Conservation news

Short film takes you into the Amazon with researcher who discovered a new frog species

  • Back in January, biologist Jennifer Serrano and a team of researchers published a paper officially describing a new species of poison dart frog found in the Peruvian Amazon, which was given the name Ameerega shihuemoy, to science.
  • Finding Frogs, a short documentary by filmmaker Nick Werber, captures the sense of awe and discovery inherent in doing fieldwork like Jennifer Serrano’s.
  • In this Q&A, Mongabay speaks with Werber about his motivation for making the documentary in the first place, the difficulties of shooting a film in a humid environment like a rainforest, and why it’s so important for scientific discoveries to be more widely shared via media like film.

Biologist Jennifer Serrano was in the Amazonian rainforests of the Manú Biosphere Reserve in southeast Peru one night a few years ago when she came across a poison dart frog that wasn’t like any of the species she was familiar with. She couldn’t find the frog in the field guide kept at the Crees Foundation research station she was based at at the time, either — which is when she and her colleagues first began to suspect that what Serrano had found was actually a previously undiscovered species.

Back in January, Serrano and a team of researchers published a paper officially describing the new species, which was given the name Ameerega shihuemoy, to science.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a researcher trekking through the rainforest at night, studying the incredible diversity of flora and fauna you encounter there? If so, then the short documentary Finding Frogs by filmmaker Nick Werber, will give you an up-close-and-personal view of what it’s like.

Nothing can really compare to actually being in the Amazon rainforest, of course. “My advice for any other biology student is, if you have the opportunity to go to the forest, just do,” Serrano, who was a student when she discovered the frog and now works with the Crees Foundation to teach others about the value of regenerating forests and the biodiversity they harbor, says in the film. “Because you are going to learn there, you are going to learn in the forest. There is no university or classroom where you are going to learn the same as in the forest.”

That may indeed be the case, but not everyone can easily get out to a tropical forest and go exploring. For those that fall into this category, or even those just wanting to re-live the experience, Werber’s all-too-brief documentary truly captures the sense of awe and discovery inherent in doing fieldwork like Jennifer Serrano’s.

Mongabay spoke with Nick Werber about his motivation for making the documentary in the first place, the difficulties of shooting a film in a humid environment like a rainforest, and why it’s so important for scientific discoveries to be more widely shared via media like film.

Mongabay: How’d you first become interested in rainforest biology and how did it come to pass that you filmed Jenny Serrano as she was doing her fieldwork that led to the discovery?

Nick Werber: I watched lots of BBC wildlife programs as a kid and went on to study Biology at A level. There was something about the rainforest that I found magical years before ever going there. It looked so abundantly lush and wild, unlike my suburban London roots. After studying English and Journalism, in 2010 I was lucky enough to get a job as a rainforest journalist for the Crees Foundation in Manú, Peru. It was here, over two years, that I learned more about rainforest research and conservation from biologists, including Dr Andy Whitworth who was at the time the Crees scientific coordinator and who oversaw Jenny’s frog research. I still go back every year to Peru to keep up to date on the region and the stories of people living and working there.

Mongabay: What about Jenny’s work intrigued you enough to want to make a film?

Nick Werber: As most biologists in the past have been men from Europe and USA I thought it would be good to make a film about a woman working in biology in her own country. Jenny was working on publishing her first paper on her new frog and there was quite a buzz around the camp, with National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton James coming out to report on Jenny’s frog. Jenny is so passionate about her work it was a pleasure to spend time with her out in the forest. As she says, frogs are very sensitive to changes in the environment, kind of like canaries in the mine. Amphibians’ numbers are decreasing on the whole and so to see a new discovery in a region that was cleared 35 years ago was encouraging.

Mongabay: Was it difficult to shoot out in the rainforest?

Nick Werber: It is hot, humid and occasionally very muddy. I would often start filming before the sun came up and still be out filming at night (when the frogs like to come out). The days were long but Jenny never seemed tired. I was just trying to keep up!

Mongabay: What are you hoping to achieve with the film, in the end?

Nick Werber: I’d like to communicate the passion of a young biologist and to show people who are thinking about working in tropical conservation biology to give it a go. There are still lots of discoveries to be made. I’d also like to show how even minor changes in the environment can have big changes to an ecosystem like that in Manú. Our actions in the west, personally and politically, matter a great deal to this abundant but fragile ecosystem.

Mongabay: Why do you think it’s important to make films like this about scientific discoveries?

Nick Werber: It seems to me that unless people know about these sorts of discoveries then they’ll go unnoticed by all but a few academics and I’d like to share just a little of the wonder I and the biologists feel on a daily basis working in this amazing place. It is important for people to know about new discoveries so they can be informed about life in the rainforest and so that, young people especially, can feel inspired to get involved, in any way they can, either as a budding scientist or even as a volunteer or tourist.

Jenny Serrano examines a frog in the Amazon. Still from Nick Werber’s short documentary, Finding Frogs.