Each month the Amphibian Survival Alliance shines the spotlight on individual accomplishments for amphibian conservation through our Amphibian Champions program. Luis Fernando Marin da Fonte is a 31 years old biologist from Brazil who works with amphibians since 2003 and has been a member of the IUCN SSC Amphibians Specialist Group since July 2014.
What got you interested in amphibians?
I have always been amazed by what is different and exotic, by everything out of the ordinary. And that was what drew my attention to amphibians in the first place. I was amazed by their singularity, the things that make them so unique. Most people don’t pay attention to them but how beautiful can these small creatures be? They usually hide during day to suddenly appear at night and fill the surroundings with their fantastic chorus. And how diverse can they be, full of colors and unique designs? I was also intrigued by the reason why these animals, so inoffensive and harmless, can be so feared and disliked? I wanted to know how threatened they were, and what I could do to help protect them.
What are your earliest memories of interacting with amphibians? Do you have any funny stories to share?
When I was a child, I used to spend a lot of time at my grandparents’ house in Vale Vêneto, a small village in the countryside of Southern Brazil. Among cows, chickens, pigs, dogs and cats, my cousins and I used to interact with many other wild animals, like snakes and toads. The snakes were usually feared, while the Cururu Toads always brought joy to the kids when they showed up. We used to nickname them “Chico” (whether it was always the same or many different individuals) and they were treated like a family member. It was common to hear someone asking: “Has anyone seen Chico today?” or “Did you guys noticed that Chico was inside the kitchen yesterday night?”. I loved to watch those big toads feeding on beetles under the lamps and was amazed at how many they could eat in just one night.
Later, when I was already at the University, I attended a course in Ecology in which we all had to develop a short study in the field. All the people ran to get the most popular subjects: mammals, birds, spiders and plants. Luckily for me, no one chose the amphibians, so it was not difficult to convince the other friends from the group to go along with it. During fieldwork, it was the first time that I had the opportunity to really see those astonishing animals in their environment, getting my feet wet in the pond, and learning about their habits, scientific names and the music they make. From that night on, I knew that amphibians would be part of my life.
At that time, however, I was in a paid internship (during my bachelor’s degree) at a laboratory of Drosophila genetics, so I could not simply quit. So I started going to fieldworks to study amphibians during the weekends, while still working with the flies and attending to the Biology classes during the week. For one year and a half, me and three good friends worked for two weekends each month, sometimes sleeping only three hours per night, getting rain and cold temperatures in the winter and a lot of mosquitoes through the summer. This was a very important time, when I learned to work as a team and never to give up, despite all the difficulties we might find when working with amphibians on the field. It was the time when the foundations of my passion for these animals were laid.
When did you learn that amphibians were in trouble and how did this make you feel?
When I first heard about it, I was still at the University. A friend showed me a printed copy of an article in a magazine talking about the declines in the number of amphibians due to habitat destruction, climate change and diseases. It was also the first time that I learned about chytridiomycosis. After that, through the course of my studies and work, I started to see amphibians not only as a research subject or as abstract entities (such as species, communities or populations), but as individual beings. And as individuals, I felt that none of them should be harmed and that every single life saved should be a victory to be celebrated.
What are your thoughts on the future prospects for amphibian conservation and preventing further extinctions? Do amphibians face a bright or a gloomy future?
I think that the future of amphibians depends on us, human beings, and on the way that we value and interact with the environment, as well as how we use the natural resources. I always prefer to focus on the present moment, so I do not see a bright, but neither a gloomy future: I just can’t (or prefer not to) think about distant times in the future.
Regarding our way of acting, I believe that we should follow that old idea of thinking globally, but acting locally. In the same way, we should keep one eye on the future, but our feet in the present. Right now, we have to work hard to pinpoint the main threats to wildlife and act to stop them one at a time. At the same time, we should invest in long term regional, national and global policies, like land protection and, especially, education. People will only respect (and therefore protect) what they know, understand and identify themselves with. We have to teach children and adults about the importance of protecting the environment and, in our case, the amphibians. We have to put an end to the belief that frogs are disgusting, dangerous and associated to the dark side, to witchcraft. We have to show that they are beautiful and essential to the environmental balance; and for those who seek for an anthropocentric purpose for animals, we need to show that amphibians are also important to humankind.
I believe that the main idea guiding our work with amphibians should be that conservation is not about persons (and their names, their egos and their small quarrels), but about the animals. Thus, we should always work as a team, always adding, rather than dividing and excluding. If we are really concerned about amphibians, we should focus on them, not on us. We have to abandon our vanities: species, research subjects and conservation matters should have no owners; everyone who wants to work and collaborate should be able to do it.
