10 Jan 2020

Philippe Kok: Expert on reptiles and amphibians

From Summer Times, 10:05 am on 10 January 2020

Philippe J. R Kok is a Beligan expert on reptiles and amphibians who has been described by his peers as a hardcore field biologist. That's because he loves nothing more than camping in remote areas with not a human in sight, to collect field samples and be surrounded by the wilderness.

He is currently studying the tepui ecosystem in northern South America - which have been described as islands in the sky. where he is trying to disentangle the processes behind the evolution of organisms in these “islands in the sky”.  The Tepui are table like mountains that arise above the savannah and tropical forest mainly in southern Venezuela, west-central Guyana, and Brazil.

But right now he is in New Zealand for the 9th world congress of herpetology which is being hosted by the University of Otago, and spoke to Summer Times from RNZ's Dunedin studio.

Dr Kok says he gets the title of being “hardcore” because the places he work are tough terrain. The Tepui are no exception.

“These places are really hard to access, you only get to them by climbing or by helicopter. Also, the conditions there are very hard. It rains a lot, it’s pretty cold, you’re isolated for a long time. But I like it.” 

He says he’s never been a fan of working exclusively in a lab, and most of his biggest questions require field work. 

“I love to be in the field and see what is happening and there are so many questions that come from that.” 

Dr Kok says the field of herpetology is a fast moving one, with new species of reptiles and amphibians discovered every year. 

“I have probably around 20-25 new species to describe, I just don’t have the time. Almost every time we do field work we find new species.”

Dr Kok says he was always interested in birds and tadpoles from the time he was a child and originally wanted to become a vet. 

“I really loved animals but I realised that, as a vet, I would probably only deal with cats and dogs and that wasn’t too much to my taste. I also wanted to explore new areas.”

He says he was drawn to science because of the potential to make new discoveries and explore remote regions where humans had never been before. 

“What I love in science is that you open one door and there are ten closed doors behind it. It’s never ending, you are constantly trying to understand what is happening and every time there is a new mystery to solve. It’s very exciting.”

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