Frogs, the Congo, and the Future of Humanity
Last Updated on January 06, 2016 at 11:00 AM
Originally published January 06, 2017
By Lisa Garibay
In the midst of civil war, violence, rampant corruption and treacherous terrain, you will find Eli Greenbaum, Ph.D., looking for frogs.
“I also work with venomous snakes,” he adds with the nonchalance befitting an explorer who routinely plants himself in some of the most remote and unexplored spots on Earth.
Almost a decade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has given him a unique and powerful perspective on this area of the world – one which he believes is a model for the way humans everywhere can and should learn to live symbiotically with their environment.
It’s not easy being in, or getting to, the second-poorest country in the world. Travel from El Paso takes an initial flight to Atlanta, then an overseas trip to Amsterdam where one can catch another plane to Uganda or Rwanda before hopping into a puddle jumper to the border and crossing into the DRC on foot.
Traveling within the country is even more complicated when one considers roads haven’t been maintained since Belgian colonial rule ended in 1960. During the rainy season, getting stuck in the mud for hours is common despite use of 4x4 vehicles, and in many areas the only way to get around is via motorcycle or walking (unless you’re traversing rivers by boat or canoe).
But why go through all that trouble in the first place?
“There are three main things,” Greenbaum said, counting off a list compelling enough to make anyone sit up and pay immediate attention: medicine, climate change, and the interdependence of all life on Earth.
Greenbaum, a herpetologist and associate professor of biological sciences at UTEP, explained that there are a potential infinite number of biomedical applications for the molecules in the skin of his frogs and the complex venoms in the aforementioned snakes.
“We’re already using some components of them in medicine,” he said. “There’s a species of viper, for example, in Asia that has anticoagulant properties to its venom and people are using components of that for people who have issues with their blood.”
A potentially endless number of life-saving essences could be just under the tongues of these creatures, but no one will ever know unless they’re first discovered. That’s where Greenbaum and other fearless researchers like him come into play.
“I go out and find these things and use DNA sequence data to provide evidence that this is a new species, then I go ahead and describe it,” he explained. That first step is critical: it proves that a new species is out there so that human beings can potentially get some benefit out of it.
While Greenbaum would love for it to be enough for people to be happy about simply finding out what other species share the planet, he acknowledges that things usually have to have that kind of life-or-death quality before someone will pay attention.
“There could be a drug that could help you with some kind of ailment at a later point in your life,” Greenbaum said. “There could be a cure for cancer in there.”
Global Climate Change
There is no shortage of data and hard evidence that the world’s climate is ailing. Fossil fuels and other products of industrialization release wasteful gasses into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise, weather to become unpredictable, polar ice caps to melt, sea levels to go up, and much more.
The very place where Greenbaum is working could cure it all.
“Tropical rainforests in particular take an enormous amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and are actually slowing this process down a lot,” Greenbaum explained. “If we can see fit to conserve as many areas of these rainforests as possible, it helps us with the effects of global climate change.”
He posited that Central Africa, where the DRC is located, is arguably the most intact rainforest in the world, whereas the Amazon – the world’s largest and arguably most well-known rainforest – has become a vast mess of burning, logging, trucking and irresponsible planting, he said.
However, even when industrialization results in the razing of these lush areas for soybean or cattle farms, all is not lost. Studies show that when rainforests are allowed to regrow, the new growth takes even greater levels of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
“This is going to be our savior at some point in the future,” Greenbaum said.
By conducting such focused research in a specific location, the hope is that one guy studying some frogs will ripple out into the conservation of these rainforests – and eventually the whole planet.
For example, Greenbaum and his collaborators brought one frog, found in a rainforest that was not protected, to the attention of the international community in 2012. As a result, the government stepped in and declared the area a forest reserve. For scientists like Greenbaum, such a reward is worth every day of trudging through trails of mud, every night sleeping in a canoe and every tropical disease contracted.
Other benefits of protected natural areas include pollinators for crops planted near (but not instead of) a rainforest, and natural water filtering and breaking down of waste material. When people have a rainforest nearby, the foliage gives off water into the atmosphere and makes it rain more often.
