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Explorer of the Week: Rayna Bell

Rayna Bell received a grant from National Geographic in 2010 to research patterns of diversification in a species-rich genus of reedfrogs from Central Africa. Inspired by stories from her high school biology teacher about fieldwork in Africa, Bell decided to pursue research in evolutionary biology as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Now a graduate student...

Rayna Bell received a grant from National Geographic in 2010 to research patterns of diversification in a species-rich genus of reedfrogs from Central Africa. Inspired by stories from her high school biology teacher about fieldwork in Africa, Bell decided to pursue research in evolutionary biology as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Now a graduate student at Cornell University, she spends about four weeks in the field for each of her research expeditions to look for frogs, lizards, turtles, and snakes. Technically, she’s also been searching for the elusive limbless amphibians called caecilians, and she finally found one on a recent trip to São Tomé Island!

What project are you working on now?
The project I’m most excited about right now is trying to figure out why males and females are different colors in several species of African treefrogs. Even though we know a lot about sexual color differences in birds, it’s still a big mystery in frogs. The frogs I study are especially unusual because often the females are more conspicuously colored than the males.

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
I did some research on this one and I would pick anthropologist and archaeologist Constanza Ceruti. I’ve always thought archeology would be a really fun career choice because I think ancient civilizations are fascinating, but my only “experience” with archeology dates from middle school where we spent an entire week making artifacts, burying them, and then digging them up and deciphering their significance. Constanza Ceruti’s work sounds intriguing because she gets to excavate Inca sites in the beautiful Andean mountains.

Bell and a teammate wait for a cell phone signal at the only spot in Ivindo that gets service (sometimes). Photograph by Bryan Stuart

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?

I think there are tons of ways to explore that extend beyond “discovering” a particular place or describing a new species. Even when we have described all the species on earth and explored the depths of space, there will still be so much to explore in terms of the natural history of different organisms, how they all interact with each other and the environment, and how earth and space have changed over time.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
I’m studying two species of treefrogs that are endemic to the island of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea. The main goal of this project is to figure out how and when these species got to this island, because frogs don’t really swim across oceans. To reconstruct the evolutionary history of these species, I’ve been collecting genetic data in the lab, and I noticed that a couple of my samples had mixed genetic ancestry and could potentially be hybrids. To figure out if the species really were hybridizing, I needed a bigger sample size and luckily the California Academy of Sciences let me tag along on their expedition in April. I was just hoping to find more frogs so I could use genetic techniques to figure out if they were hybrids, but partway through the trip I found a female of one species mating with a male of the other species. Pretty solid evidence that they’re hybridizing!

Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?
I get lost all the time. I’m not one of those biologists that can find their way in the forest. In fact, if I have a strong inclination to head in a certain direction, then I know that I should probably take the exact opposite route. I think the most embarrassing example is when my collaborator Bryan Stuart and I got lost with our field assistant Toussaint less than 500m from the field station during an expedition in Gabon. It was nighttime, and the forest was very dense, and after an hour of turning around in circles we had to call the night guard’s cellphone and ask him to yell to us so we could find our way.

Sketch by Rayna Bell of herself in the field
Sketch by Rayna Bell of herself in the field


What one item do you always have with you?
Because I have such a terrible sense of direction, I always take my GPS with me in the field and keep the “track” function on so I can retrace my steps.

What are you reading?
A really old copy of Madame Bovary that my grandmother gave me the last time I visited her in Paris.

What is your favorite food?
I think my favorite food is probably plantains. I love them sweet or green, steamed or fried, and even in soup or sushi. It also helps that plantains and bananas are a staple in a lot of the countries where I do my fieldwork.

What are you listening to?
I listen to a really eclectic mix of music, but lately it’s been a lot of Bon Iver, José González, and William Fitzsimmons.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
I was really concerned with fitting in and felt different because I’m half French and my parents are professional musicians. Even though these things made me feel like an outsider in elementary school, I now appreciate what makes my family unique. Also, speaking French has turned out to be really helpful for working in Central Africa.

If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
I would fund biodiversity research in Central Africa to help prioritize areas for conservation. I’d love to explore Asia and the islands in the South Pacific.

If you were a baseball player, and you came up to bat, what song would be played as your “signature song”?
“Eye of the Tiger”. It’s our lab’s theme song and we play it whenever some has an important accomplishment, like passing a qualifying exam or giving their defense seminar.

See this Rocky music video of  “Eye of the Tiger”:

Do you have a hidden talent?
I don’t know if it really counts as a hidden talent, but most people don’t know that I used to sing with my parents’ Middle Eastern music group.

What is your favorite National Geographic photo?
I really love desert landscapes and dunes so one of my favorite photos is Camel, Socotra Island.

What is your favorite National Geographic magazine or news article?
The article about the biodiversity of Bioko Island came out in 2008, right when I was starting my graduate studies. I was still trying to choose a research project and I was considering treefrogs from the Gulf of Guinea islands but I was a little worried about the practicality of doing research there. Luckily, the Bioko article came out at the perfect time to convince me that it was worth giving it a shot!

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
The Monteverde Golden Toad from the cloud forest of Costa Rica that mysteriously disappeared in the 1980s. This species had amazing coloration with males that were “Day-Glo” orange and females that were darker with red and yellow spots. Unfortunately, this species went extinct before biologists had a chance to learn very much about its natural history and I would love the opportunity to figure out why males and females were such different colors.

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Meet the Author

Amy Bucci
Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.