Tuesday, July 7, 2020

To the Hiker Who Bludgeoned a Rattlesnake at the Pismo Preserve This Weekend

On Friday, you stabbed a rattlesnake eight times on a nature preserve. You used the stake holding a sign asking you to avoid disturbing the rattlesnakes to kill her. You ignored pleas from other hikers to leave her alone. You cut the rattle off the still-living snake to take as a prize.

The adult female rattlesnake was at least ten years old. She lived peacefully in what is now the preserve for all those years. You left her severely injured, where she suffered for two days until I rescued her. Emergency surgery failed to save her life or those of her twelve babies.

There is no good reason to take the life of a rattlesnake. They only bite when they feel threatened. Rattlesnakes eat many rodents, thereby protecting plants and helping limit the spread of Lyme and other diseases. Rattlesnakes experience fear and pain, they learn and remember, and they can live for over 60 years, forming complex social networks with family and friends. In August the snake you killed would be giving live birth to her pups, complete with little umbilical cords and placentas, and she would protect them until they went out on their own.

Please treat wildlife with respect and compassion.

Emily Taylor
Owner, Central Coast Snake Services
Professor of Biological Sciences, Cal Poly

Two Coronado Island Rattlesnake (Crotalus caliginis) photographed by Jeff Lemm

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

What Good are Rattlesnakes? A #RattlesnakePR Primer

I have two jobs, and both of them involve rattlesnakes.

Sometimes I chuckle at how odd my career choice is. I didn’t grow up chasing snakes around the countryside like many of my fellow herpetologists. I fell in love with rattlesnakes in college, dropped my other career plans, and never looked back.

While I’m lucky to be paid to work with animals I love, I do recognize that I’m weird to love rattlesnakes. My views on these predators do not match those of most members of the public. While I have always known this, it’s one thing to know and another to experience. My “main” job, that of a college professor studying rattlesnakes and mentoring students on how to do science, kept me in a bubble for fifteen years. Inside that cozy academic bubble, students who also liked rattlesnakes sought me out for research opportunities. I enjoyed adult beverages with colleagues at conferences, all of whom also liked rattlesnakes. I retweeted photos from other snake-lovers and liked Instagram posts of gorgeous rattlesnakes doing snakey things.

Fast forward to 2019 when I began my other job by founding Central Coast Snake Services (CCSS). This company aims to reduce negative interactions between people and rattlesnakes by identifying snakes people see in their yards or on trails, by removing and relocating rattlesnakes in people’s yards, by installing rattlesnake-proof fencing, and by providing snake safety training to companies whose employees regularly come into contact with rattlesnakes. Founding CCSS has burst my rattlesnake bubble and forced me to face the fear and hatred that most people feel toward rattlesnakes. One distraught client tearfully told me how her toddler had nearly stepped on a rattlesnake in their barn. Another was so fearful of an alligator lizard because it “looks snakey” that she insisted I come relocate it even though I assured her it was harmless. The truth is that fear of snakes is extremely common and can be debilitating.

Rattlesnakes have a public relations problem, and I need to be a better #RattlesnakePR rep.

My hypothesis is that if people experience snakes, get to know snakes, and some of this misinformation is dispelled, then at least some of these people will have a change in attitude about snakes.  

Matt Holding safely shows a Pacific rattlesnake to a young girl as her mother looks on. Positive experiences like this, along with encouragement from parents rather than expression of their revulsion or fear of rattlesnakes, contribute to the appreciation of rattlesnakes in nature. More here.

This is important. Hundreds of thousands of rattlesnakes die annually at the hands of people who fear them, via axe, shovel, gun, vehicle tires, and more. Rattlesnake roundups alone claim thousands of lives needlessly and perpetuate the notion that rattlesnakes are better off dead, and the methods used (gassing underground burrows!) are a huge ecological problem.

The question is: how do we best convince people that rattlesnakes are valuable and that they deserve to exist?

