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Miguel Trefaut

Miguel Trefaut Urbano Rodrigues: In the midst of snakes and lizards

USP biologist described 53 new reptile species and genera

Eduardo CesarOn August 3, 1970, Jandyra Planet do Amaral, the director of the Butantan Institute, wrote at the end of a traineeship application form: “This young man is interested in herpetology.” She was quite right regarding Miguel Trefaut Urbano Rodrigues, a youngster at the time. Born in Lisbon but living in Brazil from the age of three, the offspring of a French mother and a Portuguese father, Rodrigues started his traineeship at Butantan at the age of 16, when he was in his first year of high school, and he left five years later knowing a great deal about Brazil ian serpents. He enrolled in the biology course at the University of São Paulo (USP), but completed his undergraduate degree at the Universityof Paris VII– Diderot. He taught for three years at the Federal University of Paraíba. Then he returned to USP and is now one of Brazil’s great systematists – experts in classifying living beings. In a January 2010 article in the journal Zootaxa, Peter Uetz, from the J. Craig Venter Institute in the United States, introduced the 40 biologists who had described the largest number of reptile species in the world from the eighteenth century, when the Swedish botanist Linnaeus created the binomial system for the classification of living beings, in which each animal or plant is identified by two names, one for the genus and the other for the species. Rodrigues, the only Brazil ian on this list, ranks 35th, with 53 species described, two of them shown further on. The Belgian citizen George Albert Boulanger (1858-1937) ranks first, with 573 species described. Among the 25 journals that presented that largest number of new reptile species, there are two Brazil ian ones, Papéis Avulsos de Zoologia, from USP’s Zoology Museum, and Memórias do Butantan Institute, which no longer exists. In this interview, Rodrigues tells us about his life in the midst of snakes and lizards and about areas that are rich in unique species, such as the dunes of theSão Francisco river, which he first walked on some 30 years ago and to which he returned in February. At the age of 57, Rodrigues is to spend two weeks in the forests ofGuinea-Bissau, in March, with the same objective: to find new animals and to develop a better grasp of how living beings appeared and evolved.

This work in the journal’Zootaxa’ said that you are one of the 40 greatest classifiers of reptiles in the world since Lineu. Only eight of this group of zoologists are alive today. The others are from the 1700’s, 1800’s or the beginning of the 1900’s. Why?
That’s the time when many things were being described. It began with Lineu, who created the binomial nomenclature system. After come the names that dominate world herpetology, like George Boulenger, from the British Museum of Natural History, and the curators of major collections from the world’s zoological museums, like Dumeril from the Museum of Paris, who had the biggest collection of reptiles in the world at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, subsequently superseded by the British Museum, which at the end of the 19th century ended up overtaking French herpetology.

How do you show that a species is really new? What do you do, for example, when you bring an animal in from the field that you suspect is a new species?
As I already know the literature about similar species, the first thing is to take the best known species used as a model for comparison purposes and examine all of them under a magnifying glass, including the supposedly new one. I have to compare absolutely all the characters: number, size, shape, position, the ornamentation of the dorsal, ventral and head scales, each one of them with a specific name; the size and position of the eye, the ear and the nostrils; the animal’s coloring; the length of its body, head and each member; the femoral pores, which are pheromone glands; in short, a very large series of variables. And what about the internal structure, the skeleton? We can take X-rays or make it transparent and so on and so forth. When I find consistent differences between the group of individuals that I’ve brought in from the field and one already known, and when these differences affect more than one character and they occur in a same geographical area, there’s no doubt that the differences result from the expression of a different genetic heritage, and not from any geographical, individual or sexual variation. Then you have to describe it and make a comparison, which is an argument as to why this species is new, showing why it can be separated from others. You have to write an article and submit it to a scientific journal.

