Interview with Curator Christopher Raxworthy

Part of the Frogs: A Chorus of Colors exhibition.

Herpetologist Christopher Raxworthy is the lead curator of Frogs: A Chorus of Colors and the associate dean of science for education and exhibition at the Museum. 

1. Why do you like herpetology? What is your interest in this particular subject?

I've been interested in herpetology since I was a little boy. At four years old I was drawing pictures of frogs and toads and newts and salamanders, but if you ask a four-year-old why you like these animals, I don't think you'd get a very detailed response, and the truth is that even now I can't really tell you why. It's like such a sort of a natural passion. They're just really cool, interesting animals, and I just have a natural curiosity—I'm always driven to want to find out more about them. That's, I think, the "why" question.

2. Did you admire any scientists while you were growing up?

I've always loved science, in terms of thinking about questions, how is it something works, why is something this way, but probably the most powerful person growing up that I came across was Charles Darwin. So you know, thinking about natural selection: we're taught it in schools, or university, so hopefully it's all very intuitive and obvious, and yet when you understand the fact that people in Charles Darwin's time had a very completely different perspective about how the diversity of life on Earth developed, and where it came from, it's really awe-inspiring to think that these are the first people who came up with this very creative new perspective. That had an impression on me. But something else that I think is a very interesting point is when I was growing up, I always thought that I was sort of perhaps born in the wrong time, that the age of discovery was over— that all the exotic parts of the world had been heavily explored, all the animals had been found and described. And thinking, wow, wouldn't it have been great to have been born 200 or 300 years ago. Of course when I finally got the chance to do research myself, I realized how little we still know about the world. There are still all sorts of exciting unexplored parts of the world to go to, and most of the interesting questions that you can start probing or asking about animals and plants are still unanswered. In fact one of the messages I'd like to get across to younger people is, you might get the impression we have this tremendous knowledge base, but any kind of inquisitiveness and interest that you have, you're going to find that you can make a big contribution in that area, there's still so much more to discover. So don't think about the world these days as overstudied. It's anything but overstudied.

3. What exhibitions have you worked on here at the Museum?

I've worked on the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. There's one frog that is featured in that hall that lives in brackish water, and I was also involved in the models of sea snakes and the sea turtles in that hall. And with sea snakes it's really fun—these are underwater snakes that most people aren't  familiar with, and of course the sea turtles, they're so interesting and cool anyway that they always seem to have a big appeal. More recently I have provided content on reptiles in Madagascar for our Climate Change exhibition and contributed herpetological information to our Natural Histories exhibition (opening October 2013) on scientific illustration.

4. What do you enjoy most about being a scientist here at the Museum? What do you enjoy most about the Museum itself?

I think the most enjoyable part about being a researcher at the Museum is just that wonderful climate every day when you come in to work and you think, wow, how lucky I am to be here? This is like a dream job. You always have that excitement, you're never quite sure how the day's going to work out. Some of the days might be dealing with predictable things, but then you can get phone calls or people asking questions or an issue comes up, or you might get an email from say, Madagascar, from one of your students overseas. Then of course there's research involved, so I'm allowed to ask general questions and that means writing, and analyzing data, and designing experiments, and observing. So it's a very dynamic, fluid environment. And of course it's also great to be surrounded by wonderful colleagues, people that are always there to either bounce ideas off or interact with, and also the Museum community, which is very supportive.

5. Tell us a bit about the research you do here. Why is it important to you?

The main value to me of research is when the research goes well, you have that satisfying feeling that, in an area you've identified, you're making some progress, you're getting some new insights. It gets back to that question about why are you doing science in the first place, and you have that natural curiousity and so you want to satisfy it. And you know when you're really doing good research work when you realize that you are actually satisfying your curiosity  Usually you answer one question that raises a whole bunch of new questions but that in itself is interesting and good. But I was particularly pleased recently when we were using computers and geographic information systems, old Museum records that date back more than 100 years, and very modern remote sensing stations online to bring all that information together and actually being able to tell an interesting story and get new perspectives about the distribution of reptiles in Madagascar. The reason that was of interest to me was that you could actually test the predictions that the computer was generating with real data, and get a feeling for how good we were at making predictions on the presence and absence of species. And it was also very satisfying. We got into the 88.1 percent ability of correct predictions. And what that offers, which was fully exciting to me, was the prospect that we could actually use this technology to help design better reserves in the future. So that means in terms of making conservation decisions where we could preserve [species], what forests do we pick, now we have a new emerging technology that could actually fasttrack our ability to come up with smarter conservation decisions. 

6. If people could take away just one important point about the Frogs exhibition, or about frogs in general, what would you want that to be?

I think it would be you probably knew a lot less about frogs coming into the exhibition than you know now, and the reason I say that is that most of us are familiar with local frogs. If you grew up in North America, or in any temperate area of the world, you'd be familiar with big, sort of green and brown frogs, and they go into ponds and lay eggs, and leave the eggs, and the eggs turn into tadpoles, and the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs. Which is absolutely true, but it's only a tiny fraction of what frogs really do, particularly in the tropics. So in the tropics frogs are smaller, they're often brightly colored, and they do all sorts of weird and wonderful things in terms of guarding their eggs, parental care, carrying tadpoles on their backs, laying eggs on their backs and absorbing them and the babies hatching out of their backs. They also can do some really bizarre things. There are some species where one of the parents will actually eat the eggs, and the eggs either develop in the stomach or in the vocal sacs, and then the adult actually spits up the babies. There are some frogs that don't have tadpoles: the baby frogs actually develop all contained within inside the eggs. And just the sheer diversity of forms of frogs as well: you get tiny things, you get hairy frogs, you get giant goliath frogs, you've got frogs that are in deserts, frogs that spend all their time up in trees. So there's so much more about frogs than most of us are aware of, and I'm really hoping that this exhibition will really open people's eyes to all this great diversity of lifestyles, life history, and body forms that actually exists out there.

7. What's your favorite fact about frogs and why?

That's a tough question, but I think probably one of the funnest facts about frogs is really the fact that there is this diversity of reproductive modes, and some of it is so weird and strange that it almost defies explanation. I was just watching some video footage of a frog giving birth to a baby frog, and there are some frogs which actually retain the eggs inside them, and the eggs are fertilized internally, and the eggs actually develop, a bit like a pregnancy in a mammal. Seeing this video clip of a frog actually giving birth to a baby frog that was just absolutely mindblowing to me. It's something that as a biologist you might be familiar with seeing with mammals, but to see that with a frog, that was truly spectacular.