The educational benefits of Greenbaum’s work touch many. Over his nine-year investment in the DRC, Greenbaum has worked alongside Congolese research teams of other herpetologists and students. He has been asked to be on one student’s Ph.D. committee and has published articles together with others. But his experiences come back home, too.
“Students under his mentorship have an amazing opportunity to determine and compare the characteristics and genetic codes of newly discovered and established species, as images are shared online and collected specimens are returned to UTEP for analysis,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science. “Dr. Greenbaum’s findings have captured the attention of the international scientific community, and provide pronounced exposure for UTEP and the high-caliber science that is being performed on our campus.”
Greenbaum’s UTEP doctoral student Daniel Hughes started off in the Congo with his faculty mentor but ended up focusing on Uganda, where he in turn is working with a master’s student and professor of biology both from the Kampala University in Uganda.
“It was awesome – the experience was fantastic,” Hughes said of traveling to the Congo with Greenbaum. “Getting field experience was essential for me to fully understand the process from an initial capture to the preparation of the specimen to taking tissue samples to bringing it back to the lab, extracting the DNA, amplifying it using PCR [Polymerase Chain Reaction, a process to study segments of DNA], then creating a family tree all the way down to the description of the new species.”
After conversations with Greenbaum about study abroad opportunities like this one, Hughes committed to pursue his doctoral studies at UTEP after finishing his master’s in biology at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. For him, the Congo adventure brought the majority of what he and other students do – which is inside labs on machines – to life.
“Even though we’re working with tissue samples and real data, it feels theoretical because you’re in front of a computer and you’re usually just looking at [Greenbaum’s] pictures of the organism. So actually getting to go there and put a face to the name, if you will, of the species that we were working with was huge,” Hughes said.
He added that the trip gave him a greater appreciation not only for the travails of working in the DRC but also for how cataloging diversity can have a positive impact on making the world better and safer for living organisms.
“We work in taxonomy, so we really work to come up with accurate phylogeny or family trees, the ancestry of a population,” Hughes explained. “We try to find areas in the family tree that don’t have a name assigned to it, then we try to apply a name to it and indirectly doing that can actually increase conservation measures and bolster protection for certain regions because they have underappreciated levels of diversity.”
As he has just begun teaching himself, Hughes is encouraging his own students to go into the field as much as they can to go out and see these animals alive and in the wild.
“It opens people’s minds up,” he said.
This also goes for those who live with these creatures every day, yet may not notice them.
“With every village that we interact with, I hope that we make a positive impression of the work that we’re trying to do,” Greenbaum said.
But it’s not always smooth going. With the country’s relatively recently history of colonialsm, the arrival of outsiders like Greenbaum and Hughes could possibly be taken the wrong way.
“Every once in a while, we have had some what I call cultural misunderstandings,” Greenbaum admitted. He describes one venture into a remote area in 2008 where he discovered that locals were being taught in classrooms that white men will kill Africans so they can drink their blood.
This is not a common mindset, but there remains suspicion due to collective memory and negative stories passed down from bygone eras. A great deal of goodwill can be bridged with simple actions once these explorers come into a village. Sharing food, hiring locals to be guides and collect firewood, or buying the chief of the village a beer can all be perfect icebreakers that establish trust.
“And then we explain what we’re doing, why this is a benefit to Congo and why it’s a benefit to the world, and then everybody’s on board,” Greenbaum said.
Critical safety concerns keep more students from joining their professor in this particular field, but he brings valuable assets back with him – mostly in the form of specimens from these rare frogs and snakes – from which those in his UTEP classrooms and labs can benefit.
“[It is] an example of outstanding undergraduate and graduate research that adds significant value to students’ education and experience,” Kirken said.
Greenbaum also works to connect students to the value of these places and the creatures that inhabit them through lessons on history, economics and politics, all conveyed as part of his courses. For instance, the undergraduate genetics class he teaches each semester includes a brief history of Congo and the role it plays in the world.