MIGUEL T.U.RODRIGUESPhyllopezus periosus: biggest lizard of the CaatingaMIGUEL T.U.RODRIGUES

The article is going to be examined by other specialists and if they’re convinced it’s accepted and published. The new species will exist officially as from the publication of the article that presents it.
The journal, Papéis Avulsos de Zoologia, also appeared with a headline…. I was delighted that Papéis Avulsos, which CAPES [Coordination Agency for Improving University-educated People] considers to be common and says that it’s good for nothing, appeared in Zootaxa as one of the 20 most important journals for describing reptile species of world biodiversity. People haven’t got it into their heads that information is absolutely important for humanity, wherever it is. If tomorrow we have to depend on information that was published in a little newspaper in a dialect of theUkrainewe’re going to have to find it and translate it. It’s important to publish in Science and in Nature, but the most important thing is to have information and quality information. How can Brazil ian journals ever reach the level of journals abroad if CAPES discourages them? Everybody’s going to Zootaxa, but the works published there are no better than those in Papéis Avulsos; they come out there simply because Zootaxa has a greater circulation, it has the money to publish them and because of copyright it earns money from the articles.

The enormous quantity of reptile species that you’ve described, 53, is impressive. Do you have any explanation for this?
No, I don’t. It’s simply a willingness to work. It’s curiosity. I was always very curious. As a boy; I used to go to the coast and went out a lot with the local people; I used to hunt and fish with them and I began to get interested in reptiles. Then I went to Butantan. I was fascinated by those snake collections and I asked a friend of my father’s, Alberto Candeias, who was a professor at the ICB [Biomedical Sciences Institute at USP], if I could become a trainee there. I even have the original request from Dr Jandira do Amaral, who was the director at Butantan, sent to Alphonse Richard Hoge, chief of the biology division, saying: “This lad was recommended by Dr. Alberto Candeias. It seems he is interested in herpetology; see if you can use him”. And Hoge wrote underneath: “We can have him for six months”. I was 16 and in the first year of high school when I went as a trainee to Butantan. Three years later I already knew all the Brazil ian snakes… I stayed there until I went to university.

In Paris?
No, the University of São Paulo. I entered USP and did a year and a half – I had a bit of a confused academic life – and when I was at the end of the second year there I received FAPESP’s first ever scientific initiation scholarship, which I never used, because I was already a trainee of [Paulo Emílio] Vanzolini at the Zoology Museum, a man I admire a great deal.

Why didn’t you use the scholarship?
Because I became a prisoner in that first prison group in 1975. I was put in prison and tortured; they stopped hitting me the day they killed Vlado [journalist Vladimir Herzog]. I didn’t know why they stopped, because they used to beat me for almost 72 hours at a time; they threw me in a yard alongside Doi- Codi, in the 2nd Army. There were cells in front and I stayed there in the yard for half an hour, trying to recover. A little later they threw me into a cell and the first person who came to help me there was Paulo Sérgio Markun, from TV Cultura today, who was a prisoner with me. Markun was very friendly with my father, who was a well-known journalist; he was an editorial writer for Estadão. A little later they called him and another journalist who was inside there, Anthony de Christo, and they stayed with them for more or less half an hour. When Markun came back I saw that he was very disturbed. I said: “What’s up, Markun?”. He said: “Nothing, it was nothing”. “What do you mean it was nothing? I know when you’re upset.” Some time went by and I insisted and he said: “Miguel, they’ve killed Vlado. Now we know what happened; they stopped beating you because of that; now they’re frightened. In ten minutes they’re going to come for me and Anthony to take us to be buried. They’ve already asked us to put on long-sleeved shirts to hide the torture marks”.

Were you a militant at the time?
I was a militant member of the party here at the university, the big party. I used to write the class newspaper, student things, absolutely innocuous… I left Doi-Codi and went to the Hipódromo prison where I stayed for more or less two months… I was arrested on October 17 and I left prison on December 23. I went home and started a series of attempts at home; I used to write on walls saying they were going to kill everyone. I thought it best to leave forFrance. The French and Portuguese consuls took me toParaguayand from there I went toLimawhere I stayed in the house of Darcy Ribera, who was a friend of my father’s. From there I went toParis. I arrived inPariswhere I asked for credits [in the subjects] from the year and half of the course I had already begun. In fact I managed to get more, because I did an exam and got credits for the whole of the first two years in the university and I finished my degree inFrance. I then came back to Brazil to do my PhD.

