The Spy Who Loved Frogs
To track the fate of threatened species, a young scientist must follow the jungle path of a herpetologist who led a secret double life.
Before leaving for the Philippines as an undergraduate in 1992, Rafe Brown scoured his supervisor's bookshelf to learn as much as he could about the creatures he might encounter. He flipped through a photocopy of a 1922 monograph by the prolific herpetologist Edward Taylor, and became mesmerized by a particular lizard, Ptychozoon intermedium, the Philippine parachute gecko. With marbled skin, webs between its toes and aerodynamic flaps along its body that allow it to glide down from the treetops, it was just about the strangest animal that Brown had ever seen.
Brown learned that Taylor had collected the first known example, or type specimen, near the town of Bunawan in 1912, and had deposited it at the Philippine Bureau of Science in Manila. But the specimen had been destroyed along with the building during the Second World War, and the species had never been documented again in that part of the country. “What are the chances I'm going to see one of the rarest geckos in the world?” he wondered.
He was driven by more than curiosity. Given the rampant deforestation in that part of the Philippines, he wanted to determine whether the species still existed there and if so, how similar it was to geckos collected in other areas. He wanted to see, in other words, whether Taylor's 70-year-old taxonomic decisions were still valid.
On their first night in the field, Brown and his colleagues drove to the edge of the forest and caught two red eyes in the beam of a headlamp. It was aPtychozoon. Back at their hotel, Brown photographed the gecko, took tissue samples for DNA sequencing, and carefully prepped it and stuck it in a jar. It became the neotype to replace Taylor's lost specimen, and in 1997, Brown published a new description of the species1. It marked the start of an obsession.