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VVC Students discover 10 new species

November 2, 2009 - [ read the article at VVDailyPress.com ]

Photograph of VVC Professor Hinrich Kaiser and three students looking over their specimens from East Timor

A group of Victor Valley College students spent three weeks in Southeast Asia navigating unfamiliar terrain, handling scaly and slimy creatures and braving scorpion and bee stings in the name of research.

 They sifted through piles of rocks and tide pools, trod across rice paddies and waded through tropical forests in search of amphibians and reptiles to capture and preserve.

 The fruits of their labor: Identifying 10 new species and collaborating on publications for peer-reviewed journals as community college students.

 The effort was a summer research trip led by VVC biology instructor Dr. Hinrich Kaiser, who worked with East Timor's leaders, university and diplomats to coordinate the groundbreaking project in Asia's youngest country.

 "You hear about research all the time, but you don't really know what it entails," said VVC student Caitlin Sanchez, 25. "It's satisfying when you've done all this work ... and find out you have found a new species.

It's so exciting."

Altogether they brought back about 180 specimens of amphibians and reptiles, including what they believe to be seven new species of skinks, or lizards, two new species of rice paddy frogs and one new species of bent-toed gecko, according to Kaiser, though official confirmations will take some time. 

Sanchez and two other students continue to spend about five hours a week in a VVC lab recording data about the measurements and features of the animals, which the group euthanized and preserved before returning to the United States.

 "When you do a specimen identification it's almost like a court case," Kaiser said. "You have to put together a set of arguments that everyone would accept, and if they all looked at it independently they would come up with the same conclusion."

 East Timor, which achieved its independence from Indonesia in 2002, is the easternmost of the Lesser Sundra Islands and about 400 miles northwest of Darwin, Australia.

 The country encompasses about 5,400 square miles with a population of about 1 million people.

Because the fledgling country sits at the point where Southeast Asian, Papuan and Australian plants and wildlife overlap, it's home to a treasure trove of specimens for field biologists.

 "It's like a grab bag," said VVC student Scott Heacox, 19. "You don't know what you're going to get."

 Joined by three Timorese university students, the local biology enthusiasts spent each morning in East Timor strategizing the day's hunts, what they called "herping" based on herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. Their herping arsenal included stump rippers, long poles with hooked ends for pulling up rocks and other obstacles; blow guns for shooting plastic plugs to knock creatures out of trees; and travel-size first aid kits, which came in handy when several explorers -- including Kaiser -- got stung by scorpions along their journeys.

 When they returned from herping they preserved the creatures in makeshift labs and made initial identification attempts.

 They tried to collect four of five of the same species, then released any other similar catches.

 "Really when we're in the field, we just do the best we can, but the real identification comes later on when you send it off to the labs and so some real tissue sample analysis," Heacox said.

 Their Timorese colleagues were especially resourceful and agile, the VVC students said, from shimmying their way up tall tree trunks to capture a lizard to hunting for fish with machetes in tide pools and frying them up for dinner.

 Once a few students found a tree viper snake among a field of rice paddies but didn't have their usual equipment, so VVC student Jester Ceballos, 20, improvised by wrapping the reptile in his hooded sweatshirt.

 The tropical environment was a bit of a culture shock for VVC students, many of which had hardly traveled outside North America and never to such an impoverished and under-developed country.

 Their accommodations ranged from bamboo huts with concrete floors to simple guest houses, often getting by without electricity or indoor plumbing.

 "But it was so beautiful," Sanchez said of the green, lush country.

The effort has led to Kaiser's invitation to become a visiting professor at the national university, UNTL, and nomination to become a research associate of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, which would allow him access to a wealth of research and bolster his credibility for future field work.

 East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta -- who met with the VVC students at his presidential palace -- was so pleased with Kaiser's project he had a thank-you letter hand-delivered to the United Nations conference in New York, which was later mailed to Kaiser.

 The students describe the research effort as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that's preparing them for future studies.

 Sanchez, of Hesperia, recently got accepted into University of California, Riverside, where she wants to major in biology. Ceballos plans to transfer to UC Los Angeles, UC Irvine or UC Riverside and major in biochemistry.

 And Heacox, of Apple Valley, may divide his studies between biology and art, with a desire to attend Humboldt University.

 They may miss the gritty field work already, but they hope to go back to East Timor for two weeks this winter to further their firsthand research -- an expedition they don't want to miss.

 As Ceballos put it, "I couldn't pass this up."