You finished the biology course in 1978,.by which time you had already described your first species, right?
The first animal I described was a small snake from French Guyana, Atractus zidoki, together with Jean-Pierre Gasc, from theMuseum ofParis. I always used to look at animals from different places and say: “Goodness me, what happened?” What most interested me was evolution, the history of a group of species that a taxonomist traces from the study of the characters of animals. Being a taxonomist is being a taxonomist for everything. I mean finding differences, what separates things, grouping things in various possible ways. The first part of the work of a taxonomist is precisely replying to the following question: “What are the evolutionary units I’m playing around with here? Are they species or geographic variations?” That’s what I did in my PhD; I took a group of lizards that everybody thought were the same thing inSouth America and ended up discovering that there were 14 species there; several of them had to be described as new.

MIGUEL T.U.RODRIGUESPsilophthalmus paeminosus, from Santo Inácio: forelimbs with four fingers and hind limbs with fiveMIGUEL T.U.RODRIGUES

Are there many taxonomists in Brazil?
They’re in short supply. Ornithology is one of the areas where there’s a big lack of taxonomists. Look how history explains this: when I did my post-gradate studies with Vanzolini there were very few herpetologists in Brazil. There was Vanzolini, Tales de Lima inRio Grandedo Sul, and practically no one else. The first post-graduate course in herpetology was at theInstitute of Biosciencesat USP, jointly with the Museum of Zoology. Vanzolini started as my tutor and I was tutor for a host of people. Today, a herpetology congress brings together 800 people. In ornithology the most important person in the last century was Olivério Pinto, father of Prof. Eudóxia Froehlich, from my department here. Olivério Pinto was the director of the Museum of Zoology, retired and was never a post-graduate tutor. In other words, there was no tutor in systematic ornithology in Brazil. Today the few ornithologist taxonomists, incredible though it may seem, are students of Elizabeth Höfling, from this department whose anatomy tutor was Vanzolini. She’s an anatomist and decided to become a tutor for her students because there was no one else. Only in a few years time will we have a suitable number of taxonomists, which is a dreadful situation in a country with enormous biodiversity, like Brazil.

With this in mind, how is our biodiversity protected?
Very difficult, if we don’t have sufficient taxonomists and we don’t know our biodiversity. We’re doing various pieces of work in morphology and others with the molecular part, but when we start with more refined work, using molecular characters, the systematic based on morphological data sometimes needs to be completely redone. Just through morphology we’re unable to detect cryptic species [morphologically identical, but genetically different]. If we want to conserve a certain species in an area I can say “It’s preserved in this area here”. That’s a lie, because when I go to do the molecular work I see that what I’m preserving is a species. The other, that I detected using molecular data, is in an area that’s not protected.

You start a chapter in the book Fauna da Caatinga saying that for a long time there was an idea that the Caatinga [semi-arid region of shrubland and stunted thorn forest vegetation] had no fauna of its own. You cite Vanzolini and the North American zoologist, Michael Mares, and then criticize them, saying that it was a hasty view, based on biological collections that were not very representative, with an insufficient geographic sampling of the neighboring ecosystems. Does this mean that, notwithstanding the importance of the work of Vanzolini, knowledge about the biodiversity of reptiles is full of gaps?
Yes, and the problem is that we have noticed this late. Only at the end of the 1990’s, with American researcher Jack Sites, and Nelson Jorge da Silva, from Goiania, did we decide to change the reptile sampling method in Brazil. We decided to make a large collection in the Mesahills region, in Goiás, with interception and drop traps, which the Americans already used for collecting in the desert. It’s a simple trap; you bury buckets and between them you make a fence with a plastic sheet; the animals hit the fence and follow it until they fall into the buckets. With these traps we changed the way of collecting in Brazil, and today no one just collects manually. We began to get an immense quantity of unknown animals and species that had previoiusly been considered rare which started to become common. Some marsupials of the Monodelphis genus, considered extremely rare, were in fact very common. Some of this secretive [difficult to detect] fauna began to appear using this collection method, which increased our knowledge about Brazil ian fauna a lot. Until then it was thought that the Caatinga did not have any of its own fauna or that its fauna was the same as that of the Cerrado [savannah and scrubland], but then we began to see that there was a lot of endemism [species of animals or plants that are peculiar to a restricted geographic area] in the Caatinga and the Cerrado.