Let’s consider a recent interaction I had with a client while removing a rattlesnake from her property. As I eased the placid snake into a bucket, she asked what I was going to do with it. I explained that I would relocate it on public land a short distance down the road. Her eyes got wide and she asked, 

“Why? Rattlesnakes are bad.”

This is far from the first time that I’ve gotten this reaction. I have a lot of experience answering that question, but each time I do it, I always feel later like I could have done a better job.

How do I best tailor my response to the individual who is asking the question?

How do I avoid coming across as preachy or know-it-all?

How do I sneakily manipulate this person’s mind to open, just a little, so I can plant a seed of appreciation for rattlesnakes inside?

How can I be the best possible #RattlesnakePR rep?

In this post, I have created a brief list of the arsenal of strategies that I have curated over the years to combat snake misinformation. While there are certainly others, these are the five strategies that I have used (or seen others use) most often. 

Importantly, I did not come up with most of these, but rather have soaked up ideas from others and amended them according to my own experience. My experience has drawn heavily from several groups, including Advocates for Snake Preservation, which is my absolute favorite #RattlesnakePR rep because they have come up with some of the most effective ways to change people’s minds about snakes (more on that soon); Save the Snakes, which is one of the few groups working internationally to promote the interests of snakes; and the Orianne Society, which recently began a campaign entitled Rattlesnakes: Protect-Educate-Conserve (I’m pretty sure I was the first person to buy one of the T-shirts!). 

If I’ve learned one thing as a teacher that helps me as a #RattlesnakePR rep, it is that I must never assume that I have learned everything or that I have finally gotten to be the best I can be at anything. There is always room to learn and improve. So, I am eager to hear responses to these ideas so I can keep improving my approach to helping rattlesnakes.

#RattlesnakePR Strategies

1. The Ecosystem Services Approach

A Pacific rattlesnake eats a California ground squirrel. Photo by Matt Holding.

This is by far the most commonly leveraged response to the question “what good are rattlesnakes?” I’ve used it many times, and I’ve seen it used many times.

The details: Rattlesnakes are important members of the ecosystem. They provide ecosystem services in three main ways: (1) They eat many, many small mammals and thus help maintain integrity of the food web. As mesopredators, or sometimes even top predators, rattlesnakes help to keep populations of herbivores like squirrels, mice, and rabbits at healthy levels. Removal of rattlesnakes from an ecosystem could lead to a spike in herbivores, causing them to denude vegetation and disrupting ecosystem balance. (2) Many of the small mammals eaten by rattlesnakes are hosts for ectoparasites that carry diseases. Rattlesnakes may therefore help control the spread of Lyme disease by eating so many of the rodents that act as reservoirs for the disease-causing bacteria. (3) Rattlesnakes may disperse seeds and help plants spread. When a rodent eats a seed, its digestive system usually digests the seed to access nutrients. However, when a rattlesnake eats a rodent that has eaten a seed, it may “rescue” that seed from digestion by the rodent because the snake’s digestive tract will not digest the seed. In fact, the snake will move around and eventually poop out the intact seed along with the remains of the rodent’s body, thereby effectively rescuing the seed from predation, dispersing the seed away from its parent plant, and fertilizing it in the process!

There are several potential problems with this approach. Some biologists suggest that we should not rely on ecosystem services to defend biodiversity because it only promotes “useful” organisms. More important to me is the question of whether this approach works. Do people really care if snakes control mice around their house? I’d say, not really. Most people would buy some rodent poison and not give it another thought. Do people care about snakes pooping out baby plants? They might think it’s neat, but it’s not going to effect a frameshift in the way they think about rattlesnakes. More on this later.

2. The Biomedical Breakthrough Approach

The drug Integrilin is used to prevent blood clots during certain surgeries, and is made using a compound isolated from Pygmy rattlesnake venom. Photo of the stunning rattlesnake by James Adam.

