McCracken lands NSF grant for Amazon amphibian conservation research

By Maria R. Gonzalez
University News Service
April 20, 2007

Clinging to a rope at 140 feet above ground in Ecuador’s Amazon basin, Shawn McCracken searches for solutions to the world’s declining amphibian population. The Texas State University-San Marcos doctoral student has already found two new species in the rainforest canopies and is ready to continue his research with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

McCracken’s research proposal, “Vertical stratification and ecological niche partitioning of amphibians and arthropods in rainforest canopies of Amazonian Ecuador,” received excellent reviews from the NSF.  The Houston native’s research is part of a broad initiative to study the unique forest canopy habitats and inhabitants and to address the negative impact of deforestation in the Amazon.

McCracken dedicated his undergraduate years in Texas State’s biology department to field research in Ecuador, publishing in science journals and creating a non-profit organization that led him straight to doctoral school.  No master’s necessary. Mike Forster, biology professor, said McCracken’s academic leap is not unique in the biology department, but his commitment to his research is exceptional. 

“The Aquatic Resources Program is new at the doctoral level and we have to demonstrate that we are doing a good job,” he said. “It’s remarkable that Shawn has pursued this work over the last couple of years to the point that in a fairly short period of time we have developed a research plan and design that attracted the attention of NSF.”

McCracken’s field research takes place in what he refers to as “wetlands in the sky.” This evocative description captures the ecological characteristics of the habitat where McCracken found the two new species of amphibians--epiphytic tank bromeliads.  These are giant plants located hundreds of feet above ground in the Amazon forestry that hold a vast amount of water.

“Typically, members of the genus eleutherodactylus live on the forest floor, maybe ten feet up.  It was quite interesting to find members of the same genus living at 100-140 feet up in the canopy of these bromeliads,” he said. “It was totally by accident that I found them, but I knew from all of my experience as soon as I found them that they were new.”

McCracken helped describe the first species--eleutherodactylus aureolineatus and is planning on naming the second one after the native inhabitants of the Amazon, the Guaraní. The Guaraní have been pushed into the most remote areas of the Amazon as a result of colonization.  McCracken’s organization, TADPOLE, and local organization Scientists Concerned for Yasuni, have had success in this area of concern.

“There’s a lot of oil exploration and extraction going on and we’re trying to litigate those issues,” he said. “We’ve stopped roads from cutting into the Yasuni National Park, gotten some things changed by how operations are conducted by the oil companies there.  If they can do things in a road-less manner they don’t have to cut roads because it’s the roads that lead to deforestation.”

Forstner said McCracken’s research is an ongoing study to provide solutions to the global amphibian population crisis.

“It’s not just about the animals and plants, it’s about the ecosystem that supports them and how it can then be harmed or enhanced,” he said. “Once we know what’s changing then we can identify the causes and then try to effect positive change that helps.”

McCracken also collaborates with Ecuadorian scientists from la Universidad San Fransisco de Quito and Pontífica Universidad Católica del Ecuador.

The NSF fellowship will allow McCracken to continue his research in Ecuador for the next five years.  He is the fourth Texas State NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipient and the first to stay at Texas State for his doctoral degree in the Aquatic Resources Program.