Research in the dunes of theSão FranciscoRiverare one of the milestones on your scientific journey, right? How did it begin?
I was doing my PhD with lizards of the Tropidurus genus and I discovered that in an area of the Caatinga, in Santo Inácio, in Bahia, there were two species of Tropidurus. I said to myself: “Hmm, why are there two species there and in the rest of the Caatinga there’s only one?” I went up there, I confirmed the existence of the two and I caught another animal that I described as Tropidurus amathites. The Tropidurus from Santo Inácio lived in the sand, when all the others were saxicolous, meaning they lived in stony areas. In addition to being in the sand the closest relative was a saxicolous animal from the Espinhaço Hills in Minas Gerais, more than a thousand and something kilometers away from there. “Wow, how’s that possible? How can a saxicolous animal end up becoming one that lives in sand, or vice-versa?” I discovered that Richard Burton, the researcher, used to say that in this region of the São Francisco there was a smallSahara. I thought to myself: “If there’s a smallSahara then there must be so much sand that it’s no joke”. I started investigating and I found the works of Aziz Ab’Saber and Jean Tricart, showing that he biggest region of paleodunes inSouth America were there. I discovered a new ecosystem there, from which we described genera and new species of snakes, lizards, toads, various things.

Was this sand recognized as biologically relevant?
It was not only recognized as such, but the National Park of the São Francisco Dunes is in the process of being created, at my suggestion. I suggested it to IBAMA, it was accepted, I flew over it with them, a large area…

EDUARDO CESARThere must be other areas like the dunes in Brazil, mustn’t there?
Undoubtedly. Our work in the Cerrado has shown that sandy regions support endemic species that were unknown. The only way of seeing if the situation is similar to the one found in the dunes of the São Francisco is by working in the field. It’s impossible to say if an area is important without collecting in the place. Our knowledge about the mechanisms that led to the differentiation of species is insufficient to say if an area is or isn’t relevant to the differentiation of animals. Anyone who gets to the top of the Baturité Hills in Ceará is going to see that the surrounding mountains are covered with Atlantic rainforest. Around them it’s all caatinga, that incredible plain. Anyone who collects from up there has a probability of finding endemic species, because forest species don’t cross open areas; they’ve been isolated since the time that patch of forest was in contact with the Atlantic rainforest or with the Amazon.

Does the confusion caused by a deformation of the Ministry of the Environment laws between researchers and biopirates still exist?
Partly, yes. They say that biodiversity makes money when it doesn’t necessarily, and they put this into everyone’s heads. In the Indian and ex-slave villages – a lot of these people say “I want money for you to work on my land”–, the guys have completely lost the notion that to make money some day, may sometimes need 10 years investigation. The work of me and my students was tremendously compromised; we had to go abroad to look at material because they [researchers from other countries] didn’t send material to Brazil. Today things are simpler, but there’s still a little of the notion that a researcher is a guy who’s half criminal, who’s killing animals or involved in piracy… all because of two or three cases…

