It’s a well-known fact that amphibians and reptiles are cold-blooded. But it wasn’t until I held a red-eyed leaf frog, stroked a python and tickled a chameleon that I realised the truth of that observation.
It was thanks to the curator of herpetology at Manchester Museum’s Vivarium that I discovered the beauty of these creatures first-hand. In the heart of the city, Andrew Gray is engaged in vital conservation work, educational projects and first-class exhibits. Following a complete renovation and re-interpretation of the gallery, the Vivarium has cleverly combined a fascinating insight into many species of frogs, reptiles and lizards from South America, Australia and Madagascar with crucial studies of some of the rarest creatures on the planet.
“Amphibians and reptiles in general get a bad press,” says Gray, sitting in his office surrounded by a wealth of photos, books and, er, samples related to his work as a herpetologist. “But one third of the world’s amphibians risk extinction through fungus and global warming. The fungus is all to do with changing temperatures.”
At the Vivarium, Andrew and his team are playing a pioneering role in protecting critically endangered species. Part of that undertaking involves helping visitors to understand these animals and their habitats through better displays, enhanced interpretation and via the important conservation work that used to take place behind the scenes. In addition, the Museum is part of a consortium of institutions worldwide that are carrying out essential work in Europe and Costa Rica to save one very special amphibian – the lemur leaf frog. In fact, the Vivarium has the largest collection of Costa Rican frogs outside of Costa Rica.
It’s a far cry from Gray’s early career as an area manager for River Island.
“I was with River Island for ten years,” says Gray. “Then I went down the Amazon for about a month. When I came back I had changed.”
As a boy, Gray had always been interested in South American animals. He remembers receiving a book about them from his Grandma at the age of seven and being fascinated by its contents. But it was the Amazon trip that solidified his interest.
He explains: “We were 360 miles from the nearest town and the Amazon was like a sea. It was the colour of coffee and quite intimidating. We sailed in a flat bottom boat. It was like The Jungle Book which had always been my favourite film, I had watched it again and again. I had an affinity right away.
“The people I met in the Amazon didn’t have anything but they had an amazing community. They all worked together. I’d never seen anything like that. I was a very different person before I went out there. The more people had the worse it seemed to be. I struggled with it for two years when I came back. It was an energy I had never felt before.”
As time went on, Gray started to keep a few animals at home, eventually building up a frog collection in his shed. In his spare time he took his animals into the local school to show the children and started liaising with Chester Zoo. And then a call came from the zoo saying there was a job opening at Manchester Museum. Before he knew it, Gray had agreed to halve his salary, re-design the lacklustre aquarium and zoology collection and donate some of his own frogs to the museum.
Some 18 years later and it’s clear to see from Gray’s enthusiasm for the Vivarium that he is doing his dream job. When he’s not at the museum, Gray can be found in the darkest depths of the rainforest supporting various species’ survival in the wild.
He says: “This job is very varied. It incorporates teaching, biology and zoology. We have first year university students and run practicals in university for students. I’ve been involved in setting up field courses and done a lot of work in the Amazon and Costa Rica. We teach a lot of children who come to the museum. We see everyone from three-year-olds to graduate students. We also do a lot of special needs sessions using the animals and you can see real connections there. That really is the icing on the cake. Basically I get paid to do my hobby, I love it.”
Today’s Vivarium bears little resemblance to the gallery that Gray first encountered 18 years ago. Gone is the astro turf and the empty tanks; in their place are living rainforests, state-of-the-art lighting and the best heating systems.
Visitors to the new-look Vivarium will have spotted the glass panels showing a room full of frogs. This is the beating core of Manchester Museum’s ground-breaking conservation work. In the locked room are amphibians of all shapes and sizes, from the bumblebee frog (so named for its distinctive markings) to the strawberry poison dart frog (does what it says on the tin) to the endangered lemur leaf frog and golden poison dart frog (this tiny creature has enough poison to kill ten men – ten men!). However, it’s worth remembering that these poisons can be used for good: they have been proven to have pain-killing properties. Most of these animals are critically endangered.
As aesthetically-pleasing as these frogs were, I was relieved when Gray suggested I might like to hold a red-eyed leaf frog. I’m not saying I was scared of its froggy friends, but it took me ten minutes to work up the courage to stroke a 4.5ft long royal python (surprisingly smooth and soft to the touch). A volunteer told me that Queen Cleopatra wore royal pythons round her neck and wrist but I’ve never been an adventurous accessorizer, even at the best of times.
Anyway, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and held out my hand for the red-eyed leaf frog. My first thought was, my, its feet are colder than mine on Bonfire Night. But that quickly gave way to a feeling of pure exhilaration. Jeepers creepers, what a fascinating, mesmerising, tiny life. With its bulging red eyes, huge, webbed orange feet, neon green body and bright blue and yellow flanks, I could have studied the little guy all the live-long day. If you think I’m kidding, get yourself along to Manchester’s Vivarium. Froggy fun for everyone.
By Helen Nugent
Images by Chris Payne (except for picture of Andrew Gray)
http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/, t: 0161 275 2648
For Andrew Gray’s Frog Blog, log on here: http://frogblogmanchester.com/