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Back in business!

A warm welcome to all of our museum visitors! After what has felt like a lifetime, we are back and bursting with excitement, eager to share what we have been up to in the past 18 months. As you may have already noticed, there have been a number of changes in the vivarium gallery, along with a few new additions to the collection.

The work we do here at the viviarium is dedicated to three aspects; conservation, research and education. Through our collaborative conservation efforts we have successfully bred and reared a population of critically endangered harleguin frogs here at the museum.You can spot these in our brand new, high tech enclosure along with more information on our collaboration with Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity.

We have also developed a brand new research case which is designed to showcase the non-invasive research carried out by the vivarium team and students. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted some nocturnal tree frogs camouflaged against leaves, our vibrant strawberry poison frogs and some recently hatched tadpoles.

We have been busy working with a UK native species – the common glow worm. The common glow worm is naturally found in limestone environments across the UK but has been in decline over the past several decades. We have small number of glow worms that we will raise and breed in order to bolster the UK glow worm population.

We hope that the promotion of our conservation and research strategies will enable you to educate others with your new found knowledge of amphibian conservation!

Strength to Strength

Matt and I visited Chester Zoo recently and it was a real pleasure to catch up with staff there, including amphibian expert Adam Bland, and Jay Redbond, team manager of lower vertebrates and invertebrates. 

It’s been a while since we last visited, but I have to say the work being carried, and the standard of their public exhibits is wonderful – it just gets better and better. We heard that the captive bred Bermuda skinks and snails I saw last time have been re-introduced back to the Island, and the Mantella frog ex-situ research is potentially providing significant results.

Emerald Tree Boa at Chester Zoo 

The public exhibits relating to all the lower vertebrates and invertebrates, and fish, look absolutely amazing, including all those maintained in Islands. Other displays we were especially impressed with included those reinterpreted with the Tropical Realm, such as the large tropical exhibits that incorporates a mix of species, such as the large planted exhibit incorporating Emerald tree boas alongside Blue poison-dart frogs (pictured), just incredible.

Adam with Giant Asian Toad, Phrynoidis asper

Behind the scenes the conservation work is relentless too, and the captive breeding of species achievements are a real credit to the dedication of the whole team. Of note, we witnessed a group of healthy newly hatched Parsons Chameleons, which take years to hatch, and saw the large facilities provided for supporting the spectacular Giant Asian toads – the female of which was just huge!

I wish to congratulate all the team at Chester on their ongoing developments and conservation work, which is awesome. I am especially proud that Adam is making such a great contribution with the work he is doing and wish him a great trip to Costa Rica next month!


Friends in the field

Alex, Juan, Valeria and Matthew after a hard days field work © Alex Villegas

I’ve just returned from a last minute but brilliant trip to Costa Rica. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to conduct essential field work, sampling in the highlands of Braulio Carrillo National Park. After two years of cancelled trips and endless delays, this was an exciting chance to return and kickstart the work of our collaborative conservation project.

This trip was pulled together in quick order, we only had 5 weeks to plan the entire logistics and rearrange our expired permits, which is no mean feat. I can readily admit this would have been another missed opportunity if it weren’t for my dear friends and colleagues over in Costa Rica. Specifically, Juan Abarca and Alex Villegas, two great guys, who I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with for many years. I cannot stress just how pivotal they have both been over the last few weeks in pulling this entire endeavour together. Another special thank you must go to Valeria Aspinall, from Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation. Valeria is an early career herpetologist who was more than happy to muck in with us to help collect and filter some eDNA samples whilst introducing us to a new and exciting location.

Science and especially conservation is driven by collective endeavour, collaborations between a wide variety of people from within and outside of the scientific community. Yet every single person in that chain plays a vital role in the process of delivering the end result. It is important to highlight the immense work that goes into establishing, maintaining and resourcing these projects. Whilst at times it can be easy to focus on the end result, and forget what lengths you all had to go to just to get this process started. I will always remain grateful for all the support I have been given over the years.

I know they sacrificed a lot to help arrange this work, not just their time, and I will forever be indebted to them.

Till next time, Pura Vida my friends.