From the first mass-produced antibiotic, a mold called penicillin, which was (allegedly) discovered on accident by a messy biologist, to the extraction of a compound from the bark of Pacific Yew trees that has been developed into paclitaxel (Taxol®), the most widely used breast cancer drug, the natural world has provided a huge array of drugs. Venoms in particular have supplied or inspired numerous drugs, and rattlesnakes refuse to be left out of that party. Eptifibatide (Integrilin®) is a drug isolated from pygmy rattlesnake venom, and is used to prevent clots and heart attacks in people who are at risk for these conditions, especially when they are undergoing an angioplasty to remove blockages in coronary arteries. Given that rattlesnake venom is a cocktail of so many compounds, there are likely many additional drugs waiting to be discovered in their venoms. Also, recent developments in machine learning promise to facilitate much faster rates of drug discovery than previous methods. What drugs are waiting to be coaxed from a snake’s venom gland into the arsenal of medical professionals? Aside from venom, are future medical discoveries hiding inside rattlesnakes? If rattlesnakes and other organisms continue to be needlessly persecuted, we may never know.

3. The Threat Approach

Striking Timber rattlesnake. Photo by E. Degginger.
Scientists and snake-wranglers often tell people to leave rattlesnakes alone because they are more likely to be bitten if they try to kill the rattlesnake than if they just ignore it and let it go about its business. I have mixed feelings on this approach. Certainly it’s true that a large number of bites are illegitimate, meaning that the person was purposefully handling the snake when the bite occurred. However, we do not have data on how many bite victims were trying to kill the snake as opposed to messing with it for another reason. I like this approach when trying to discourage people from handling snakes they see out in nature. However, if a rattlesnake is in someone’s yard, most people will say that they want the snake to be removed to protect their children, their pets, and themselves. (The writer of this lovely recent article in the New York Times enjoyed seeing a coiled timber rattlesnake on the porch of her vacation home, but might have felt differently if it had been at her regular home with kids and pets around.) Ideally, calling a professional snake rescuer is ideal, but if that is not an option then the person will need to handle the situation themselves. This involves either relocating the snake by carefully moving it into a bucket or trashcan and releasing it in nearby habitat, or killing the snake. Both likely pose similar risks. So, I tend to feel it is a bit disingenuous to tell people that killing snakes is dangerous, so they should relocate it instead. I prefer to focus on other reasons why relocation is superior.

4. The Ethical Approach

This approach revolves around the notion that rattlesnakes have a right to live, just like every other organism. There is a huge amount of literature on biodiversity ethics, but I will spare you the details and tell you that this approach does not seem to work for rattlesnakes when used on its own. Stepping out of my academic bubble has shown me that most people cannot understand how a rattlesnake, an animal that society has taught them to fear, and is likely the only potentially deadly wildlife they are likely to encounter, could have the right to live unless it has some sort of value. I think this is why so many of us adopt the ecosystem services approach. We are desperately trying to get people to attach a value to a rattlesnake. However, as explained above, most people would feel like buying a $10 box of rodent poison is a much safer investment than promoting the wellbeing of rodent-predating rattlesnakes.

So, how to make people care about rattlesnakes? This leads to my final (and favorite!) approach.

5. The Friends & Family Approach

This approach never occurred to me until I heard it from my colleague Melissa Amarello, founder of Advocates for Snake Preservation. Melissa spends a huge amount of time and effort thinking about #RattlesnakePR, and she came up with a very interesting, and in my opinion very effective, idea. It embodies the idea that the ecosystem services approach doesn’t work, and instead we should appeal to people in a way that actually works. She described it in a recent article in the Arizona Sun:

-Melissa Amarello, Advocates for Snake Preservation, from Arizona Sun article published June 8, 2020

In other words, why not tell people about the neat social lives of rattlesnakes to appeal to their emotions?

