In search of amphibians3/19/09

CVU student travels the world researching frogs

March 19, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

In the hot and humid heat of South America, amongst the wild sounds of the jungle, Nicolas Arms said he feels right at home. Especially when creeping through the rain forest at night, flashlight in hand, looking for elusive tree frogs sitting on leaves and branches and listening for their familiar calls.


    Courtesy photo
Nicolas Arms, a Champlain Valley Union High senior from Williston, holds a rainbow boa while visiting the Peruvian rain forest in January. Arms spent a month cataloguing amphibians in a recently established forest reserve in the South American country. On Wednesday evening, Arms will present a photo-lecture of his studies at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library.  


    Courtesy photo
Nicolas Arms photographed the above tree frog, Hypsiboas geographicus, while cataloguing amphibians in Peru.  

“It’s a lot different than what you’d be doing in a forest in Vermont,” admits Arms, whose focus of study is on tropical amphibians.

The Williston resident and Champlain Valley Union High School senior spent four weeks in the Peruvian rain forest earlier this year, cataloguing and photographing amphibian diversity in the country’s recently established Santa Cruz Forest Reserve. On Wednesday, Arms will give a detailed presentation — including slides of some of his photographs — at 7 p.m. at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston.

Working with the nonprofit organization Project Amazonas, Arms joined scientists from around the country and students at the University of the Peruvian Amazon to learn about the biological wonders in this recently preserved tract of jungle.

“Basically, nothing was really known about Santa Cruz,” Arms said.

Some of the information Arms unearthed was startling, he said. He said he discovered several amphibians and frogs living in Santa Cruz that were believed to not exist in the remote corner of northeastern Peru. He also catalogued and photographed a few frogs that weren’t readily identifiable, though Arms wouldn’t go as far as saying he discovered a new species.

This wasn’t the first time the high school biologist has traveled outside the United States to study amphibians. Last year, he accompanied his classmates on a biology trip to Costa Rica, and he’s studied and photographed frogs in the rain forests of Australia. Some of his excursions were paid for through grants, nearly all of which he applied for on his own. He was awarded an Experimental Sciences Research Grant from the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007 and Youth Activity Fund grant from The Explorers Club in 2008.

“One thing just leads to another,” Arms said.

His photography skills have also earned him accolades. He was a semifinalist last year in the Youth Photography Contest sponsored by the British Broadcasting Corporation. For Arms, photography came naturally. He wanted a record of the animals he catalogued, which led to his interest in nature photography.

Arms’ love of frogs and photography began at a young age, when he was pulling up logs and underbrush in Vermont searching for critters. He said he used to keep snakes and frogs as pets and soon became interested in the science behind the animals. He credits CVU science teachers Dave Ely and Ken Martin for helping steer him in the right direction and earn important grants.

He also credits state herpetologist and amphibian expert Jim Andrews in becoming, in many ways, a mentor.

Andrews said Arms’ enthusiasm and knowledge would lead him on a career path where he will excel. Andrews said he’s impressed with Arms’ ability to network with leading amphibian biologists around the world.

“Nick is clearly a bright and capable and interested student,” Andrews said. “He’s got amazing self confidence.”

Arms, whose ultimate goal is to earn a Ph.D. in biology, hopes to continue his research by enrolling in a college or university specializing in amphibian research. He’s looking at colleges in the United States, but he’s also interested in a university in Australia near that country’s rain forests.

“I have to think about it, but I’ll probably end up there,” he said.

And Arms hopes to continue his travels in South America this summer. He’s looking at joining a biology expedition to the mountains of Colombia.

Arms said his work in Peru was vitally important and will continue to be so. Frog populations around the world are declining due to disease and climate change, he said. Also, much of the land surrounding the Peruvian forest reserve is not protected and could be cut down for farming and logging. Essentially, Santa Cruz could become an island of rainforest in a changing world, he said.

“It’ll be interesting to see what species will be left,” Arms said.