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Wildlife Man Of Costa Rica: St. Louis Man Writes Guides To Frogs & Reptiles of Central America

Photos provided by David Norman.

by Don Corrigan

David Norman is a friend to frogs and reptiles of Central America. A Webster Groves 1972 high school grad, he recently took time out from field work in Costa Rica to visit with friends from a half century ago at his reunion.

“Some of my Webster buddies have been down to see me, so I don’t feel too far away,” said Norman. “Cory Gardiner and his wife have come down. So has Bill Clark and his wife. There is a lot to see in Costa Rica.

“I always take visitors to an active volcano, and a cloud forest, and a much wetter rainforest, and the beaches and national parks,” said Norman. “My regular work is as a tour guide and teacher for colleges offering study abroad credits.”

Norman always is happy to introduce the frogs and reptiles of Costa Rica to American visitors. After all, he wrote the books on these creatures, including “Common Amphibians of Costa Rica” and a field guide to similar animals in the Santa Rosa and Palos Verde national parks.

With almost 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, Costa Rica is a natural paradise. It sits majestically between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, a relatively small piece of land with enormously varied ecosystems. As Norman explained, when Panama uplifted about six-million years ago to connect North and South America, a great “faunal exchange” occurred. New species from the south headed north and vice versa, which brought much diversity to Costa Rica.

Photos provided by David Norman.

It’s no coincidence that the country is credited as the birthplace of ecotourism. Twenty-five percent of its national territory is designated as biological reserves, national park, forest reserves and wildlife refuges. It’s a model of environmental awareness.

It’s also no coincidence that universities are pleased to connect with Costa Rica for students to observe sustainable practices. Norman said the country knows how to fish without exhausting marine resources, and it knows how to harvest animals without species depletion.

Sustainable practices are observable all over the country and are practiced by all citizens in their daily tasks. Costa Rica produces 95% of its electricity from renewable resources. The sustainability ethic is embedded in its culture and traditions.

Those Frogs & Reptiles

Photos provided by David Norman.

A question that Norman often is asked: “If there are 150 different amphibians here in Costa Rica, how come I don’t see more of them when I’m out in the forest?”

The answer is that many salamanders remain hidden under logs and leaf litter, while the frogs are cleverly camouflaged and many live up in the trees. The vast majority of frogs only come out at night.

Norman has learned how to successfully go “frogging” and he imparts that knowledge to students. Norman can list countless ways frogs are important to us, from eating pests to providing medical breakthroughs, but he especially values frog music – their songs.

Among the frogs that Norman has documented are: a colorful red-eyed leaf frog, a yellow-lined poison dart frog, a strawberry poison dart frog and a growling marbled rubber frog.

“The first time I grabbed a marbled rubber frog, it left my hands and fingers covered with a sticky substance, as though I had put my hand in Elmer’s glue,” recalled Norman. “As the secretion began to dry, it stretched like a rubber band between my fingers.”

It’s a good idea not to touch the poisonous frogs. Bright colors sometimes serve as a warning to be wary. The skin secretions by some frogs are so toxic that indigenous peoples used them to coat tips of their hunting darts.

Photo by Rich Tajmakian.

In his guides, Norman also covers plenty of snakes, lizards, iguanas, crocodiles and the turtles of Central and South America. Among the interesting snakes are the green vine snake, jumping pit viper, bird snake and eye lash viper.

“A beautiful, yet rare snake, is the orange-bellied swamp snake, only active at night in small streams in the rain forest of Central America,” said Norman. “While helping a stream monitoring team with their fish electro-shocking work in a stream in Costa Rica, up came with the fish a big swamp snake.

“He was in a foul mood,” added Norman.  “While the color of their undersides can vary, this individual had a striking salmon-colored belly the whole length of the body. On my own, I probably will never find another specimen of this species of snake.”

Peace Corps Hitch

Norman and his brothers were raised by school teachers with an interest in animals and natural science. His father taught at Harris Stowe Teachers College where he used to bring turtles and snakes for students to observe in his classes.

“My dad used to take us to Charlie Hoessle’s pet shop in Affton, the guy who later became director of the St. Louis Zoo,” Norman explained. “Charlie was an inspiration and there were always birds, reptiles and fish to take a look at in his store.”

Photos provided by David Norman.

Norman studied science at Webster Groves High School and continued that interest at the University of Missouri and then with graduate studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was destined to head farther south.

In the late 1970s he worked with the Peace Corps in El Salvador. He also traveled in the Amazon Basin of Brazil and did conservation work with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Peace Corps bio-inventory project.

Central and South America in the 1970s and 1980s was plagued by social, economic and political turmoil, as well as by occasional hostage-taking of visiting Americans. Norman said he was too focused on his nature work to be overly concerned.

“I tried to blank it out, but I was not totally ignorant of what was going on,” said Norman. “If you were a white guy tromping around with lots of cameras, you could be accused of being a gringo spy. I was accused of that, but I never felt any physical danger.

“Being with the Peace Corps, both sides in any conflict down there just left us alone,” added Norman. “They knew we were not there to cause trouble, just there to help people out.”

After his studies at Tulane University, Norman was invited to Costa Rica as a visiting professor at the Universidad Nacional. He loved the small, peaceful nation. He never left this wonderful country full of amazing plants and diverse wildlife.

He now works with ICADS, which means Institute for Central American Development Studies, and is the ecology professor. He is team teacher for a field program in Costa Rican ecosystems and the sustainable use of natural resources.

In recent years, Norman has been doing acrylic paintings of various species of amphibians and reptiles that live in northwest Costa Rica. His goal has been to produce lightweight and inexpensive field guides for students and conservation advocates.

Rangers and environmental educators in the Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica have aided him in his efforts. They have “tested out” the bilingual guides and materials with the local grade schoolers that visit by the busload.

Photos provided by David Norman.

“Field guides are important tools that bridge the gap between the knowledge held by scientists and the general public,” said Norman. “In these books’ organization and visual content, the ordinary visitor can properly identify species of living organisms in the wild.”

Norman is a big fan of author Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” The book points out that kids in America are spending too much time with video screens and much less time in nature.

“We know that this can have very negative effects when it comes to land stewardship, understanding the changes in our climate and environment, and in overall psychological well-being,” said Norman. “I like to think that field guides are one of the important ways to help get everybody back into nature.”

One response to “Wildlife Man Of Costa Rica: St. Louis Man Writes Guides To Frogs & Reptiles of Central America

  1. Just a minor correction. I assumed David Norman was back in St. Louis from Costa Rica for his 1972 Class Reunion and that was put in the story. He was here in 2022 for his 1971 Class Reunion, which was held a year late because of – what else – COVID19. Thanks for reading the story and I hope this mistake does not endanger a chance to crash at Norman’s place when I fulfill a bucket list dream to visit Costa Rica to see all the frogs, snakes and turtles. – Don Corrigan

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