After I heard this idea, I started telling people that female rattlesnakes have live birth, and that the babies are born with little umbilical cords just like human babies. Then the moms take care of the babies for a couple of weeks, defending them from predators while they are most vulnerable before their first shed. I tell them how we have recently learned that rattlesnakes appear to hang out with their friends and their family members, and that we are just learning about their complex social lives. I tell them how rattlesnakes can live to be 60 years old, and killing an adult might mean that you have killed an animal that has been peacefully eating rodents and hanging around with their friends and family for decades.

An Arizona Black rattlesnake with her babies. Photo by Jeff Smith.

While this approach has not been tested empirically (this would make an excellent graduate student project!!), I can affirm that it seems to work. Sometimes people say things like, “Maybe I’ll call you to relocate a snake next time I see one instead of killing it.” Sometimes people send me photos months after a presentation, excitedly showing me a rattlesnake they encountered on a hike (and did not kill). Melissa recounts how a Boy Scout leader told her she had changed his mind about rattlesnakes:

-Melissa Amarello, Advocates for Snake Preservation, from Arizona Sun article published June 8, 2020

Back to the client who earnestly asked me why I was going to relocate the “bad” rattlesnake instead of killing it. What did I say to her? I gave her a response something like this, which combines all the most effective bits of what I’ve written above with the hope that at least one part of it would appeal to her.

“Rattlesnakes are not bad! They don’t want to bite you- look at this snake, she's not coming after us, she is scared of us and she only wants to defend herself. Rattlesnakes are important members of the community- they eat thousands of rodents that would otherwise eat our crops and spread diseases like Lyme Disease. Their venom has been used to make a drug that prevents heart attacks, and many more potential drugs based on rattlesnake venom are being investigated. This rattlesnake is probably at least 10 years old and can live as long as 60 years, and this summer she will get pregnant, have live babies (complete with umbilical cords!), and care for them for a couple of weeks before they head out on their own. Rattlesnakes hang out with friends and family members their whole lives, and of course it would be terrible if someone killed off our friends or family members! Plus, it’s dangerous to try to kill rattlesnakes, as most bites happen when people are intentionally messing with the snakes. It's best to stay away from rattlesnakes and let them go about their lives."

A large male Pacific rattlesnake sits quietly as I take his photograph. 

Fellow #RattlesnakePR reps, please feel free to adopt these ideas, tweak them, test them out, give feedback, and share with others. I hope people will share their experiences in the comments, and I will edit this post with good suggestions so we all have a resource on how to improve our #RattlesnakePR.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Women in Herpetology

Image result for What Are Little Boys Made Of?The nursery rhyme What Are Little Boys Made Of? from the 19th century, by an unknown author, is probably pretty familiar to most of us.

To me, this rhyme embodies the concept that men and women are often interested in very different things, and have been since childhood. Of course, this is often summarily untrue for any given person, but on average, are men more drawn to things that are considered dangerous, edgy, or “icky?”

More interesting to me, what are the repercussions for career choice of a sex difference in people’s attitudes? Studies have shown that from early childhood through adulthood, men tend to be more strongly drawn to careers in science than women, but how does sex influence specific interests within science? Within biology—the study of life—do men and women find different forms of life more appealing or interesting than others? Does the nursery rhyme play out in scientists’ choice of study organism—are those animals perceived as dangerous, edgy, or “icky” more attractive to male scientists than to females?

It certainly seems so. I am a female herpetologist who studies venomous snakes, and I have always been one of the few women in the room. I'm definitely not the first herpetologist to ponder this. In fact, the 2019 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists featured a symposium entitled "Professional Women in Herpetology: Lessons and Insights." This symposium was extremely well-attended, and the speakers tackled issues facing female herpetologists, from the past, today, and looking into the future.

Dr. Maureen Donnelly speaks to a big crowd in the 2019 JMIH Women in Herpetology Symposium.