Matthew, Don Rafael and Juan Abarca on the Rio las Vueltas, Braulio Carrillo NP. © Alex Villegas

Toads and Tapirs

A Pint of Science

This coming Tuesday 10th of May, I will be presenting a talk titled – Filtering for frogs: the future of conservation at the Didsbury Sports Ground, Ford Lane, Manchester, M20 2RU. This is part of the international science festival Pint of Science 9-11th May 2022, an opportunity to learn about scientific research in your local pub/cafe setting.

The evening will also feature talks by Richard Smith (Head of Environmental Sustainability, The University of Manchester) titled: Decarbonising Campus: fishing for zero without a net; and Dr Ronnie Cowl (Reproductive Biology Coordinator, Chester Zoo and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) titled: Animal Sex: the good the bad and the ugly.

Tickets are £5, and can be purchased by following this link

My talk will focus on my PhD research and will feature some of our fantastic frogs from the museum:

The ecological emergency is causing extinction events across the board. Frogs are often described as the canaries in the coal mine, the early warning that the wider ecosystems are on the brink of collapse.

The last few decades have seen alarming declines in amphibian populations across the globe. Driven by a toxic cocktail of factors including; climate change, habitat loss and disease, many species have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The amphibians of Central America have been especially impacted with many iconic species missing and thought to be extinct. However, in recent years some rare frogs have been found clinging on in remote regions, offering conservationists a chance to protect them. This collaborative PhD is building upon the amphibian conservation work of Manchester Museum and the pioneering efforts of the University of Salford’s Molecular Ecology Group.

The focus of this research is addressing the urgent need to discover, identify and protect these rare animals by refining methodologies and field testing applications of environmental DNA (eDNA) research. This non-invasive method works primarily by capturing the traces of DNA left by organisms in water, which can accurately paint a picture of the biodiversity within a given site. Therefore, eDNA metabarcoding has the potential to scale amphibian monitoring projects to cover larger areas by training citizen scientists, processing hundreds of samples and quickly accessing remote and inaccessible locations. With limited resources for amphibian conservation, producing large amounts of data and utilising bioinformatics is key to accurately informing conservation interventions

Ruby Tingle: Lagoons

Audio visual artist and performer Ruby Tingle is presenting her new work at the Warrington Museum & Art Gallery from the end of this month. Ruby’s practice is primarily concerned with the reconstruction of familiar forms to present and document the extraordinary as authentic. She is an award winning multidisciplinary artist working with progressive electronica in Manchester, represented by No Such Thing Records and PAPER Gallery Manchester. She is also one half of cinematic bass act Dirty Freud with whom she performed and headlined stages at Glastonbury.

Ruby is also releasing her first solo EP Lagoons, on No Such Thing Records, in conjunction with her public gallery exhibition at Warrington Museum. The tracks are inspired by the Museum’s collection of amphibians and reptiles, and the artist’s lifelong connection with these animals throughout her own emotional experiences. Her music mixes natural sound processes and high range celestial vocals to compose original and dreamy, experimental “music from the swamp”.

Ruby’s exhibition runs from Saturday 23rd April to Sunday 26th Jun, 2022, and we are pleased to be supporting the opening of the exhibition with some family-focused engagement sessions delivered by Matt, which will include an opportunity to see first-hand a selection of live amphibians and reptiles from Manchester Museum’s Vivarium:


Ruby Tingle: Lagoons

Panama Project

Here is Dr Eric Flores explaining more about our collaborative project with the Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity (PWCC). Harlequin toads are one of the most highly endangered groups of amphibians on the planet. The population of Atelopus varius from Santa Fe are unique and only occur in Panama. If you would you like to support the work of PWCC you can Donate Here.

British Science Week

In support of British Science Week we are pleased to highlight the many ways Manchester Museum and others at the University of Manchester are involved in


Some good news for the Frosted Flatwoods Salamander

This adorable amphibian is a Frosted Flatwoods Salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum). Listed under the US Endangered Species Act as ‘Threatened’ in 1999, populations since then have declined by 90% and now the salamander faces imminent extinction.

The Frosted Flatwoods Salamander in the Southeastern United States is a mysterious species that spends almost its entirely life in secrecy underground. Most people have never seen, or have even heard of this amphibian, and yet it is facing extinction — primarily due to habitat loss, climate change, and fire suppression (yes, these salamanders are fire-dependent!)

A Frosted Flatwoods Salamander from the world’s only captive colony in Atlanta, GA USA at the Amphibian Foundation.

