Alex Slavenko, a PhD student from the University of Tel Aviv, spent six weeks working in Bishop Museum’s Vertebrate Zoology collection. This was his first time visiting Hawaii; in fact it was his first time in the United States! He kindly agreed to answer some questions so that we could learn a little more about his research and his travels.
Can you briefly describe the project you’re working on to earn your PhD?
– Lizards (and reptiles in general) are often thought of as inhabiting warm regions – deserts, tropical rainforests, etc. And while this is often the case, there are quite a few lizards that can be found in very high elevations, where the climate tends to be cold and unforgiving. How then do these unique lizards adapt to these unfavourable conditions? This is the main question of my PhD project, where I employ field work and macroecological work (macroecology deals with ecological questions and data on large temporal, spatial, and taxonomic scales) to characterize montane lizards and their unique traits.
When did you realize that herpetology was something you wanted to pursue professionally? Have you been interested in herps since childhood, or did your interest develop during your undergraduate years?
– I’ve always been fascinated by wildlife in general, and reptiles in particular. As a kid I was practically glued to the TV whenever a National Geographic special would come on. It never occurred to me that it could be a profession, or indeed even a hobby. I suppose it took me a while to break away from the family programming of becoming an engineer. However, it didn’t take much more than the first zoology lecture in my undergrad studies to get me hooked for life – I immediately realized this was not only what I wanted to do with my life, but also that it’s a goal that could be achieved.
Can you describe some of the field work you’ve done in Papua New Guinea?
– During the summer of 2015, I joined an expedition led by Dr. Allen Allison of the Bishop Museum to survey and document the herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) of Mt. Victoria, the highest mountain (over 4,000m above sea level) in the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea. Despite its prominence and proximity to the capital, Port Moresby, the slopes of the mountain haven’t been extensively surveyed by zoologists for over a century. This of course presented a vast potential for as yet unknown species, as well as poor understanding of which known species actually occupy it. Furthermore, a proper survey of the mountain’s fauna and flora could help in efforts to conserve the biodiversity of this region in the face of encroaching threats of development. We surveyed the slopes of the mountain, over an altitudinal range of over 2000m, for roughly five weeks of extensive field work. Despite hardship in the face of an extreme drought onset by the 2015-16 El Niño event, which greatly negatively impacted the activity of animals in the rainforest, we managed to collect over 200 specimens of frogs and reptiles, respresenting over 30 different species, with a few possible new ones! Perhaps even more importantly, we managed to establish an excellent relationship with the local community, whose help will be crucial for future conservation and scientific work in the area.
Why did you travel to Bishop Museum to use the collection? How has the Museum’s collection been useful for your research?
– The Bishop Museum has one of the most extensive herpetological collections from Papua New Guinea anywhere in the world, spanning decades of extensive sampling by experts all across the island nation. As New Guinea is the world’s highest (and largest) tropical island, several of its lizard species are unique to high elevation habitats. I travelled to the Bishop Museum to measure the morphology and reproductive biology of these highland lizards, as well as their closely related lowland relatives, to compare and see how these vital traits change with the increase in elevation.
How many animals did you examine while you were here? How many different species did you examine?
– During my stay I managed to measure 879 lizards specimens, from 79 different species, representing all the Papua New Guinean members of the skink family (Scincidae) present in the Bishop Museum collections. Apart from measuring various aspects of the morphology of these specimens (such as length, width, the shape of the head and limbs), I also collected over 500 gonad samples to characterize the reproductive strategy of these species.
How did you spend you free time while you were in Hawaii?
– Luckily, the Hawaiian islands are breath-takingly beautiful, and there was no shortage of things for me to do in my spare time. Although Hawaii is rather lacking in the department of native reptiles, I also enjoy the occasional birding and scuba-diving, which Hawaii could easily provide. I spent most of my time underwater, seeing the amazing marine life, vertebrate and invertebrate alike, but also found time to hike in O’ahu and the Big Island and see some of your amazing native bird species. One my highlights, however, was of a geological nature, when I got to witness the lava flow from Kīlauea as it reached the ocean on the eastern shore of the Big Island. Despite all this, there is still much I haven’t seen and experienced. The upside to this is that gives me an excellent reason to return to these amazing islands!
What were some of the things you found surprising about your time in Hawaii/United States?
– Well, there were the surprising moments during the work on the collections – the odd discovery here and there, the cool finding, witnessing an amazing species that I hadn’t seen before for the first time, things like that. But as for life in the US, perhaps not surprisingly, not a lot was surprising. We get bombarded with so much American culture in Israel via movies and TV, I was quite familiar with most of the things here. Still, every country has its quirks that you’re not aware of until you witness them, and the US is no different. The weirdest thing for me was probably your driving laws – that whole thing about making left turns through incoming traffic is just mind-boggling to me! Not to say I didn’t enjoy it (maybe the intersections in the highways a little less so) – I absolutely loved my time in Hawaii, and can’t wait to make it back, see what I haven’t seen it, and discover more secrets hidden in the Bishop Museum’s collections.