At this symposium, I heard many stories from my fellow "Ladies Who Lizard" about discrimination, exclusion, sexual harassment, fighting back, joining forces, and more. I looked around me and thought "Ten years ago this symposium would not be as well attended or impactful." There were so many women conference attendees in 2019! Who are they all? Are they students or faculty? Are they doing herpetology research? Are they fulfilling the time-honored measurement of productivity in all scientific fields: publication of results?

I got to wondering whether we could actually quantify female participation in science by quantifying sex ratios in authorship according to study animal, to see if critters like snakes and crocodiles do in fact have more men working with them, and if so, to try to see whether this has been changing over the years.

I assembled an all-female team of HERpers (thanks eternally to Kirsten Hecht of University of Florida for coining this lovely term on Twitter in 2017) to tackle this project.

Some members of the Cal Poly Physiological Ecology of Reptiles Lab studying women in herpetology.
Katie Rock (center), junior Biology major and Women's and Gender Studies minor, is the project lead.

We presented these data in a poster at the 9th World Congress of Herpetology in Dunedin, New Zealand in January 2020. As usual, we had way too much data to put onto a poster, so we are reporting more of it here.

All the data presented here are preliminary, to be followed up by official analysis and publication later in 2020. Once the paper is out, we will update this blog post with a link to it so you can read about our official findings.

Below we present preliminary data, reflections, and ruminations about two main issues:

1. Sex ratios of authors on articles about amphibians and reptiles. Authoring papers is one of the ways that scientific beans are counted when we apply for jobs or go up for tenure or pay raises. So, quantifying authorship is essential to looking at the sex gap facing herpetology in the past and today.

2. Sex ratios of conference attendees. We might expect that the sex ratio of conference attendees to be roughly on par with the sex ratios of authors. But what about student attendees? Does their sex ratio hint at the authorship ratios of the future?

OK, let’s dig in.

Author Sex Ratios in Herpetology

We are going to be coy about our exact methods for now, but the basic idea is that we amassed data sets of all authors publishing on herps and coded each author's name by sex* using an enormous database of first names that allows us to assign a certainty value for coded sex to each author's name in our databases. Importantly, this allowed us to (1) amass a huge data set of hundreds of thousands of authors and (2) exclude authors whose names had a low certainty of being a particular sex. Because our data set is so large, any excluded or miscoded authors will not have an impact on the trends observed.

*An important disclaimer is that the reference names dataset uses binary sex and we therefore assigned sex as male or female, even though sex is a spectrum ranging from male to female. Furthermore, our dataset does not attempt to assign gender to any individuals. These are limitations of our methodology that reflect the historic and current binary assignment of sex. 

First, we quantified the total number of papers on each taxon published in the current decade (2000-19). Note that for many of our analyses, we break the order Squamata into the (not necessarily monophyletic) suborders Serpentes (snakes), Lacertilia (lizards), and Amphisbaenia (amphisbaenians), because as scientists studying squamates we are particularly interested in these groups of animals.

Among articles on amphibians and reptiles published 2010-19 (N = 201,237), the most popular study organisms are Anura (frogs, toads, and their relatives) and Squamates (lizards, snakes, and their relatives).

Next, we looked at the sex ratio of authors on these groups from 2010-19. Here, we quantify authorship as the total authorship events.

Male authors dominate total authorship events on amphibians and reptiles from 2010-19. Sample sizes of male and female authors are listed at the ends of bars, and percentages in the center. Among amphibians, the order with the highest percentage of male authors is Gymnophiona; among reptiles, it is Crocodylia.

Next, we wondered whether authorship by women is currently higher than is has been historically. It turns out that these data are not nearly as easy to get as those for the current decade. This is because of a quirk of indexing that has us shaking our fists mightily at the library/editorial/indexing conventions of the past, where until recently, only the initial of the first name is included in the citations of the paper. This obviously makes it difficult to assign author sex! Here are some data on authorship over the past 30 years on studies of lizards and snakes.

