One thing I really love about my job is that I get to work with researchers and scientists who have dedicated their entire lives to their work. And there’s one individual in particular who has gone above and beyond in his dedication to his research. Datuk Dr. Robert F. Inger first came to the Field Museum as a volunteer when he was an undergraduate. He eventually got his Ph.D. and became a curator in the reptile division in 1954. And he held that position until his retirement–in 1994. Today, he’s 96 years old and continues to come in to work on his revised manuscript on the frogs of Borneo. Bob has described 75 new species to science, authored 8 books, and published more than 150 research papers. 40 species are named in his honor. And we got a chance to interview him recently about some of his 5 decades of field work. Check it out. [The Brain Scoop theme song plays] Emily: We are here with Datuk Dr. Robert F. Inger who is a herpetologist here at the Field Museum. Bob: That’s what I do. [Emily laughs] Emily: Bob, you’ve been here at the Field Museum since… Bob: Oh, too long. [Chuckle] Emily: Too long! Emily: What I find really interesting is that you have such an extensive history studying the frogs and reptiles in Borneo. Emily: When did you start doing work in Borneo? And why? Bob: I did my doctoral dissertation on a study of the frogs of Philippine Islands. The Museum wanted to send one of its mammalogists to Boneo, which lies south of the Philippines. I was the only one who was working on an area near Borneo, so I was selected. And I must say, that was the best accident of my life. The best place that I’ve worked in that rain forest–which covers all of Borneo– is a spot in the state of Sarawak. I hired four guys from the nearest longhouse. This is Bajok, Abas, myself, Jarau, and Aran. I was a city fellow, plopped down in the middle of this forest, and I didn’t know where I was. So I depended upon them for all kinds of things. First of all, to build a house. And this is that house. We were two days travel from the nearest village, and we worked in the forest itself and along creeks that fed into this major river. Emily: So when you first went to Borneo, how many species of frogs did we know from that area? Bob: We knew about 70 species from Borneo. When I published my first monograph on the frogs of Borneo, we had a list of 90 species. There are now 185 species known, and new species are found maybe every two years. Emily: For comparison, how many species of frogs are in the United States? Bob: Well… in Illinois, fewer than 20. Emily: Really!? Emily: What do you think about Borneo has allowed for so many different species of frogs to evolve and to thrive in this environment? Bob: Well, every species has a limited ecological distribution. Some species of frog is kind of using every little kind of space in the forest. Emily: Well, I mean, you were doing field work too, before there were all these technological luxuries that we have today. You know to make life a little easier in the forest than to… Bob: Well, there was another problem of a sort. To get from Chicago to out to Borneo. My first trip, we left Chicago and flew to San Francisco, spent overnight in San Francisco, then got on a plane the next morning to Honolulu, Hawaii to Wake Island, to Guam, to Manila, from Manila to Singapore. From Singapore, we went to Kuching, then to get to this spot, we went on a boat. And that took a day to get to the last town. And from the town, we got in a boat. We went for another two days upriver, and finally arrived at this spot. Emily: What I love about this picture, too, is that you’re wearing this (Bob: Oh, yes) great accessory on your legs. Bob: One of the things about the Borneo rain forest that’s particularly interesting is that it is filled with land leeches. There, the atmosphere is so humid that they can live in the forest away from streams. The first time I went for a walk in the forest, in a couple of hours, we had 10 to 12 leech bites on each leg, all bleeding. And I was wondering “How am I going to work in this place?” [Emily chuckles] And then I ran into some British guys who were timber people, and they had the solution. Emily: Oh, wow!
Bob: Wear leech stockings! Bob: So you wear your regular clothing, and you put your legs in this, tie it. You see the leeches climbing up here, and you can pull ’em off and cut ’em with a pocket knife. Emily: There you go! I mean, innovated a good solution.
Bob: It’s what the well-dressed forest researcher will wear. [Emily chuckles] Emily: At that time, you were so disconnected from the rest of the world. Bob: I had finished, spent two months in the field and I went down to the coastal city. Sunday morning, I’m walking around the street, there are newspapers with headlines like “Crisis Over”. And I, my reaction was, “What crisis?” That was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Of course, I was spared all the anxiety at the time that people here were experiencing. Emily: Yeah, I mean you should just go into the forest and disconnect from the world. Over your decades of working in Borneo and surveying the species and collecting all these things, What is the biggest change that you saw over time? Removal of the forest. When I first worked in Borneo, the RAF had kind of excursion flights for publicity purposes. And we flew over an area of about 200 miles. You didn’t see the ground. All you saw was the crowns of trees. Take the same flight today, you see nothing. You see no forest at all. It’s all been removed, first for timber, and now for plantations of various sort. We had a rain gauge that we’d set out at the edge of our camp clearing. And one year, we had 300 inches of rain.
Emily: Oh my gosh. Bob: With rainfall that heavy, when the trees are removed, the ground is exposed and mud, silt carried into these rivers. And rivers that were once clear are no longer clear. They’re all silt. The fishes and tadpoles that feed on vegetation. That vegetation disappears; it’s choked out. Species are going extinct because of deforestation almost as fast as we discover new ones. Emily: Wow.
Bob: Yeah, it’s kind of discouraging. I came here to the museum while I was an undergraduate at the recommendation of one of my professors the the University of Chicago. He said, “Why don’t you go to the Field Museum and volunteer your work?” And so he introduced me to the man who was then head of our department of zoology here. Instead of putting me to work dusting shelves or something like that, he put me to work on a research project. [Emily chuckles]
And as a result, I published thee papers while I was an undergraduate. It was a great start, and only because of the interest and generosity of the professor at the University of Chicago and curators at the Field Museum. It was a wonderful opportunity. Emily: Did you ever think at that time that you would go on to be a curator? Bob: I didn’t think it would happen, but I hoped. And it did happen!
Emily: Yeah! Bob: And I was extremely lucky. Emily: Well you were a Curator of Fishes in, I think it was ’49? Bob: Yeah, I was Assistant Curator of Fishes. And suddenly there was an opening in the reptile division And I was fortunate enough to get that job. It was wonderful. Emily: Well you were a Curator of Reptiles here at the museum from 1954 until you retired in 1994? Bob: Gee, you know, I forgot what year that was.
[Emily laughs] Emily: I was reading up on your dates.
[Bob chuckles] Emily: But I think that’s so remarkable that you can have such a long career here. Bob: My wife said that I was the only person she knew who looked forward to Monday. Emily: Really!?
[Bob chuckles] Bob: Because I could go back to work. Emily: Well, I think that’s really telling of your character. I mean, you retired 22 years ago, and you still come in to work on your frogs. And so what does keep you coming back to work on these frogs? Bob: Well, there’s still things I don’t know. And there’s still interesting questions to ask. [The Brain Scoop outro music]