I think the key here is to improve multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaborations, integrating academia, governmental and non-governmental institutions and, of course, society. We have to use the know-how of experienced practitioners, but also carve space for new (young and motivated) people. We have to listen to and work with dwellers from local communities; sometimes they might know a lot more than we do.
We have also to use creativity to find new ways of doing research, learning with our mistakes, and developing new approaches, therefore giving up some old and outdated practices, like invasive mark-and-recapture techniques and indiscriminate collection of individuals. We have to be more careful, cleaning our boots and our fieldwork material, to avoid spreading diseases. We have to increase the use of technological resources in our studies on taxonomy, biology and ecology. We have to invest in focused and effective research, avoiding loosing funds, time and resources in aimless studies.
We have to use creativity to find new ways to fund conservation actions, such as crowdfunding tools and partnerships with governmental agencies and companies.
We have to work together with surveillance and enforcement organizations, providing information to combat animal trafficking, illegal collection and illegal trade, and help to supervise those who have license to collect, breed and sell animals. We have to educate and raise awareness on people, showing them that having wild animals as pets is cruelty and vanity. Illegal trade of animals only exists because there are people who buy them. We have to show to these people the untold stories of animal suffering, hurt and pain behind the trade.
To resume, I think that we should operate: (i) identifying the problem; (ii) discussing it in multi-disciplinary teams; (iii) acting focused and locally, pursuing effectiveness; (iv) sharing successful actions; (v) applying them in different places and contexts, using creativity and, if necessary, adapting them regionally.
We have to connect people. We have to use the internet to share new ideas and successful conservation actions from all over the world. We must bring it all together.
Can you tell us a little about your current work and focus?
Currently I am doing my PhD at the Universität Trier, in Germany, on the influence of floating meadows as promoters of long-distance dispersal in the Amazon amphibians. One of the focuses of this research is to highlight the importance of the rivers on the movement of individuals in the Amazon basin, perhaps showing the possible impacts of hydroelectric dams on the connection and on the gene flow between populations. I am also still deeply involved in a project that is underway since 2010, on the conservation of the Admirable Red-Belly Toad (Melanophryniscus admirabilis). It is a Critically Endangered microendemic species from the southern Brazilian Atlantic Forest that until recently had been threatened by the possible implementation of a small hydroelectric power plant. Working with a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional team, we were able to prevent the construction of the hydroelectric. To learn more about it, you can read the article that we published in FrogLog, access our website and follow our page on the social medias. I am also helping to develop a website for environmental education (about amphibians and reptiles in Brazil) for children, teachers and other people who might be interested. Here in Germany, I am helping with a project on the fire-salamander and the highly deadly chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans. Furthermore, I am co-editor of the conservation news of the Herpetologia Brasileira journal and a member of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group. Our current focus is to develop the group in Brazil, identifying and connecting the people working with amphibian conservation in the country, sharing successful initiatives, discussing the challenges and, more than anything else, working together to make the team stronger and our work effective.
What are some of the things that our readers can do to help protect amphibians?
Before trying to change the world, I think that we should try to change ourselves. And we can only do that by learning. The only problem with education is that knowledge brings responsibility. And this is also true for the people working with conservation. Do you mind discussing amphibian protection while eating a big piece of meat? I do. Even those who prefer frogs than cows, pigs or chickens should have in mind that one of the main causes of deforestation is cattle breeding and monoculture plantations to feed these animals. Besides causing habitat loss and fragmentation, livestock farming contributes to global warming and pollution of land and water resources. Therefore, if we are worried about the future of amphibians and other wild animals, we should not just blame “them” (big corporations, politicians, capitalists, etc), but should also think about our own unintentional contribution to this system and hence reduce our consumerism.
If you love amphibians and want to help protect them, so learn, learn, learn! And then tell other people what you have learned, show them how beautiful and important these animals are. Help educate and raise awareness.
What keeps you personally motivated and dedicated to saving amphibians?
Since I began working with amphibians 12 years ago, I was only paid to do research and conservation activities during three years (when I got a scholarship during my Master and now, in my first year on the PhD). Throughout the other nine years, I always did it as a voluntary, so I had to have another job to keep me (fortunately, I always worked as biologist). A couple of times, I will not lie, when some things went bad, I felt idiot by doing it without receiving “nothing” in return. But when one does what one believes and loves, we soon forget the problems and we keep doing it, over and over again. What keeps me motivated, however selfish it may seems, is the personal satisfaction that I have every time I go to the field with my friends, when I see a new species for the very first time, when I am alone in the middle of the night by a pond or a stream, in the forest or in the Pampa, when I see the moon and the stars while hearing the singing of a frog. Or when I find out every small victory in our daily struggle for amphibian conservation. In these moments, I realize that our work is worthwhile.