Female authorship events on studies of lizards and snakes have risen dramatically over the past 30 years. In the 90’s, there were 4 male authors for every female author, in the 00’s this dropped to 3, and currently there are 2 males per female author. 

Our data set has a lot more to work with. For example, we can analyze whether there is a sex difference in first authors, last authors, in the times papers are cited, whether women authors are more likely to publish papers with other women authors, and so much more. Stay tuned for that later in 2020.

Attendee Sex Ratios at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists

I started attending the annual meeting of our societies in 1997 as an undergraduate. Looking back, the sex ratio of the professionals back then was clearly male-skewed, as was the sex ratio of my science professors at UC Berkeley, and eventually Arizona State, where I got my PhD. But it seemed like the sex ratio of the students was much more balanced. Nowadays, that trend seems to hold, except that there seems to be at least a slightly higher proportion of women professionals than 20 years ago. I thought about it… could I get ahold of conference attendee data to actually quantify this?

Frankly, we were a bit shocked by our results above showing that the sex ratios in authorship on amphibians and reptiles are still so male-skewed. Could the sex ratio of students attending our annual conference tell us something about the future of herpetology?

So far I have only been able to get ahold of registration records for a few recent meetings. I am actively trying to get more data, but for now I can show you some data from one recent meeting.

The conference registration data sets proved even more challenging than the author data sets. That’s because registrants had the option of entering their position (many did not), and it was open-ended, so the answers were all over the place. For those who entered their position, we coded them as students or professionals, and then we also further divided the professionals into academic professors and “other professionals.” Also, these data include both herpetologists and ichthyologists because both attend this conference, and because registration records do not allow their delineation. Here's a link to my Tweet on what we found (while you're at it, follow me on Twitter!).

These data are eerily similar to the national trends we see in all areas of biology: Most biology undergraduate and graduate degrees are awarded to women, but as of 2017 women represented only 31% of Biology faculty, with even fewer in senior faculty positions.

I know that there have been a lot of studies on persistence of women in science that attempt to understand why we have more degrees awarded to female scientists but few of them end up in academic positions. I’m not going to go into those here, but suffice it to say that herpetology and ichthyology appear to be no different. We are itching to get our hands on data from earlier conferences so we can see if the sex ratios of students and professionals have changed! Fingers crossed.

I wanted to add in a quick, related note from a paper by Sardelis and Drew in PLoSOne in 2016 specifically regarding symposia at our annual herpetology conference. They found that (1) the number of female presenters in symposia has remained stagnant from 2005-2015, with male presenters outnumbering females about 4 to 1, and that (2) symposia with female organizers are more likely to include symposia with female presenters.

Sometimes it takes a unique point of view, or even just knowing that there is a problem, to do something about it.

We have been tweeting many of our preliminary results as we obtained them. The responses from the Twitterverse have been really interesting. Many people have been bemoaning the low representation of women in herpetology (“glass half empty”), while others have been applauding that the data show how rapidly things are changing (“glass half full”). While we think both responses are entirely appropriate, we’ll leave you with an anecdote that falls into the latter category.

At the 2017 Biology of the Snakes conference, we noticed that none of the invited speakers were women, and that a tiny fraction of the contributed oral presentations were by women. On the one hand, this reflects the demographics of studies on snakes: most of them are by men, and so naturally most speakers are men. On the other hand, as we have shown with our data above, women are not THAT poorly represented. Currently, about 30% of authors on snakes are women, so we would expect that about 30% of presenters would be women, too.

Fast forward to the 2019 Biology of the Pitvipers conference, where the meeting organizers made darn sure that a full half of the invited speakers were women (including yours truly). Curiously, the contributed oral presentations shot up to ~ 30% women! Furthermore, there were dozens of women in attendance who were not presenting, and looking around the crowded venue it seemed that a good 30-40% of all attendees were women. Bravo to the organizers for facilitating a conference with speaker demographics that are representative of our field.

