Friday, February 29, 2008

Who's afraid of snakes?

Chances are that if you're reading this blog, the answer is: not you. But we all know how many people out there have a snake phobia. Have you ever wondered how much of this is ingrained and how much is learned?

A study I read about today supposedly shows that the fear of snakes (and spiders) is "hard-wired", meaning NOT learned, in humans. Now, I firmly believe that this is true in some animals, and am reminded of this every time my big bad 85-lb German Sherpherd, who has never had a traumatic run-in with a snake, runs cowering into the other room when I remove a shed skin from one of the snake cages. But in humans? This study, which unfortunately will not be published until next month so I can only rely on the media, supposedly shows that snake phobia is hard-wired because pre-schoolers and adults alike notice snakes in a montage of other animals much more quickly. Without having read the paper, and shaped by my own experiences, I am not inclined to believe this science is rigorous in theory or practice. By the way, if anyone thinks that pre-schoolers are too young to have already "learned" to fear snakes from TV, listening to their parents, etc., think again. A recent study of 3-5 year olds found that they thought food tasted better if it came in a McDonald's wrapper. I'd say that's pretty good evidence that pre-schoolers have already begun to form opinions about things based on their experience (and advertising!).

Until I am able to read the paper myself, I will share with you why I believe that the fear if snakes is mainly LEARNED in humans. Put plainly, little kids like snakes. No, they LOVE snakes. I had the priviledge of visiting Georgia Brown Elementary School in Paso Robles this week to teach second graders about snakes.

[I had some photos but removed them due to privacy issues- suffice it to say the kids were thrilled and LOVED those snakes!]
Most adults hate snakes. I believe that this is largely a learned behavior, from watching stupid movies like Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane. Even the nature channels on TV, especially Discover Channel, hype up the snake shows to the point where they misrepresent snakes as being aggressive when in reality they're only trying to defend themselves.

Anyway, thanks to Mrs. Knowlton at Georgia Brown for inviting me to hang out with snakes and second graders, my favorite kind of people (that includes the snakes!).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Sign of Spring

We went out to the field site this weekend to check on our radiotagged Northern Pacific rattlesnakes. The snakes have been "hibernating" underground in rocky outcrops since November. The weather had been quite warm following our recent heavy rain. Here's what typical rattlesnake habitat looks like in the Carrizo Plain:

We were thrilled to see one of our 18 snakes out basking in partial sunlight. We needed a blood sample to measure the snake's hormone levels, and we wanted to measure and weigh the snake to see if last year's drought had a negative impact. This is C4, a medium-sized male we've been radiotracking since Oct 2006.

Marty tubing the snake:

Marty and the students (Bree, Ben, and Craig) examining the snake:

In a few more weeks... hopefully a few more snakes!

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Ah, February is a strange month. It is a somewhat boring month, because it's still too cold for herps to be out in force. But it is also an exciting month, because March is on the horizon! Ah, how I love almighty March, when the oak trees are covered in sleepy lizards and the rock outcrops are full of amorous rattlesnakes.

February hasn't been all bad, especially for amphibians. This is why my yawn was followed by an exclamation point! We've had a lot of rain lately followed by a few days of warm weather. So there have been some signs of ectothermic life. Check out what Marty has found, mainly under logs, in our yard in the past few days:

California newt

California kingsnake


Slender salamander

Western fence lizard basking

Here are a few photos from a recent trip to Tucson to visit da Rev.

Hiking in Pima Canyon

A cardinal (which is a reptile. Ask me why.)

After the Gem and Mineral show:

In other news: revenge of the ticks! I came home recently to find Marty sporting a mild case of Conjoined Twin Myselexia.

Normally the twin is big, grey, and stinky (our old doggie Darwin, who never willingly lets Marty out of his sight), but that day it was one of my good old Ixodes buddies. I tried to talk Marty into letting the tick feed to repletion so I could get its offspring, but he was having none of that!