To resolve these conflicts it would be important to integrate the researchers with other groups so that they participate in research, wouldn’t it?
Of course. That’s something I always defended. The problem is that the majority of the national parks which could make these links unfortunately don’t work. Most of the parks should have a lot more information and they don’t have it. They lack field guides for most of the groups. National parks would have to have money and broad agreements with universities because it’s there, in the parks, where the raw material for researchers to work with is found. TheGoeldiMuseumhas theCaxiuanãParkand Reserve, ceded to them for 30 years by IBAMA. The Goeldi Museumis managing Caxiuanã and generating knowledge; several books have been published already, but what predominates in national parks is research without any direction, because it results from a spontaneous request from each researcher. You arrive in a national park and want to know what the infrastructure is and the database and you see that they have nothing about temperature variations, climate or the phenology of the most common plants… A team of technicians in each park could be responsible for these data, keep in touch with people from the universities, take people there, I don’t know, with the support of the FAB ( Brazil ian Air Force), like the former Rondon Project, and agree things like “for 10 years you’re going to study this national park so we can have information about this ecosystem; something planned”. Another thing that’s been relegated to fifteenth place in importance in Brazil is tourism; with all the biodiversity we have! We’ve got nothing that attracts as much attention as the big animal fauna inAfrica, but we’ve got jaguars and monkeys… In what country can you get to see 14 or 15 monkey species in a single location, like in the Amazon? Tourists love seeing lizards in the wild and photographing toads at night, but we don’t take advantage of this. The people who work in this area don’t know Brazil ian fauna or our ecosystems or what tourists like.

What was your work as director of the Museum of Zoology like?
I headed up the museum for four years. I took over as director when Vanzolini retired. I put all my efforts into increasing the museum’s value and I think I succeeded. Today the Museum of Zoology occupies a prominent position in the university. There’s no post-graduate degree in zoology done in Brazil without consulting the museum’s collections. The most important neo-tropical collections in the world are there. The collections the museum has accumulated since its foundation in 1885 are the basis for understanding the history of ecosystems and for outlining a better future for the country. If you think about the expansion of endemic diseases, the collections of dipterans [insects] are strategic.Darwinwould not have developed his theory of natural selection if he’d not had access to the collections in the British Museum and compared the animals he’d collected with those that had been deposited there over the generations. The museum is at the core of the work of the researcher. The collections I’ve made throughout my life are going to be deposited in the Museum of Zoology and 20, 30 years from now someone’s going to look at them and take advantage of my work, by enriching it with the material that they themselves have collected. But there’s a problem…

São Paulo, because it’s the richest city in Brazil, and Brazil because it has the biggest biodiversity in the world, should have a correspondingly important museum. And we don’t have one. The Museumof Zoologylacks technicians and a series of important things to be able to carry on with its work. I could have described a lot more than 50 species if I’d had more support from technicians working at the museum. It lacks infrastructure support and space for exhibitions and for the collections. This is what sometimes the university doesn’t see and it’s very important. A collection that’s not organized is no good when it comes to study; it’s the same thing as a disorganized library. Science is not going to advance like that. If a guy publishes some work in Nature or in Science, you look at him and say: “Wow, I have an animal that shows that the thing is different, but where’s this animal? Years ago I collected it but the collection is disorganized…”, it’s finished, you’ve wasted time in replying. Skill is important; collections have to be well-organized, with people capable of taking care of them. With Infra [project of FAPESP’s Infrastructure Program], I managed to compact practically all the collections in the museum and open up new spaces, but I knew that that would be for four years. That was eight years ago and the museum is bursting at the seams. It needs an area three times bigger; there’s no way of growing. The building was constructed to house collections at the beginning of the 20th century.

What’s the solution?
To construct a large building for the museum here inUniversity City [campus]. There was a project to construct theMuseum ofZoology building here, theMuseum Square, which I suggested to USP. It was accepted by the dean’s office but never got off the ground because of a lack of political will. Brazil deserves a museum that’s worthy of it. Even more so now, in soccer World Cup year, with Brazil being on show; there’s nothing that’s a cultural mark for any important city. You don’t go toParis without going to the Jardin des Plantes and theMuseum ofNatural History, or toLondon, without visiting the British Museum.Buenos Aires has the Museu deLa Plata, which is spectacular. Brazil has no museum like that. There’s the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro; it’s a crying shame to see that wonderful house, which was the imperial palace, falling to pieces. Now it’s being refurbished.São Paulo, Brazil’s richest city, still has no zoology museum on a par with its wealth.