Grenada Field Diary, Fall/Winter 2009

Craig Berg, reptile and aquarium curator at the Milwaukee County Zoo (Wisconsin), wrote this field diary during a 2009 research trip to the Caribbean island of Grenada.  Since 2003, Berg has been studying endangered Grenada frogs, tree boa snakes and coral reefs on the island. Much of his work is funded by the non-profit Zoological Society of Milwaukee (Wisconsin). Berg often works with Bob Henderson, senior curator of herpetology at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and zookeeper Billie Harrison of the Racine Zoo (Wisconsin), as well as with Grenada-based scientists. For more on Berg’s work in Grenada, including stories and reports from previous years, please click here.

Text by Craig Berg, reptile and aquarium curator at the Milwaukee County Zoo. All photos provided by Craig Berg.

Grenada, West Indies, November 27, 2009

Billie Harrison, of the Racine Zoo, and I arrived on the Caribbean island of Grenada late in the evening of November 20.  The Zoological Society of Milwaukee has been supporting my research in Grenada since 2004. The projects that have been supported range from surveying frogs and tree boas to monitoring coral reefs. 

Frog on leaf

A Grenada frog on the island.

In May of 2009, Billie, Anthony Jeremiah (Grenada Forestry Department), Dr. Clare Morrall (St. Georges University, Grenada) and I discovered that the frog-killing fungus known as chytrid had reached the island. One of the frogs on the island, the Grenada frog (Pristimantis euphronides), is endangered and found nowhere else in the world. The primary goal of this trip is to see how widespread the fungus is and determine if it has infected all four frog species known to inhabit the island.

Frog infected with chytrid

This Grenada frog is probably infected with chytrid, says Berg. It's lifting itself up from the leaf because it's having trouble breathing.

However, as usual, we are involved in several other projects. To date, we’ve monitored three sites for frogs and tree boas and we dove at a coral reef-monitoring site. As yesterday was Thanksgiving, we feasted upon vegetable pies and samosa that we heated on our engine block after reaching our survey site.

tree boa on leaves

A tree boa snake curls up in the leaves.

It is the rainy season in Grenada; so much of what we do is weather-dependent.  When it rains, the quality of the roads varies from treacherous to dangerous. The car-rental agencies always advise us that we will never be going to places that require the use of four-wheel drive. Strangely enough, their predictions have never held true. Today it looks as if it will be dry. If the weather holds, we will be going to one of the highest peaks on Grenada.  This site is one of the last places on the island that has retained a large population of the Grenada frog. We hope that, despite the presence of chytrid, this mountain peak remains a stronghold of the Grenada frog.

November 28, 2009

It’s another beautiful morning in Grenada. Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving, (a day late) by splurging on a $30 EC ($10 U.S.) lunch of rice and beans, chicken wings and french fries. Our field dinner was composed of leftover rice and beans, carrots, Pringles, and a favorite of Caribbean researchers the world over (or in Milwaukee, at least)...peanut butter sandwiches.

Craig Berg greets new day

Craig Berg gets ready for a day in the field.

The weather remained dry; so we were able to make it up high into the mountains to a place that the locals call Cubla (Koo-bla). This site has been a stronghold of the Grenada frog despite the fact that since Hurricane Ivan, it is being overrun by saber grass. This grass can slice through clothes and flesh -- a fact that I can attest to as I forgot my long-sleeved shirt. Thus, I had to plunge through a phalanx of saber grass, resulting in a blood trail that the leeches seemed to enjoy.  Billie also seemed to enjoy my predicament…as she was chuckling most of the night.  She CLAIMED that her amusement was due to the fact that I was wearing a Blood Center T-shirt that was now dripping blood.  I guess that under different circumstances, like seeing someone else being sliced to ribbons, I would have done the same.

Sharp Grass

Researchers make their way through the sharp grass. Photo provided by Craig Berg.

We had high hopes for this site.  Unfortunately, the hopes turned to trepidation as twilight fell silently into the night. We were not hearing frogs!  In 2007 we saw 26 frogs during the first hour of our survey. Last night we only saw four. This does not bode well for the Grenada frog.

