From Childhood Passion to Amphibian Scientist

Are you fascinated by amphibians? Are you curious about what a career conserving frogs might be like, and how you can get involved in saving the world’s amphibian species?

Blake Klocke is a PhD candidate at George Mason University studying amphibian conservation biology. He also works on projects at the genetics lab at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC., where he screens frogs and salamanders for chytrid fungal diseases which are currently devastating these species globally.

Blake also does work on reintroductions of frogs that have gone extinct in the wild in Panama through the Smithsonian Tropical Biology Institute. 

In this interview Blake shares insights into working with endangered amphibians, how you can get involved and why there’s still hope for the world’s amphibians.

Why do you work in conservation?

I work in conservation because I’ve always been interested in wildlife. As a kid, I was always looking at field guides, at books of animals. At a young age, I became interested in amphibians.

It was in kindergarten or slightly before then, that the Minnesota Zoo had an exhibit on amphibian declines. They had eggs and tadpoles and so many different amphibian species that I had never seen.

Finding out about the Amphibian Ark and keeping these amphibians in captivity was something that appealed to me. The Amphibian Ark is a partnership among the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, IUCN, and the Amphibian Survival Alliance. It aims to avoid amphibian extinctions by bringing threatened species into captivity for captive breeding when it’s clear no other option is available to conserve the species in the wild. That’s why I’m currently working on finishing this PhD. I also work with reintroductions and lab research.

Atelopus certus in a holding cage in the Panama Amphibian Ark. Credit: Brian Gratwicke from DC, USA, via Wikimedia Commons.

What are your main activities in your current role?

In addition to my studies I work with Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientist, Brian Gratwicke, and I have completed various projects at the National Zoo and in Panama at the Smithsonian Tropical Biology Institute. 

At the zoo, I have screened salamanders in pet collections in the United States for two species of chytrid fungus known to infect amphibians. I have also screened salamanders in the zoo collection. I have worked closely with our team at the , part of the Smithsonian Tropical Biology Institute, towards their mission in preventing amphibian extinction in Panama.

Most recently, I have helped our team with three reintroduction trials of captive bred Harlequin frogs in Panama, with the goal of learning how we can return these species back to the wild.

What is the best part of your job?

I feel fortunate because I get to do what I love every day working with amphibians and captive husbandry. 

Being able to do your part to help, I feel, it’s rare. I think there’s lots of people on this planet that would love to work in conservation. I’m extremely grateful to be able to work on something that I’m so passionate about.

What are your least favourite parts of your job?

Being a student is challenging. There are a lot of stressors right now with COVID-19. I’m in a transitional spot in my career.

My least favourite part, I guess, would be data analysis. I really enjoy working in the field and with animals. Crunching the numbers is not my favourite part.

Data crunching and being able to do statistics is important in science if the route you want to take is publishing, academic, peer-reviewed literature. That’s something I feel that’s not talked about very often in the career of biologist or conservation scientist. 

Atelopus zeteki mating. Credit: Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What steps have your taken in your career to get where you are now?

In entry-level English class, my professor was an environmentalist. I had to write about an issue and National Geographic had an article about amphibian declines. I wrote on that and ended up finding a link to the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Amphibian Project that had a volunteer program. 

I kept that dream in my pocket a couple of years. I kept on working with amphibians in captivity and reading pretty much every peer-reviewed paper I could find on the topic. 

Being a first-generation college student and growing up below the federal poverty level, I worked in food vendor trucks around the State of Minnesota. That’s how I paid for my tuition.

Between my junior and senior year, I knew this was when I had to go to Panama. One of my academic advisors asked if I had considered the Ronald E. McNair program, an opportunity for undergraduates that are likely to pursue a PhD from under-represented backgrounds. They provided me with a stipend. 

When I got to Panama, I was taking care of frogs every day. I really excelled in that and the people at the Smithsonian Tropical Biology Institute were impressed by my skills. 

While I was in Panama in 2013, Brian Gratewicke from the National Zoo was down for a couple weeks. I introduced myself. He took me out in the field a few times and we went to locations where Panamanian Golden Frogs used to live, which are now extinct. We went to another location, where we were able to find a Limosa Harlequin Frog and they’re Critically Endangered. 

Brian asked me if I wanted to do a PhD after I finished my last year of undergrad. That’s how I came to Washington, DC, and George Mason University. I’ve been working on that PhD ever since.

Panamanian Golden Frog. Credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Copyright: Smithsonian Institution, All Rights Reserved.

What advice would you give to people who are on a similar path?

Those in undergrad, try to learn as much as possible during your undergraduate career and just be a sponge to soak up all that knowledge. Read as much peer-reviewed literature as you can in a topic that you’re interested in and connect with people in your field who are prominent. Ask them, “Hey, what can I do? Is there a possible way that I could volunteer or intern?”

I think, for younger people, find a mentor, whether it’s an academic advisor or just somebody in the field.

If you have been working, skills from all sorts of careers are needed. You need people that are skilled with social media, financial stuff, planning, outreach. Writers are important, cinematographers, photographers. One of the most important things in conservation that I’ve learned is that your story is important. 

Atelopus zeteki. Credit: TimVickers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Can we save the world’s amphibians and what do we have to do?

Currently, just about 40% of amphibians are threatened with extinction. The IUCN Red List is going to be updated within the next year or so and that number may go up. Chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease, has spread around the globe infecting more than 700 species and causing about 100 amphibian extinctions. 

I think there is also hope. A lot of species of amphibians thought to be extinct have been rediscovered in recent years. This has happened with a lot of Harlequin frogs that have been recently found again after not being seen for decades.

As science advances, there’s more hope to be able to maintain amphibian biodiversity. We are better at mitigating amphibian diseases, and we just need more surveys and more funding to act at the scale required.

I don’t think every bit of amphibian biodiversity on the planet right now can be conserved. The rate of deforestation and habitat degradation is a bit too high and there are emerging infectious diseases like a chytrid fungus affecting salamanders. But you must do something. You can’t just be all doom and gloom. 

For more amphibian conservation optimism, learn about vanishing salamanders that found refuge in a convent, how Critically Endangered Limosa Harlequin frogs were released wearing mini radio transmitters, and proactive frog conservation in Panama.

You can also check out this podcast with Dr Kerry Kriger of SAVE THE FROGS!


Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Scientist