“[The students] are really shocked and surprised to learn about all the connections between the United States and Congo that go all the way back to slavery and are still happening today,” Greenbaum said. These connections range from oil to rare minerals originating in Congolese mountains that end up in iPhones. In Greenbaum’s graduate biodiversity course, students go more in depth into deforestation and how to partner with local populations on conservation efforts.
Before getting into the third powerful reason why his work matters, it bears mentioning that it was during Greenbaum’s own time as a Ph.D. student that his love for the Congo began.
“I unexpectedly got an opportunity to work in West Africa 15 years ago. At that point I had worked in a few exciting places; I had done some field work in Australia and I had worked for a while in El Salvador – but once I got an opportunity to see wildest Africa, I was hooked,” he recalled.
“There’s an amazing diversity of animals and people and cultures and languages. There’s a different smell to Africa in general. It’s just an extremely exciting place to work in general.”
He settled on the Congo after determining it was an understudied locale where he could create a niche for himself.
“I realized, ‘Okay, this place is just emerging from what was called Africa’s World War where five million people died, and as far as the biodiversity is concerned, it’s poorly explored. But even with a little bit of tiny work that has been done there, it has been recognized as one of the most biodiverse places on the entire planet.”
An initial three-week reconnaissance trip – where he was charged by a silverback gorilla – sold Greenbaum on the idea despite the risks. For a curious scientist, it was a goldmine.
“I found all of these species and I thought I knew what everything was, but as I dug deeper and deeper I realized I knew nothing,” he said.
Since that beginning, Greenbaum was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to continue his work. And he invites any interested researchers who want to join in the efforts to do so.
“I’ve been to almost every corner of the country, but it’s huge! There’s so much to explore, so much to discover, that if any other people want to come in and work in the area I would hope that they wouldn’t be territorial and that we could all work together because it’s the same goal: to discover and describe as much biodiversity as possible while it’s still there,” he said. “Even under the best of circumstances, I fear that in the coming decades we’re going to lose a lot.”
The Interdependence of All Living Things
And that brings us to Greenbaum’s third argument for why what he’s doing is relevant. The scope of his work reaches far beyond a single frog species, and any human being alive today would do well to think of biodiversity on a global level.
“If we lost all the plants and animals that are in the wild tomorrow, we would disappear with them,” he said.
He’s come up with a useful analogy for the concept. Imagine you’re going to get on a plane and fly to Dallas. You know those little rivets that they have in the wings? Imagine as you get on the plane you see the mechanics taking rivets out of the wings. You say, “Hey, what are you doing taking those rivets out of the wing?” He says, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a few.”
“It’s the same thing with species on our planet that are going extinct,” Greenbaum explained. “People have the mentality, ‘Oh, it’s just a few,’ but at some point you’re going to take out one rivet too many, the wing’s going to fall off and you’re going to crash. At some point, we’re going to lose one plant or one animal species too many and the entire global ecosystem could catastrophically collapse and take us with it.”
Greenbaum’s work is in line with the goals Earth-saving activists aim to achieve even though he wouldn’t call himself a tree hugger. Every time he and fellow researchers discover a new species of frog or the like, then provide an official, taxonomic description of it, that species comes to the attention of the entire international community.
He emphasized that the Congo is so poorly explored that his team finds at least half a dozen new species every single time they travel there.
“Invariably, when we find these new things, they’re in danger most of the time,” he added. “Once it comes to the attention of the international community, then there can be an effort to conserve it. And many of these new species that we’re finding are not occurring in areas that are already protected.”
Greenbaum is preparing to take his story to a broader audience with a forthcoming memoir entitled, Emerald Labyrinth: A Scientist's Adventures in the Jungle of Congo (University Press of New England, fall 2017).
People may be surprised to find out that there’s somebody so focused on the rainforests of the Congo based so many miles away in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. Through his continued work, Greenbaum hopes that more people will begin to appreciate the way everything and everyone on this Earth is entwined as they realize that studying these jungle critters offers a very true benefit to mankind.
Because if somebody like Greenbaum didn’t care about his one very specific little thing, everybody might be doomed.