Submitted/Rafe Brown

Rafe Brown, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, does extensive field research in the Philippines. Above, Brown, far right, is pictured with students, from left, Anthony Barley, Perry Buenavente, Allison Fuiten, Pete Hosner and Luke Welton in Central Luzon, north of Manila.

Campus Closeup

Rafe M. Brown, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator-in-charge, Herpetology Division, Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute

Years at current job: Five

Job duties: As a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, my job is a combination of teaching KU undergraduates and graduate students (primarily herpetology and biogeography), research and service-related duties. As a curator of herpetology in the Biodiversity Institute, my duties include caring for and overseeing organization and research administration of the museum’s 330,000 specimens of amphibians and reptiles.

What’s one thing that would surprise people about your work? Discovering, describing and studying biodiversity is a continual process that goes on every day in the back rooms, basements and labs of universities and museums around the world. When people hear how many new species we discover and name every year they are often shocked and ask questions like, “Why didn’t I hear about this in the newspapers or on TV?” Often, the new species discovered to science are relatively small animals that are not attention grabbing, but occasionally we find something newsworthy, such as a brightly colored monitor lizard as large as a human. Understandably, media attention goes to the most spectacular stories, but, still, many of the little, inconspicuous discoveries often turn out to be the most interesting. In reality, the science of biodiversity discovery is a continual, cumulative exercise that has gone on for 400 years, since the days of Carolus Linnaeus, the scientist who developed our current system of classifying life on Earth.

What drew you to perform research in the Philippines and your work in preserving the biodiversity of Southeast Asia? I have always loved amphibians and reptiles and spent most of my childhood snake hunting in southern Ohio. When I was 18 and debating whether I should apply to college or take a year off and travel to Indonesia, my mom told me to be sure that I did not “let college interfere with my education.” That was the best advice I could have gotten because I traveled around Indonesia for a few months and fell in love with island archipelagos. In island systems, the patterns and processes of evolution are incredibly transparent and plainly obvious to any observer willing to take a second look. This is so much so that humanity’s greatest idea — the theory of evolution by natural selection — became inescapably apparent to Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin after they visited island archipelagos. The Philippines appealed to me because it is a global conservation “hotspot” and one of the world’s most megadiverse nations. The country is barely the size of Arizona but houses more species of frogs than all of North America. It’s amazing!

What would you say is the most interesting and/or unique creature you’ve come across in your field research?That is a difficult question because there have been so many highlights. My colleagues and I have discovered nearly 100 new species of amphibians and reptiles in the last decade, and each one gets its own “Eureka!” at the moment of discovery. Discovering a new, six-foot, outrageously colored monitor lizard (related to Komodo dragons) last year was thrilling. But overall, I think I am most amazed at the findings concerning Philippine forest frogs. These are small, drab, brown frogs that previously were considered pretty boring. They live on the forest floor and are throughout the archipelago. When I first went to the Philippines there were seven known species. Today we have increased that number to 28. Currently, we have 40 new species awaiting description. Most of the species cannot be distinguished on the basis of their appearance; the only way to tell them apart is by genetic analysis and by listening to their mating calls. It’s overwhelming. Just coming up with 40 new scientific names has been a challenge.

You also curate the collection of amphibians and reptiles in the Division of Herpetology. What does a collection such as this add to the scholarship at KU? The herpetological collections at KU are an incredible, absolutely priceless, immensely valuable research and conservation resource. The science of collections management (caring for the physical well-being of preserved biological specimens) is well-developed, and our constant use of the specimens for research purposes means that we are continually juggling concerns over long-term preservation of the specimens and how to maximize their research potential. That said, I think one thing in particular that I think might surprise the average KU student is the following: KU has the world’s largest collection of amphibians and reptiles from Central and South America. This means that literally every scientist, educator, biodiversity specialist, conservationist or herp enthusiast who is interested in neotropical frogs, toads, lizards, snakes or turtles knows KU, has visited KU to work in the collections or will soon visit KU to see the research material.

This all may sound like seriously nerdy science geek banter, but we are actually talking about a very large community of specialists who rely on KU every day for the “bread and butter” of what they do for a living. As a result, we receive hundreds of specimen loan requests, data requests and requests to visit the collection every year. It is a huge operation of immense global significance and some days our job feels like we are managing the of amphibian and reptile biodiversity. Literally anybody who is anybody in herpetology has to visit KU at one or more times in his or her career. It’s a humbling experience to be part of this tradition.

Campus closeup
Rafe Brown, herpetology, Natural History Museum curator
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