Biologist defies extremes to study climate change

Kelsey Reider’s “Lower Ice Cave Lake” no longer has an ice cave.

That’s because climate change impacts are early and severe in the high Andes Mountains.

Reider, a biology Ph.D student at FIU, is studying how frogs respond to temperature extremes, climate change and disease in the high Andes in Peru. She named a lot of the ponds and lakes after certain features in the glaciers as reference points, including “Lower Ice Cave Lake.” In some cases, those glaciers are now gone.

“So much ice has been lost, I don’t even recognize parts of my study site anymore,” Reider said. “It’s kind of crazy.”

Kelsey Reider and her dog Karina take in the views of the high Andes Mountains in Peru.

For three years, Reider has lived and worked in her 4-foot by 7-foot tent. She has no electricity. No plumbing. No permanent cover. Conditions are extreme, so she spends two weeks in the city of Cusco and two weeks in Cordillera Vilcanota. Reider can easily get a sunburn in 30 seconds because, at 17,000 feet of elevation, the high Andes has half the atmosphere found at sea level.

“There’s also not a lot of oxygen,” Reider said. “I can’t spend extended periods of time at such high altitude because my body will just break down.”

As part of her research, Reider is zeroing in on two species of frogs, including the marbled water frog and the threatened marbled four-eyed frog. Temperatures vary so much in the high Andes, Reider says, it’s like summer every day and winter every night. Marbled four-eyed frogs seek refuge under rocks. The high Andes’ glaciers are also melting, cutting off the steady water supply to the ponds, streams and wetlands where marbled water frogs live. They’re moving up the snowy mountains, taking refuge in other bodies of water.

The frogs’ survival tactics are working, for now. Eventually, they won’t have anywhere else to go as the planet get warmer. This, combined with the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus, could spell an unpromising future for frogs in the Andes.

“Even for people far away from the Andes, these frogs are sentinels for changes that will happen all over the world,” Reider said. “A lot of the issues people face, wildlife faces too. For me, it’s about using this story about frogs to communicate to people what will happen because of climate change.”