In 2014, a US federal Recovery Team for the species determined that the salamander was at such risk, a captive assurance colony needed to be established to ensure the species could be safeguarded in captivity, while conservation and restoration measures could be employed in the field. Staff at the Amphibian Foundation (AF) were tasked with developing husbandry protocols that could be used to keep the species alive in captivity, while working within a larger group of conservation partners working on other aspects of the salamander’s recovery (Such as US Fish & Wildlife, US Geological Survey, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Florida Fish & Wildlife, San Antonio Zoo’s Center for Conservation Research, Virginia Tech, and others). At that time, the goal for AF was merely to maintain a genetic repository for Frosted Flatwoods Salamanders, given their precipitous decline in the wild.

Over the next few years, AF focused on building a captive colony, although animals were so rare and difficult to detect, that the first few years yielded less than a handful of animals. Partners in the field from their last known habitats, such as US Army Biologists at Fort Stewart, GA USA and Florida Fish and Wildlife began monitoring the drought conditions in the southeast, and alerted staff at the Foundation when eggs were drying in the field, or when wetlands were drying out too quickly, and the larvae would not have time to metamorphose. These rescue missions supplied the majority of the founding stock for the captive colony.

In 2017, AF had completed the Amphibian Research and Conservation Center, which is an outdoor laboratory with 33 artificial and experimentally controllable wetlands called mesocosms. The mesocosms hold many breeding groups of Flatwoods Salamanders as well as other native imperiled amphibian species. While we have had reproductive behavior and some encouraging results (e.g. spermatophore deposition) no eggs have been laid in the mesocosms, and the breeding season is currently ending. Maybe next year!?

The biosecure Salamander Lab at the Amphibian Foundation, including the ‘indoor mesocosm’ (left) and 3 ‘ecotonal rainchambers’ (right)

While the majority of the captive colony is housed in the outdoor mesocosms, there are some salamanders which have been lab-reared for indoor captive spawning experiments. In 2020, we introduced 12 larval Frosted Flatwoods Salamanders into the indoor mesocosm (pictured above) so they could complete metamorphosis in the indoor habitat which was modeled after their native Longleaf Pine ecosystem. The mesocosm contains vegetation from their breeding microhabitat, including plants that the species is known to nest under. We introduced them as larvae because certain Ambystoma exhibit site fidelity, meaning they return to their natal pond each year to breed. Certain congenic salamanders imprint on their natal wetland at metamorphosis, and so we considered this when developing our conservation strategy.

What you are seeing here are the first eggs ever produced in captivity for the Frosted Flatwoods Salamander — an imperiled species considered at imminent risk of extinction. These eggs were produced by the salamanders in an ecotonal rainchamber at the Amphibian Foundation.

Another group of lab-reared Frosted Flatwoods Salamanders were raised individually and carefully monitored (monthly weights and measurements and veterinary inspections). In the fall of 2021, some of the salamanders were exhibiting secondary sexual characteristics and so were placed carefully into ecotonal rainchambers, which is a breeding environment developed at the Amphibian Foundation to encourage spawning of salamanders which naturally nest in the ecotone, or the graduation between the wetland and the upland. For species that nest in the ecotone, only significant rain events fill the ponds high enough to reach the eggs, and this maximizes the chances that the wetland will hold water long enough for the larvae to complete metamorphosis.

It was this third strategy (individually lab-reared salamanders, introduced in breeding condition to the rainchambers) which paid off first. 6 weeks after they were introduced, we detected eggs in the rainchamber — and they looked good! We were thrilled to witness this as we have been focused on this species for many years, and have finally produced some captive offspring. About a month later, a second group produced eggs in another rainchamber, and weeks after that — eggs in the indoor mesocosm!!

That’s 3 breeding groups of salamanders in two distinct spawning strategies that produced eggs. We are beyond excited and have immediately begun the next phase, as established by the Recovery Team in 2014, which is to identify partner organizations who would like to work with us to build up the numbers of Frosted Flatwoods Salamanders produced in captivity, which will greatly increase our chances to successfully reestablish them into protected habitat in the wild.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a little good news with you all!!!

For the amphibians,

Executive Director, Amphibian Foundation

A Frosted Flatwoods Salamander embryo hatches in a single drop of water.

