Shawn McCracken is on Top of the World
In case you’re wondering, they’re bees. But they’re licking sweat, not stinging. And they only occasionally nibble their host, rainforest researcher and Texas State doctoral student Shawn McCracken.
Being an item on the local insects’ lunchtime buffet is all in a day’s work for McCracken. To conduct his research on amphibians living in giant plants that hold pools of water in Ecuador’s rainforest, one of the most biodiverse locations on the planet, he has had to endure worse conditions.
“I have become very good at finding that Zen place in my mind when working up in the trees,” McCracken says. “Add being attacked by ants and wasps, storms that shake a 150-foot tree three to five feet horizontally, and the accompanying torrential rain that makes a rope very slick to descend to the ground on and limits almost all visibility. This is not staged field biology, like in the movies or on television. It’s real, it’s hard, it’s intense, and I wouldn’t do anything else.”
His Grant This biologist is a student in Texas State’s new aquatic resources doctoral program, which emphasizes original research. His research proposal, “Vertical Stratification and Ecological Niche Partitioning of Amphibians and Arthropods in Rainforest Canopies of Amazonian Ecuador,” earned him a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation in 2009.
The fellowship, the fourth of its type received by a Texas State student, will provide McCracken with $131,500, paid out over three years, to conduct his research on the reasons behind the world’s declining amphibian population.
His research centers on the fauna found in epiphytic tank bromeliads, large plants that rise high into the rainforest canopy and hold large volumes of water between their leaves. Within these plants lives a diverse community of animals, including frogs, lizards and insects. McCracken is investigating these animal communities, about which little is known, to determine how different forest types and disturbances affect their diversity and density.
“The rainforest canopy is literally a wetlands in the sky,” McCracken says. “It is one of the most species-rich habitats on Earth, supporting about 40 percent of known living species. The loss of this habitat and its inhabitants virtually goes unnoticed because we know so little about it, and we have never had access to it. With modern equipment and a lot of hard work, we can climb into the canopy to collect data and document what is up there.”
McCracken climbs up into the canopy as part of his required doctoral research, but even more so because it has become his passion.
TADPOLE In 1999, while still an undergraduate biology student at Texas State, McCracken founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Amazon’s amphibian species. The organization is called TADPOLE, Tropical Amphibian Distribution and Population for Life-Saving Efforts.
“I knew I wanted to work with amphibians in the Amazon and wanted to help raise awareness of the plight of amphibians and the destruction of the Amazon rainforests,” McCracken says. “In 1997, my wife, Bejat, and I took a trip to South America so we could see it for ourselves. We backpacked around for several months and loved it. Our time spent in the Amazon of Peru and Ecuador was just amazing, and I knew this was where I wanted to do my work. At that point, the best thing I could do to help the situation (amphibian decline and Amazon destruction) and get back to this place I loved was to start TADPOLE.”
Most of TADPOLE’s work is funded by private donations, with a few small grants. McCracken hopes that obtaining his doctorate and continuing to publish his research findings will give TADPOLE the credentials it needs to bring in significant grants that will fund the organization’s initiatives.
“Our goal is to establish a network of field sites where long-term monitoring of amphibians can be performed to document their diversity and abundance, and determine if declines are occurring and what might be causing them,” he says.
Results of His Efforts The causes McCracken has uncovered so far all lead back to humans’ consumption and pollution of natural resources that lead to habitat destruction. He cites a National Geographic article from January 2009 that predicts the Amazon rainforest could disappear by the end of the century.
“Ecuador is said to have the highest deforestation rate and worst environmental record in South America,” McCracken says. “This can be primarily attributed to oil exploration and extraction, logging and road building, most of which is done by foreign companies.”
McCracken and TADPOLE were part of an international coalition of environmental groups and scientists that stopped one oil company’s plans to build an oil access road that would have led to more deforestation in the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador.
Another success McCracken has had as a result of his research has been the discovery of two new species of amphibians. He collaborated with biologists from Ecuador to describe the first species, and he gets to name the second one. He is planning on naming it after the native inhabitants of the Amazon, the Waorani.
The Best Part of the Job Discoveries are what McCracken loves most about his work. “The most exciting part is when I get to observe something new and wonder about it,” he says. “Whether it is a new species of frog or the behavior of a toad doing something I’ve never seen, heard or read about, I feel responsible to try and figure out why it’s never been seen or reported and why it lives where it does and behaves that way – formulating the hypothesis!”
While his discoveries may give him a rush of adrenaline, McCracken also savors the “quieter” moments during his research. “I love it the most when I am looking for frogs 120 feet up in the rainforest canopy, hanging from a rope in the middle of nowhere, and monkeys are cruising by me staring and screaming,” he says. “They eventually settle down and go on about their business of eating, grooming or playing, with the occasional curious glance my way. I think they realize there’s nothing to worry about; I am helpless and harmless.
“When I am up in the canopy, I look around and realize how little we know and understand on this rock in the universe we call home. To be one of the few people who get to have these sorts of experiences, I realize how lucky I am to get to do what I do.”