, pesticides and other anthropogenic pollution, and global climate change. This research project aims to test some of these hypotheses.

Poison Dart Frog Costa RicaIn recent decades, amphibian declines have been associated with the appearance of a harmful fungus that infects the skin of amphibians and subsequently inhibits their ability to breathe. Currently, this fungus has not been shown to infect reptiles, so there´s probably more to the story of dramatic reptile declines than the fungus alone. We are testing for the existence of this fungus in our study sites by collecting samples of the substances found on the bellies of frogs and lizards around the research station.

For the most part, the rainforest at the biological station appears healthy and clean, so pesticides and pollution are likewise at most just part of the problem. Global climate change, however, is probably changing the dynamics of tropical rainforests in many complicated ways. For instance, changing temperatures could be expanding the range at which the deadly fungus can survive. Global climate change could also be changing the rate of leaf litter decomposition on the rainforest floor. Since leaf litter is where terrestrial amphibians and reptiles live, changing rates of decomposition could have important implications for the future of these species.

Sasha GreenspanWhat is the best thing about your job?

Like many jobs in the biological sciences, this job has given me the opportunity to travel to new and very beautiful parts of the world. Living at a biological field station has allowed me to be surrounded by wonderful people who share my passion for environmental conservation. Working in the forest is great because it changes so much from day to day, or even from moment to moment, so I´m always seeing amazing new animals. Most importantly, my job feels very tangible. I interact personally with the animals I want to save, so every moment reminds me that I am contributing to a very worthwhile cause: the health of our planet.

What inspired you to first study science?

I´ve always loved the outdoors. It´s where I feel the most comfortable and the most myself. I´ve also been lucky enough to be exposed to the natural world from a very young age. From watching nature documentaries on TV to spending my childhood summers on the Atlantic coast where I could watch sea turtles nesting to traveling the world throughout my college career, I´ve seen some awesome stuff which just makes me want to see more! My curiousity about nature and all the amazing animals on the planet keeps me asking new questions and exploring new places. Also, there´s no question that the natural world is in trouble. As a member of the generation that is just now starting to enter the workforce, I feel responsible for making environmental conservation a priority.

Sasha GreenspanWhat do you do in a typical day?

There are a series of study plots scattered around the research station that we monitor periodically for reptile and amphibian activity. We walk slowly through each plot and catch all the reptiles and amphibians that we see. For each individual, we record data such as species name, weight, length, sex, and coloration. We also mark each individual so we can recognize it if we catch it again. Because many terrestrial species have very small home ranges, we are likely to catch them again in the future. When this type of data is collected over a period of a few years, it yields pretty good information about the population dynamics of these species and when it is compared to historical data on the same species we can begin to see trends on populations over time.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?

The great thing about biology is that there are so many avenues for pursuing a fun career. Field research, environmental policy-making, and teaching, are only a few but the list goes on and on and they are all so important to the field of biology as a whole. Explore many paths so you can find the one you like best.

bug Costa Rica
All images taken at La Selva Biological Station. Used by permission from Sasha Greenspan.

eben gering READ about another rainforest biologist:
Eben Gering studies Amblypigids, nocturnal tailless whip scorpioins, at La Selva Biological Station

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