Frogs and snakes can become a passion called herpetology, a word that many people are probably unaware of, and would sometimes confuse with the disease herpes!
If you see some people with headlights at night, poking about streams, lakes and rivers, or even (gasp!) crawling into wet undergrowth, looking for those amphibians and reptiles, then you may have met the weirdly wonderful folks called herpers.
Herpetology is the branch of zoology concerned with amphibians and reptiles. While some may be turned off by these slimy creatures, it's worth remembering that frogs and snakes are not only beauties of nature - they also indicate healthy ecosystems.
To find out more about it, this writer spoke to Dr Vincent Teo Eng Wah from the Sports Centre of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Teo is currently a sports scientist, but has always been passionate about nature and wildlife from a very young age. He grew up on Penang island which has its own distinct herpetofauna, and often frequented local rivers and streams to catch peacock fish and shrimp.
He would occasionally stumble upon eels, snakes and insects, which he would then take home to put in an aquarium to observe (before releasing them later). And he would also find unusual animals called caecillians, which look like snakes but are actually amphibians (the same group as frogs).
Teo first took an interest in herping after returning from his studies in the United States. He then joined the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) in 2014. There are nine special interest groups in the Selangor branch of MNS, including one that caters specially to herpetology and another for photography, which are both his passions.
Through these groups (and flickr.com), he saw many beautiful photos of snakes, frogs, lizards, geckos and many other types of amphibians and reptiles that got him excited about herping (and herp photography).
“Each time we herpers find a frog or a snake, there’s an adrenaline rush. And this actually makes me want to find more. Maybe it’s the ‘wildman’ hunting instinct that burns deep in me!” he laughed.
“Besides the excitement, herping is a healthy activity because one gets to be out in nature, enjoying the cool fresh air and socialising with other herpers. At the same time, we get lots of exercise through all the walking, climbing, trekking and even running in the tropical rainforest.”
But these animals are not just fun to find and photograph.
Snakes are important because they help humans control rats and mice in residential areas and palm oil and rubber estates, noted Teo. As rats are related to diseases such as leptospirosis and salmonellosis, it’s important to get rid of them.
As for geckos (lizards) and frogs, he added that they help to control the population of mosquitoes (that can cause diseases such as dengue and malaria) and other insects (that are pests to fruit plantations and estates).
Much has been said about how the disappearance of some kinds of animals, especially frogs, worldwide is an early indicator of serious environmental problems. However, there is no single species of snake or frog that serve as a (general) signature bioindicator.
However, if a species that is commonly found in an area (micro habitat or ecosystem) starts to disappear, it might indicate that there’s some form of pollution, poaching, unhealthy development or deforestation there.
According to Teo, there is no one group of snakes or frogs that are more important than the other. However, there are some groups of snakes that we need to pay more attention to, specifically the elapids (a family of venomous snakes) which consists of kraits, coral snakes, cobras and sea snakes.
“I think special attention and respect needs to be given to these few groups because they are medically significant.” he says.
Frogs are wonders of nature that make us appreciate the biodiversity that Malaysia has and underlines how important it is to conserve our jungles.
For instance, the Harlequin Flying Frog has evolved extensive webbing between its fingers and toes, allowing it to glide from branch to branch high up in the rainforest.
Another airborne amphibian is Wallace’s Flying Frog, which also lives in rainforest trees, descending to the ground only to mate and lay eggs in foam nests (which is when herpers can see them).
Unlike snakes, there is less need to fear toxins from frogs.
The Poison Rock Frog (also known as Hose’s Frog or Odorrana hosii), is the only known poisonous frog in Malaysia (unlike in the Amazon jungle which has many) and even then, its toxins don’t harm humans.
A Night Trip
I joined an MNS Herp Group night trip recently to Perdik Waterfalls in Hulu Langat, Selangor, to look for frogs, lizards and snakes.
Teo, and another herping expert, Steven Wong, led the trip. A total of 17 herpers gathered in the evening to scour a camping site to look for interesting herpetofauna by the river, along a forest trail and in the trees.
Certain species such as the White-Lipped Frog (Chalcorana labialis) were quite common while others like the pit viper were rare and exciting sights.
In total there were 14 species of herpetofauna found that night – nine species of frogs, four species of lizard and one species of snake. According to the trip leaders and regular herpers, the campsite was rather dry and if it had been wetter, there would’ve been even more species present.
So the next time you’re looking for an opportunity to try herping or just enjoy nature in the dark, I would definitely recommend joining the MNS Herpetofauna Special Interest Group.
The experienced and extremely knowledgeable trip leaders, along with the enthusiastic group members really made the trip memorable and worthwhile.