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Rising Stars - Michael Forstner

texas Toad

In the Lost Pines, a struggle for recovery,
but not a lost cause

By Billi London-Gray, University Marketing

Flashlights in hand, mud underfoot, a band of Dungareed researchers sets out at dusk into the darkened fields of Bastrop County. It’s toad season in the herpetology world, and they’re hunting for trilling choruses of endangered Houston toads as part of a “call survey.”

Dr. Michael Forstner, a biology professor at Texas State University and one of the world’s preeminent experts on the Houston toad, leads the advance. He’s in the middle of another 100-hour work week, but you wouldn’t know it from his enthusiasm.

“The Houston toad is a native Texan. It’s fairly remarkable to me that we have an organism that is as unique as the Houston toad [this] close to campus,” he says. “The Houston toad is part of our heritage, both naturally and historically. It is something that the planet recognizes as a unique species in the United States, and Texas holds it. I think saving one native Texan is just as important as any other.”

An army of like-minded Texans agrees. Forstner facilitates a wide-scale collaboration among private landowners, state and federal agencies, zoos, and the students and faculty from research institutions like Texas State. Their shared goal? Preventing the toad’s extinction and preserving its remaining habitat in the tall forests of Central Texas.

Research at a Critical Juncture

Houston toad research has been ongoing since 1953, but the stakes got higher in 1970, when the species earned the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first amphibian added to the list of endangered species in the United States. Forstner has been part of that research continuum since his graduate school days in the early 1990s.

Unlike some other endangered and threatened species Forstner has worked with in his career — such as the American crocodile, chimpanzee, Malagasy lemurs, giant river terrapin, and Concho water snake — the Houston toad has been studied and monitored by researchers throughout its population decline.

“Very seldom have we had the level of detail that is available for this particular endangered species,” says Forstner.

Houston toad research, now in the hands of a third generation of scientists, has uniquely high resolution — that is, varied data that reveal why the species is declining and how environmental factors affect mortality rates at different life stages. Forstner’s career-long collaborations have built upon that early research and sharpened its resolution with evolving genetic technology.

“We have gained information that I think fundamentally changes how we understand amphibian dynamics in populations to work,” he says.

“Many other amphibian species are declining and will likely become critically endangered within the next few decades,” says Donald Brown, a Texas State aquatic resources doctoral student who works with Forstner. “The research we are conducting is not only directly useful for Houston toad recovery initiatives; it will help to guide recovery efforts for other amphibians.”

But after a year of severe drought and the destruction caused by the 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire, recent studies estimate that fewer than 500 adult Houston toads remain in the wild. Forstner and his collaborators are pressed to implement solutions that will ensure the toad’s survival from this critical nadir.

A Leg Up

“Endangered species recovery has really only been achieved when it has involved some form of a type of activity called ‘headstarting,’” Forstner says. “It’s especially true with amphibians and reptiles, and the reason for that is many organisms have areas of their lives in which survival is very low.”

For the Houston toad, mortality rates are especially high during the egg, tadpole and toadlet stages. In fact, Forstner states, less than 1 percent survive the first 12 weeks of life in the wild.

Headstarting, which involves collecting strands of eggs from the wild and then hatching and raising the juveniles in protected areas, is key to increasing survival rates — and, more importantly, reproduction rates — for the Houston toad. For the Houston toad, two headstarting facilities support the efforts: one at the Houston Zoo and one at a Texas State facility enabled by Bastrop County.

Texas State doctoral student Melissa Jones manages the university’s Houston toad headstarting operation. Forstner, who first mentored Jones while she was completing her master’s degree, suggested the project as a focus for her current research into conservation and wildlife management strategies.

“He basically said he had a project in mind, and it was genetics-related, and although I don’t have that genetics background, it would give me an opportunity to learn something that I never really even considered, that I never saw myself doing,” Jones says.

Jones is currently raising hundreds of toadlets for release into the Bastrop ponds from which their eggs were taken. While the toadlets will need to survive another year in the wild to reach sexual maturity, the headstarting program improves their chances of getting there, hopefully steering the species away from extinction.

Vision for the Next Generation

When it comes to the success of Houston toad recovery efforts, Forstner explains that “hopefully” is an applicable term in this scientific work.

“Science does not proceed by being right. Science proceeds by doing the best work you can with the best available tools of the time,” he says. “The hallmark of high-quality science is results that are durable — they stand the test of time.”

Even though coordinating efforts to help the Houston toad hop off the endangered species list consumes his time, Forstner hasn’t lost focus on the big picture — that science advances through the combined work of many people.

“Ultimately the truth of my job is that I can do none of it alone. My job is truly the collaborative facilitation of minds smarter, younger and faster than my own,” he says.

Illustrating the point further, he explains, is the fact that his research and that of his graduate students comes back into the classroom to elevate the undergraduate experience at Texas State.

“All the research that we do transitions throughout the educational experience that I and my students provide,” he says. “Our work has enabled us to create a genetics course that has undergraduates completing DNA sequencing and DNA sequence analysis to identify unknown samples. They conduct the same work that you see on ‘CSI.’”

In Forstner’s words, his work is rooted “right there where undergraduates are,” stemming from his own undergraduate experience at Texas State under the guidance of Dr. Mary Alexander. Her foundational studies in radiation-caused mutagenesis informed subsequent research on the study of cancer. The Alexander-Stone Chair of Genetics, which Forstner has held since 2008, bears her name.

“What she taught me then enabled the work that I did both at the graduate level and eventually in my job today,” he says. “All I seek is to pay it forward.”

Michael Forstner

Michael Forstner file

Michael Forstner, Professor of Biology, Alexander-Stone Chair of Genetics

Education: BS Zoology, Texas State University; MS Zoology, Sul Ross State University; PhD Genetics, Texas A&M University

He said it: “Texas’ landscape is 99 percent private land. All of the recovery efforts that we do in Texas will be based on finding partnerships that work for both the conservation of the species and the people who live on the land or use the land.”

On his students: “I have now and have had a remarkable group of students that have chosen to accept mentorship from me toward the goals of endangered species recovery; understanding natural systems; using genetics in answering questions that are critical to both understanding the evolution of those organisms and then applying how we can use that information to help guide management of those species.”

They said it: “He’s very tough; he pushes us; but he pushes us because he knows we can succeed. We can achieve what he is doing, and he’s always pushing us to see how far we can actually go. One of his favorite metaphors is, ‘I’ll kick you off the pier, and I’ll see if you sink or swim, and I won’t let you sink.’ If we need help, he’s there to help. He is making us better biologists.”

Melissa Jones, PhD student