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Head in the Cloud Forests

Students Lend Skills in Search for New Species

High in the mountain forests of Honduras, where the mist hangs low, the jaguars lurk, and the locals don’t venture, IUP biology professor Josiah Townsend has found something. A few things, really.

Josiah Townsend has described these and other species: Rana lenca (frog); insets, Bothriechis guifarroi (pit viper) and Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni (glass frog); and the lizard [in the other photo], Anolis morazani (Josiah Townsend)

Josiah Townsend has described these and other species: Rana lenca (frog); insets, Bothriechis guifarroi (pit viper) and Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni (glass frog); and the lizard [in the other photo], Anolis morazani (Josiah Townsend)

A career, for one. And adventure. Love, too. But more to the point, he has found a score of frogs, lizards, and snakes that had not previously been known to science.

He and his collaborators—who have included more than a dozen IUP students—have identified 23 new species. And counting.

“We have other work in progress,” said Townsend, who came to IUP in 2012. “Within the next year, I’d say we’d have papers published about three more salamanders and two more frogs.”

He’s published discoveries that include a small pit viper with brilliant emerald and turquoise scales—beautiful but deadly. He’s also described a curious tadpole that’s bigger than the frog it grows into. And then there’s the small brown lizard with the bright red dewlap, or throat fan, that scientists had previously thought was a single species. He has the genetics to prove otherwise.

Townsend with, from left, Esbeiry Cordova-Ortiz, Justin O’Neill, and Ayla Ross (Keith Boyer)

Townsend with, from left, Esbeiry Cordova-Ortiz, Justin O’Neill, and Ayla Ross (Keith Boyer)

This school year, Townsend is back in Honduras by way of his selection for a Fulbright grant, which he describes as an “incredible honor.” He’s spending his time teaching classes and leading workshops at two universities, supporting national conservation efforts, and, of course, continuing his search for new species.

Townsend has traveled to the remote Honduran forests at least once each year for the last 20, first as a college student drawn to biology and now as a researcher inspiring students of his own.

The cloud forests have an almost magical quality, he said—misty, cool, and lush, with a unique complement of biodiversity on each isolated mountaintop.

“Many of these forests present serious logistical challenges for access and work, making time spent in cloud forests a privilege few others get to enjoy,” he said. “It’s something I am cognizant of each time I find myself there.”

His first time was in 1999, when he accompanied Larry Wilson, his zoology professor from Miami Dade College in Florida, on a research trip. Wilson is one of the foremost experts on Honduran reptiles and amphibians.

“I trace everything back to his mentorship,” Townsend said.

Everything, arguably, includes his marriage. He and his wife, Ileana Luque-Montes, who also teaches in IUP’s Biology Department, met in Honduras while he was doing research for his doctoral studies at the University of Florida and she was working on her practicum at the National University of Honduras.

Biology faculty member Josiah Townsend and his students are investigating whether Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni, found in Honduras, is a new species of glass frog. The frog’s internal organs are visible through its transparent belly. (Josiah Townsend)

Biology faculty member Josiah Townsend and his students are investigating whether Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni, found in Honduras, is a new species of glass frog. The frog’s internal organs are visible through its transparent belly. (Josiah Townsend)

In 2008, the year before they were married, they collaborated on eight months of fieldwork with discoveries that included a new frog species, Rana lenca.

Townsend said finding new species evokes memories of his boyhood, slogging through streams at Finleyville’s Mingo Creek County Park, kicking over rocks, and finding salamanders.

“When we see something that doesn’t fit the mold, it’s a rush,” he said. “It harkens back to what you’d get excited about as a kid.”

As satisfying as the discovery of new species is, there is a broader goal: to lay the scientific foundation for conservation of rapidly disappearing habitats. The cloud forests are dwindling on the winds of economic progress: ranchers and loggers are mowing them down.

The first step in conservation is to determine what needs protecting. To do that, conservators need to understand which species are unique to their forests.

This is where Townsend’s work fits in. His research focuses on understanding the biology of a system rather than that of any one lizard or frog. And in Honduras, the forest systems are distinct for the number of plants and animals found there and nowhere else.

The scientific term is endemism, meaning a species is unique to a specific location, and Honduras has the highest rate of it in Central America. For instance, 40 percent of the amphibians found in Honduras are found only in Honduras, Townsend said, in part because of its geography. 

The cloud forests are well above sea level, which makes them cool. But descend the slopes, and the climate gets hotter and drier, making the forests a world of their own. Over time, these veritable mountaintop islands have developed distinct ecosystems. 

As Townsend explained, evolutionary forces have played out independently, in pockets, leaving much to discover for those who look.

“We just work in amphibians and reptiles,” Townsend said. “Almost certainly, if I’m finding new species of vertebrates, there could be 10 times more species of plants and insects.”

But the country’s limited scientific infrastructure, the remoteness of the forests that requires lugging gear up the slopes by mule train, and the political turmoil make exploration a challenge.

“Honduras has a lot to offer scientifically,” he said, “but not many scientists have gotten a foothold there.”

While the thrust of Townsend’s work takes place in the field, much of the research happens back at IUP, in Weyandt Hall. There, he focuses on species from Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as Northern Appalachia. These are distinct regions with one thing in common: fragmented ecosystems that are home to species greatly in need of conservation. 

In Townsend’s lab, he and his students do the taxonomic and morphologic work necessary to describe a species and confirm it’s a new one. The support the students provide and the experience they gain in return are invaluable, Townsend said. 

Over the summer, he took two graduate students and two undergraduates on a field excursion to Honduras. In a sense, it was a way to pay it forward—rewarding them for their efforts back in the lab while providing samples and specimens for the students who would succeed them.

Dan Dudek, a third-year master’s student who made the trip, said seeing the creatures he had previously known only through DNA sequences and Townsend’s photographs “brings the research to life.”

“Nothing compares to going to the cloud forests, seeing the wildlife in its natural habitat, and immersing yourself in the culture of the people,” he said.

That’s the experience Townsend had hoped international travel would provide.

“It gives you a whole different sense of yourself and confidence in yourself,” he said. “I know what a difference it made in my career. It completely changed my trajectory. So I try to offer that as best I can. That I’m able to give these kinds of experiences to students is one of the most rewarding things I can do professionally.”