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Catching the Red Eye: Studying Tree Frogs

Catching the Red Eye: Studying Tree Frogs


Catching the red eye takes on new meaning for Associate Professor Sarah Bouchard.

Bouchard, who teaches in the Department of Biology and Earth Science, has been studying the red-eyed tree frog since her first sabbatical at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa, Panama, in 2009 — and her students have been reaping benefits ever since.

Two of Bouchard’s students who accompanied her to Panama last summer, Caitlyn Rahe and Troy Neptune, along with fellow student Cory Usher, who has been conducting research on leopard frogs here at Otterbein, presented their work at the annual meeting of The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, held Jan. 3-7 in Portland, Oregon.

Rahe, Neptune and Bouchard made two poster presentations focused on predation risk in the face of limited resources and metabolic plasticity in red-eyed tree frog larvae. Usher presented his work on the growth rate plasticity in larval leopard frogs.

Bouchard’s interest in the red-eyed tree frog came about by accident as she intended to study turtles on her first sabbatical at Otterbein, a trip down to Panama in 2009.

“A friend of mine from graduate school was already there working on a red-eyed tree frog project,” Bouchard said. “He introduced me to his group, which included my present collaborator, Karen Warkentin (from Boston University), and showed me some data that they were puzzling over. It happened to be in my area of interest, so I started messing around with it and running some pilot studies. One thing led to another, and my research involving frogs really took off.”

The red-eyed tree frog is a tropical rain forest species that lives in Central America. It has a complex life cycle in which eggs are laid on leaves hanging over ponds. Tadpoles hatch on those leaves and fall into the water below where they grow and develop into juvenile frogs and disperse into the forest.

Most of Bouchard’s work centers around the effect of environmental variables on developing frogs, particularly the differences that occur when tadpoles grow in low, medium and high densities.

“Basically, I’m looking at how tadpoles react to changing environments and what that might mean for frogs as they leave the pond,” said Bouchard, who has ongoing projects in Ohio as well as Panama.

Her work has been funded by Research Opportunity Awards from the National Science Foundation, and multiple awards from Otterbein’s Faculty Scholars Development Committee and the Department of Biology and Earth Science Faculty Research Endowed Award, an endowed fund set up by Dr. Michael A. Hoggarth.

In addition to equipment and travel, Bouchard’s funding has also allowed her to bring two Otterbein students to Panama for six weeks each summer to aid in her research. Four of her former students — Chelsea Jenney O’Leary ’13, Lindsay Wargelin ’13, Whitney Rodriguez ’14 and Kadeen Jennings ’14 — have co-authored two research papers on the red-eyed tree frog with Bouchard.

“They always do a great job,” Bouchard said about her students. “They all have different initial reactions to Panama, it’s a completely different ecosystem. Most of them have never been to a rainforest before.”

At the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, students get to interact with a diverse group of scientists as well as undergraduates, graduate and post-doctorate students, and faculty members.

“I did not expect to enjoy waking up to birds calling outside my window in the morning,” said Neptune, about his experience in Panama last summer. “I loved being surrounded by people who loved animals and research as much as I did and engaging in intellectual conversations around the dinner table.”

Neptune, a junior double major in zoo and conservation science and art, plans to go to graduate school and study ecology and evolutionary biology.

“This experience solidified my passion for animal conservation and research,” Neptune said. “I hope to truly make a difference in educating others and helping to conserve animals.”

Rahe, a senior majoring in zoo and conservation science, echoed Neptune’s sentiments.

“The biggest surprise was just the amount of diverse wildlife we saw while in Panama,” Rahe said. “We could hear howler monkeys in the trees, we saw a sloth cross the road, and an anteater walked right through our experiment. It was incredible.

“The best part of the trip, other than conducting research on a really neat organism, was making friendships with other scientists and learning about their own research,” Rahe added. “I learned that biology never goes according to plan, but all results mean something.”