Sharp Grass

The researchers wore brand-new clothes and boots when they headed into Grenada frog territory. They did not want to spread chytrid through infected mud on the soles of old shoes.

Sharp Grass

Dr. Clare Morrall holds a tree boa.

Our final days look like they will be filled with meetings and interviews…..a field biologist’s anathema.  However, it is likely that these may prove to be the most important days of the trip.  Today we lunched with Bonnie Rusk, an American who has been working to preserve the endangered Grenada dove. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of working in a country where many people do not know about their natural heritage. In the afternoon we met with Aden Forteau and “Jerry” Jeremiah at Grenada Forestry. We discussed plans for the distribution of the Cribo snake poster sponsored by the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Racine Zoo and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee. [The Cribo snake is highly endangered on the island.]

In the evening we went into the field with four professors from St. Georges University: Clare Morrall  (assistant dean), Andrea Easter-Pilcher (chair of Life Sciences), Brian Pilcher (learning strategies coordinator), and Marie Bush (associate professor – Small Animal Medicine).  We took them to a site that has tree boas, Grenada frogs and Johnstone’s whistling frogs. Only Clare had ever ventured into the forest at night; so it was an exciting night for all.

Sharp Grass

Grenada has four frog species: the native Grenada frog, the highly invasive Johnstone’s whistling frog, the non-native cane toad and the Windward Island ditch frog. This is a Johnstone’s whistling frog.

Because of the size of the group, we decided to look for the source of a call that we had been hearing. To us it sounds like an unknown frog species.  We have looked for it in the past.  Whatever it is, it calls sporadically and its call is very difficult to locate.  At times it sounds as if it is a few feet in front of you; at other times… as if it is 20 feet in the trees.  So we all put our ears together to triangulate and all came to the same conclusion…the beast in question calls from elevated perches 20 feet or more in the trees.  I guess we’ll have to learn to climb trees before our next visit…at least one of us will…right, Billie?!

Sharp Grass

Billie Harrison of the Racine Zoo examines a tree boa and a cricket.

December 1, 2009

Today we appeared on Grenada television along with Jerry from Grenada Forestry.  The program was called “Spice Morning.” It is produced by the Grenada Information Service and is the Grenadian equivalent of “Good Morning America,” except that it is repeated throughout the day so it reaches a wide audience.  We were interviewed about the Cribo poster and our work with the frogs.  Few people realize that Grenada has a frog unique to the island and even fewer know that it is endangered.

Afterward we met with Venance Msacky, the director of Lands and Surveys from the Ministry of Housing, Lands and Community Development, and Vera Bruno-Victor, the Permanent Secretary (PS) of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. We discussed our work and the PS gave us a letter of support to be used when applying for grants.  This letter was the finishing touch that we needed to submit a grant to the Phoenix (Arizona) Zoo that will allow us to return to Grenada to determine if chytrid is found throughout the island.

Sharp Grass

Cubla mountains in the mist.

As you may recall, in a previous submission I said that the wet mountain roads in Grenada are dangerous.  Tonight I put all of my driving skills to the test as we climbed 2,100 feet up a mountain shrouded in mist and drizzle. The purpose of this madness was to do a second survey at Cubla, a site that used to be the home of thousands of Grenada frogs.  The mountain had been shrouded in clouds all day. So if the frogs were still there in numbers, tonight would be the night to see them. Unfortunately, the results of our survey were the same. You could count the number of frogs that we saw in one hour on the fingers of one hand. Chytrid is decimating the Grenada frog.

December 2, 2009

Today is our last day on Grenada.  We finished our field work and I was interviewed for a half-hour radio program called “Focus.”  Like the “Spice Morning,” this program is broadcast repeatedly and has a large audience.  In the evening we met once again with Dr. Morrall and we shared our photos and said our goodbyes.

Sharp Grass

A view of the city of St. Georges, Grenada.

December 3, 2009

We arrived home [in Milwaukee, Wis.] to snow squalls and black ice. The slippery mountain roads of Grenada had provided a much-needed refresher course on how to navigate 20 miles of ice-coated roads in Wisconsin. It has been an eventful trip. We made many new friends and strengthened our ties with the Grenada government…but we cannot help but be saddened and concerned by the very real possibility that the Grenada frogs may go extinct.

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