Never mind Dr Who, meet Dr Frog…
Published: 8th Aug 2017She’s clever, adventurous and has regular encounters with strange creatures. But this is one female doctor who has her feet very firmly planted in the real world.
She’s clever, adventurous and has regular encounters with strange creatures. But this is one female doctor who has her feet very firmly planted in the real world.
Dr Katy Upton is an amphibian expert at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in Devon. The origin of her Dr Frog nickname is lost in time, but seems to have started when she was doing her PhD. Dr Frog may sound more like a Marvel supervillain than a conservationist, but she’s happy with it.
Katy has been a keeper at Paignton Zoo for six months, but her fascination for frogs is lifelong: “As a child I used to do the classic collecting tadpoles, frogs and reptiles and take them home – however, my mum has always been terrified of reptiles and amphibians and would refuse to let them in the house!”
She did her first degree in Wildlife Conservation in Kent followed quickly by a PhD in Biodiversity Management. After her doctorate she became a zoo keeper at Chester Zoo (where she had already volunteered). “I worked at Chester for 18 months before coming to Paignton. Amphibian Ark is a fantastic facility. We have many exciting plans for the future and want Paignton Zoo to become one of the key players in amphibian conservation.
“Amphibians are threatened globally, with so many species at risk of extinction in the wild. Luckily, we are in a position to be able to do something about it. We can recreate the natural environments of different amphibians in miniature and simulate their natural weather conditions like sunlight, rainfall and humidity. It’s easier to do this for amphibians than for rhinos and tigers.
“My PhD focused on key amphibian habitats in the remote flooded forests of Peru. In particular, I studied frogs living on floating vegetation on the surface of the Amazon River. I discovered the importance of this habitat for many species which rely solely on it for breeding and foraging. Worryingly, climate change is having a huge effect on the natural flood cycle of the Amazon, with extreme flooding and drought already being seen. This could potentially have very negative effects on this habitat, seeing it decline dramatically in some areas and disappear entirely in others. Without this habitat we do not know how the frogs will survive.”
Katy is a big fan of Doctor Who: “My favourite Doctor would be Matt Smith – in terms of female characters in the show, my favourites are Clara Oswald and River Song.”
Does she think a female Doctor Who is a good role model for girls and young women? “Of course, it’s always great for young people to have a role model to help them realise their potential and encourage them to work hard and do things they might not realise they can.”
And is conservation a good career for women? “I don’t feel that conservation is a career, it is more something you do throughout your life because you feel passionate about it. I love working in the Zoo world - having worked in other sectors, I have always found the zoo community to be a very enjoyable place to work, everyone clubs together to get things done. I believe that having a shared passion for conservation and the animals we work with helps.”
Katy now hopes to continue the work she started in her doctorate and study these specialist amphibians in a zoo environment, recreating their floating meadow habitat and try to understand the effects extreme flooding has both on the habitat and the frogs relying on it.
“We want to develop managed breeding guidelines for these species, so we are able to breed them in zoological collections. That way, even if their habitat does disappear completely, we will be able to save them from extinction. The information we gather in zoos can help to inform the conservation and management of these species in the wild. We can make a real difference.”
“If I could travel in time I’d go back into the past and save all the amphibian species we’ve lost in recent years…”