Miniature worlds: Poison dart frogs find home at ISU

October 1, 2013

In the midst of Indiana State University students rushing to environmental science class and professors teaching physics laws sits two small worlds of fish and frogs.

For Alan McCune, what started out as a curiosity in these worlds has grown into a much larger interest over the course of many years.

"I have a hobby background in aquariums that branched from being a kid winning a goldfish at the fair to being a teenager having a 20-gallon aquarium that was a Christmas present," McCune said. "And then as I grew older and had a little bit more money, I got into saltwater tanks."

Now, the junior earth and environmental sciences major from Silverwood, Ind., is using his skills to maintain the aquarium and terrarium located outside room 164 in the Science Building on Indiana State's campus.

Although similar in some ways, terrariums vary from aquariums in the fact that the worlds they contain are not completely submerged. However, they both use controlled environments in which the species within rely on "man-made life support" to survive.

"We have to provide support systems [for the creatures] because [Indiana] is not their natural environment," McCune said.

By the end of the fall semester, the newly renovated terrarium will house three species of poisonous dart frogs that are native to tropical forests such as those in Costa Rica. The frogs' brightly colored skin lets other species know of their deadly nature. However, the frogs in the terrarium at Indiana State will not be poisonous.

"Poison dart frogs get their poison from their environment, particularly from their food and possibly even from some of the plants they reside on," geology professor Tony Rathburn said. "We are not going to feed them anything that would cause them to be poisonous or expose them to anything in the tank that would cause them to be poisonous."

Instead, these frogs will eat wingless fruit flies, which are raised by McCune through a very specific process. The process was developed in part by recent earth sciences undergraduate James Hardy, who maintained the aquarium and terrarium before graduating and turning over the duties to McCune.

 

McCune uses a "powdered oatmeal-like media" that contains a mold inhibitor, as well as baker's yeast and boiling hot water to create the flies' food. This substance also serves as a place for the fruit flies to lay eggs. Two weeks later, the live flies become the frog's food. Because the frogs have to be fed regularly, he calls this the "most labor-intensive" part of his job.

 

"On average, every two weeks, I have to make a batch of fruit flies," McCune said. "And then daily we just sprinkle in some of the fruit flies in with the frogs and they just snap them up. You can actually hear their little tongues."

The aquarium and terrarium have been student-designed, student-built and student-maintained. However, plans to renovate labs and classrooms in the Science Building years ago forced Rathburn and his students to delay making changes and eventually to take the tanks apart.

"This is the second iteration of the terrarium and aquarium. In fact, we never got to the point where we added frogs in the terrarium because of this impending renovation that kept getting put off," Rathburn said.

The original aquarium and terrarium and newly constructed versions were both built by Brian Wrightsman, a 2007 geology graduate who came back to rebuild the habitats after renovation of the room the room's renovation. Like McCune he had a background in aquariums, but the world of terraria was something completely new for him.

"I had significant experience with saltwater aquaria and reef ecology, but I had not worked much with terraria," Wrightsman said. "But I was up for the challenge."

 

Both tanks started as bare glass enclosures, but Wrightsman brought life to the terrarium by adding a waterfall, a pond for smaller fish, and plants. Although Wrightsman now works as a geologist for Barrick Gold in Nevada, he still feels a strong connection to the progress and success of the terrarium.

"It is awesome to see my original vision and plans coming to fruition now with the addition of the frogs to the terrarium," he said. "I only wish that I could be there to see the little guys go in and explore their new habitat."

Rathburn said he has partnered with the science education program at Indiana State to teach future science teachers how to build and maintain aquariums and terrariums so that they can bring these smaller worlds into their classroom as well. Webcams will also be used so that teachers and students everywhere can pull up the frogs and fish on the Internet and create a virtual aquarium or terrarium in classroom. He will soon announce an adopt-a-frog program in which community members could name a frog and financially sponsor its food and maintenance.

 

Webcams are currently streaming live images from the aquarium at http://www.indstate.edu/ees/aquariumstream/index2.html.

"The purpose is basically for education and outreach and these frogs will hopefully generate interest, highlight the importance of preserving natural habitat for these types of creatures and provide awareness for environmental stewardship...not just locally but elsewhere as well," Rathburn said.

For McCune, this experience has raised his sense of environmental awareness. Calling the frogs and fish both "very susceptible" to environmental changes, he hopes when people see these "miniature earths" it causes them to also think about their own actions, from recycling to where they dump chemicals.

"I think my favorite maintaining the aquarium and terrarium is seeing how it brings joy to people," McCune said. "They are able to see the beauty of nature and get them thinking about the environment."

Many people have asked Rathburn why he did not choose to display an environment similar to that of Indiana.

"One of the reasons we chose a tropical environment is because students in the Midwest don't often get exposed to that type of environment," he said.

Rathburn said the terrarium and aquarium demonstrate the kind of research opportunities that the university can give students such as Wrightsman and McCune.

"We are working to get an awareness of these ecosystems to children and students in the area in hopes that they recognize that we do this kind of work here. It is possible to go to Indiana State University, become involved in environmental sciences and conduct undergraduate research in remote marine and tropical settings," he said. "Students at ISU can experience diverse and remote environments, and at the same time be involved with community outreach and make a difference, even as an undergrad."

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Contact: Tony Rathburn, professor of geology, Indiana State University, at 812-237-2269 or Tony.Rathburn@indstate.edu

Writer: Emily Sturgess, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or esturgess@sycamores.indstate.edu