Meet Stengl-Wyer Scholar: Ed Basham

December 29, 2023 • by Nicole Elmer
basham

Ed fundraising for a Gabon expedition in 2022.


Ed Basham is one of our 2023 Stengl-Wyer Scholars. He is an amphibian ecologist, researching the threats of climate change and chytrid fungus disease to rainforest frogs occupying different forest strata.

As part of the Stengl Wyer Endowment, the Stengl Wyer Postdoctoral Scholars Program provides up to three years of independent support for talented postdoctoral researchers in the broad area of the diversity of life and/or organisms in their natural environments.

Ed took some time out of his schedule to talk about his research and the amazing places he's been to do it. He's also provided a link here to his documentary Exploring the Enchanted Canopy: Gabon's Hidden Amphibian Treasures.
 

Tell us where you came from before UT, and what you studied then?

I am from the small town of Saffron Walden in England and I studied Environmental Science for my Bachelors and Masters at the University of Sheffield. I had a great time there, but I was eyeing up the tropics with all its amazing wildlife and warmer climate. I met Dr. David Edwards who became my Masters supervisor and I begged him to send me to the tropics. He replied, ‘I have a PhD student researching frogs in Colombia, maybe you could be her assistant?’. Perfect! So, I found myself surveying frogs in the Colombian Andes trying to understand whether frogs were able to recolonize and use secondary forest habitats. It turns out that they can, including many species of conservation concern, thus concluding that secondary forests should not be discounted for their biodiversity value. 

After finishing at Sheffield, I was seeking more fieldwork and managed to secure a place on an expedition to Madagascar with Dr. Brett Scheffers. It was there that I learned to climb trees with ropes and survey the rainforest canopy for frogs. This experience led me to a PhD in the Scheffers Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where I was given the opportunity to climb hundreds of huge trees in search of frogs across Costa Rica and Panama. I was interested in the vertical stratification patterns in the community, i.e., which species live where from ground to canopy, and how these patterns of distribution change across the dry and wet seasons. Understanding these seasonal changes can then help us predict the impacts of climate change, which will likely cause shifts in rainfall patterns across the tropics. Indeed, I found that the community shifted towards the ground in the dry seasons, as many species descended from the canopy which becomes far hotter and dryer than the ground. This could mean that climate change induced dry seasons could see many frogs forced to the ground for longer, with negative consequences for the community.

frog

Hyperolius mosaicus

You study amphibian ecology, specifically vertical stratification patterns of tropical rainforest frogs. Can you explain how this works?

Studying the vertical stratification patterns of tropical rainforest frogs involves investigating how these amphibians are distributed at across vertical layers or strata within the rainforest environment. In simple terms, I climb rainforest trees at night with ropes to catch frogs from ground to canopy. This research is crucial because it helps us understand how frogs are adapted to their complex habitats and how they interact with the ecosystem.

Frogs can be found from the forest floor to the tops of rainforest trees, but their distribution is not random. From ground to canopy, frogs may occupy different microhabitats, and their preferences are often related to factors like humidity, temperature, and prey availability. Indeed, frogs have evolved various adaptations to live in different vertical strata. For example, canopy-dwelling frogs may have adhesive toe pads for climbing, while ground-dwelling species might have strong legs for hopping. These adaptations help them move and thrive in their specific habitats.

Understanding vertical stratification patterns of frogs provides valuable ecological insights. It helps researchers identify which species are particularly vulnerable to habitat disturbance, diseases, or climate change, as they may be restricted to specific layers and habitats. The devastating chytrid fungal disease is a particular focus of my research, and I want to investigate whether frogs are impacted differently by the fungus at different vertical heights due to the vertical gradient in climate which goes from moist and cool on the ground to hot and dry in the canopy.

In summary, my research is a multidisciplinary effort that contributes to our understanding of amphibian ecology, their adaptations, and the overall health of these vital ecosystems. It underscores the intricate relationships between frogs and their environment, which in turn aids in the conservation and management of these precious habitats.

basham in tree

Ed using day hours to secure ropes for a nighttime survey.

What got you excited to study this area?

Canopy research in rainforests is like embarking on a journey to uncharted territories. Rainforest canopies are among the least explored ecosystems on Earth, and every tough climb holds the potential for encountering species which may be rare or entirely new to science. When I break through a tangle of vines into the high reaches of the canopy and see the face of a beautiful colourful frog poking out from some moss, it’s a wonderful feeling.

The research itself is very physically demanding, with trekking through the forest, hauling heavy equipment, and using ropes to get into the canopy, and I love that aspect of my work. Climbing big trees using ropes adds an element of struggle and adrenaline which for me is an essential element. It gives me a real feeling of accomplishment when reaching the canopy and knowing that I am exploring places very few have ventured.

Importantly, research in the canopy can have direct conservation implications. Canopy studies can highlight the importance of preserving intact rainforests for the survival of canopy-dwelling species like many frogs. Furthermore, the captivating nature of canopy research makes it an excellent tool for educational outreach. Sharing the experiences of climbing trees and discovering amazing frogs in the canopy can inspire students and the public to appreciate and protect rainforest ecosystems.

In essence, studying amazing frogs in rainforest canopies offers a blend of scientific discovery, adventure, and conservation impact that makes it an exceptionally exciting and fulfilling field of research.

Does Texas present a unique situation, challenge or benefit for your research?

Luckily for me, the Zamudio Lab at UT boasts state-of-the-art facilities which will be invaluable for analyzing field samples, conducting experiments, and running various scientific tests related to my research. For example, I will process swab samples from amphibians to test for Bd fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), which causes the chytrid fungal disease that has led to the extinction and decline of amphibian communities globally. I also hope to mentor a group of brilliant UT undergraduates in a study of the microbes that inhabit the skin of frogs, which have important implications for their health and ability to resist pathogens such as Bd fungus.

In addition, thanks to the fantastic network of UT field stations such as Stengl Lost Pines and the Wildflower Centre, I will also have the opportunity to branch my research out to native Texas ecosystems. In collaboration with UT researchers, I hope to study the vertical distributions of ants across different forest types, for one of the first studies of its kind in Texas.

Importantly, working at UT will help me create educational materials, conduct workshops, and raise awareness about tropical ecology and conservation. In summary, having access to the resources of the University of Texas will significantly enhance the quality and impact of my research and I am thrilled to be based here.

frog

Leptopelis boulengeri

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