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The Frogs Not on Broadway, But the Real Thing
Curator-in-Charge Christopher Raxworthy

Frogs have been roaming the Earth for at least 200 million years, and the immensely popular frog exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, curated by three Columbians, is proving to have long legs as well. The exhibit, which began during the summer, has been extended to January 2005 and is now slated to return in 2006.

"Frogs: A Chorus of Colors," with more than 200 frogs representing 17 species from countries ranging from Madagascar to Myanmar to Mexico, was created by curator-in-charge Christopher Raxworthy, an adjunct research scientist at Columbia, and co-curated by Columbia doctoral students Julián Faivovich and Taran Grant.

To some this might seem an unusual coincidence. But AMNH and Columbia have longstanding ties (beyond their being close geographic neighbors on Manhattan's West Side ). Former University President Nicholas Murray Butler struck an affiliation agreement with the museum exactly a hundred years ago. That relationship was solidified in the mid-1990s by the formation of the formation the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), a consortium of Columbia, AMNH, the New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Wildlife Trust.

As for why these particular Columbian researchers are attracted to frogs—it just came naturally. Raxworthy knew from early on that he wanted to study herpetology, the science of amphibians and reptiles. "My mother saved a drawing I did when I was 5 of frogs and snakes," Raxworthy says with a laugh. Growing up in Buenos Aires , Faivovich was bringing frogs home at the age of 8. And Grant began working in a zoo as an animal keeper at 13. Both students have had the thrill of discovering new species of frogs in the course of their field research.

Golden mantella frog

Certainly, there was something about these amphibians that brought out a smile in the exhibit's visitors—both young and old--during a visit over the summer, with the air filled with a soundscape of frog croaks, chirps and trills. Raxworthy talked about the attraction of frogs.

"People come out feeling good," he said. "It touches people. It's like E.O. Wilson's notion of biophilia. Many of these frogs are beautiful, and they're in an aesthetic setting. It's a soothing experience, like looking into a fish tank."

And the frogs themselves are, well, one hesitates to use the anthropomorphic term "happy," but they certainly are thriving in their vivariums. "They're growing fast," said Raxworthy. "They're chirping at each other, wrestling with each other. This is typical behavior in the wild, part of their natural repertoires."

Part of that success is due to the naturalness of the frogs' habitats. "It's a five-star hotel for frogs," Grant said.

The centerpiece of the exhibition—a 110-cubic-foot dart poison frog vivarium built around a tropical buttress-root tree—shelters more than 75 dart poison frogs of nine different species. Found in tropical Central and South America, dart poison frogs are so named because the Emberá Chocó, an indigenous people in Columbia , position their blow darts by rubbing them along the back of the toxic frogs. A single golden poison frog contains sufficient poison to kill 20,000 mice or 10 people.

These frogs, however, are harmless. "In the wild, dart poison frogs eat ants and millipedes," explained Grant, "and they somehow make the alkoloids in their prey more poisonous. Because we control their diet, these dart poison frogs aren't toxic."

Dyeing poison frog

There are many other frogs as well, ranging from the tiny golden mantella frog (less than an inch long) to the gigantic African bullfrog (8 inches in length), ensconced in re-created habitats with rock ledges, live plants and waterfalls.

The exhibition is entertaining in its beauty and variety and highly informative. "A well-studied herpetologist could learn something here," Raxworthy said.

The curators also hope to convey some serious messages as well. Frogs are bellwether species, and many frogs populations around the world are declining. There may be no single cause as the populations may be diminishing for localized or specialized reasons. But, said Faivovich, "We want to make people think about the health of the environment and the importance of biodiversity."

Published: Sep 03, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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