Ecocide in Peru

January 20: Cleanup effort (Photo by Klebher Vasquez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On January 15th Peru suffered a catastrophic oil spill, affecting over 44km of coastline considered a marine biodiversity hotspot near Lima. The spill came after abnormally large waves, following the Tonga volcano eruption, resulted in a tanker spilling 264,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean whilst offloading to La Pampilla oil refinery, run by Spanish energy company Repsol.

Repsol initially massively misrepresented the extent of the spill, first reporting the spill involved less than 1 barrel before updating the figure to over 10,000, after the government’s own estimate indicated the spill to be around 11,900 barrels.

The immediate consequences of the spill were visible as hundreds of marine animals, including Humboldt penguins, sea lions, dolphins and marine otters washed ashore covered in oil. Harrowing images and videos are circulating on social media of desperate animals struggling to remove oil from their feathers and pelts.

January 18: A bird covered in oil (Photo by REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)

As horrendous as the initial impact has been, the devastation of the spill is expected to remain for decades to come, as the area will be contaminated with heavy metals. The presence of these contaminants will prevent hundreds of local Peruvians from earning a living, as fish and marine invertebrates are deemed inedible. Wildlife that ingests the contaminants will often die from gastrointestinal and respiratory system damage.

Many species that rely on their pelts or feathers for warmth can quickly succumb to hypothermia as the oil prevents insulation. To make matters worse, there are no official animal rescue facilities located near the Peruvian coastline affected by the spill, making the rescue of the distressed wildlife extremely difficult, and impossible for many cases. In the last week, experts have declared the local extinction of the marine otter, an endangered and protected species.

Justice for the lost lives- Protestors at the refinery (Photo by Pilar Olivares)

Despite public protests and pressure from the government, two weeks on, Repsol are still taking minimal action or responsibility and are still unable to provide assurances that they could deal with a spill if another were to occur in the future. As of Thursday 3rd February a Repsol representative declared that they their cleanup team had cleaned 33% of the oil spilled and that the Peruvian coastline would be in an acceptable situation in March.

If anything is clear though, it is that Repsols idea of an acceptable situation is hugely different to that of Peru’s people and wildlife, who will feel the impact of this disaster long after Repsol has declared the spill rectified and who know that an acceptable situation will not be regained for years to come.

Disgraceful disaster – 2016 Peru oil spill

Who is responsible for the spill?

View of a Veterinary Zootechnician

My student experience at COP26

Climate protest outside Town Hall

Hi everyone! I’m Alice, a Biology student at the University of Sheffield and a volunteer at the Vivarium in my spare time. This year, I was chosen by the Students Union to participate in the events and workshops surrounding the Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. This was an exciting opportunity for me as I have never participated in a climate movement or even travelled to Glasgow!

Every workshop and seminar were orientated around the social change individuals wanted to see in order to tackle the climate change crisis. This involved several speakers from across the globe collaborating in a discussion on these topics.

My favourite talk was on indigenous rights and how our perception of them has changed through time, which involved a panel discussing their perspectives from different regions across the globe. I also really enjoyed a workshop around the issues with urban developments and the pressures they have put on the environment. This involved collaborating to discuss issues within our own cities and what we could do to help change it.

The most noteworthy conversation I had was with an individual from Glasgow, who described the catastrophic problem of urban pollution and how it is leading to poor human health amongst urban dwellers. This individual was passionate and eager to improve urban health by creating transport free zones within the inner city. Hearing about the changes that individuals are driving within their cities really inspired me to promote change within my own community.

Supporting the climate movement with my peers

After attending COP26, I realised how important it is that we all work together to tackle the common problem of climate change and that raising awareness is a key component in achieving this. This led to me signing up for a leadership role within the Students Union working with children and developing classroom sessions on sustainability.

This is something of which I feel like the curriculum fails to cover and needs to be addressed and as a result, I am in the process of planning classroom sessions which shed a light on the current climate issue and what we can do about it. I feel that this will be an effective way to spread the word regarding the issue by directing information towards the next generation.

Overall, I had the most incredible time in Glasgow, networking with likeminded people and discussing the changes that we wish to see in current policy. I made some unforgettable memories which I wouldn’t have been able to do without the support from both the team at the vivarium as well as my close family and friends.

COP 21 – the time is now