The female attendees of the 2019 Biology of the Pitvipers conference put on by the Chiricahua Desert Museum. Photo by Melissa Amarello.

So, the times they are indeed a'changing.

Thank you for reading, and please leave your comments and suggestions below!

"Strange Career," a 1947 comic about American herpetologist Grace Olive Wiley.
It is no longer quite so strange for women to be herpetologists.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Zombie Lizard and "Hearty" Snakes!

Yesterday my colleague Dr. Charley Knight posted a photo of a "zombie" lizard to Twitter, which I retweeted, then posted to Facebook, where it quickly went viral. The photo shows a short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) on Mt. Lemmon in Arizona that is missing the skin and muscles along one side of its back, such that its ribs and internal organs are exposed.

I initially assumed it was dead, but on further inspection of its posture (as well as Charley's post saying it was "scampering about") I realized it was actually alive. It had likely been captured by a predator, perhaps a bird, that ripped off its tissue but dropped it.

What is the prognosis for this lizard? Well, as many have conjectured online, it may have been alive when observed, but would likely be dead soon.

This got me thinking. Why do we assume that this lizard won't make it? The answer is that we inevitably think about what we happen if WE were subject to a predatory blow that removed our skin and muscle, exposing our organs. We would certainly die rapidly, if not from infection then from dehydration.

But a reptile? In my opinion, if it could survive the loss of water through the wound, it actually could potentially heal and survive such a gnarly injury. Why? Because reptiles have crazy immune systems that we are just beginning to understand.

The evidence I have for this comes from the many reptiles I have seen in the field who are alive despite having incredible scars or wounds that should have killed. Many people reported similar observations on the zombie lizard post on social media. Here are just a few examples of healed herps that I have seen.

This is Tripod, an adult male chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) that my Herpetology class has recaptured at least three different years in the Mojave National Preserve.

Three-legged chuckwalla captured and released by permit from National Parks. Photo by Jason Wallace.

Tripod likely lost his leg when he was young, healed up nicely, and appears to be a healthy, dominant male.

Now check out Ecto, a subadult Desert Kingsnake (Lampropeltis splendida) that my Herpetology class found hit by a car on Foothills Rd. near the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. The car had apparently clipped him such that his chest and pericardium opened, with his heart beating away on the outside of his body (the technical term for this is a cardiocoel). Now you see why the students named him Ecto (and yes, they gave him a Twitter account).

I planned to humanely euthanize Ecto, but the students begged me to try to save his life. We gave him water and after he lasted through the night, we slipped his heart back inside his body, gave him antibiotics, sewed him up, and we took him back to California.

Ecto lived with a student in the class for almost three years, eating well and growing into a nice adult, before eventually dying. His owner took him to a vet for a necropsy and the cause of death was hyper-calcification of his pericardium, with the area completely surrounded by scar tissue from the injury years before. What a tough little noodle. (By the way, his owner took him back to Arizona to bury him where he was collected. Awwww!)

Speaking of tough noodles, this one might be my favorite. Years ago, my lab was conducting a radio-telemetry study on local Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus helleri). We found one of our large males with a huge wound across his underside, again possible from a bird like a raptor. When we anesthetized him, we discovered that the skin and muscle were completely ripped open, with the wound occurring just over the heart.

We gave him antibiotics, sewed him up, and let him go. We also removed his radio-transmitter, so unfortunately I don't know how he fared, but he was a big healthy snake and very likely survived.

I hope I've convinced you that these animals are absolutely incredible!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Tinder (for Herps)

The creative projects that mark the end of my herpetology class each spring bring me a lot of joy. They are creative, informative, artistic, and everyone, me included, learns new things. Some of them make me laugh, too. This year's laugh award, which literally made my face hurt, goes to Paula, who created Tinder profiles for herps.

Of course, these contain lots of interesting info from class, especially of the- ahem- reproductive nature. They are all hilariously creative, too. Here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy!

By Paula Eberle

Nice move, Paula. Nice move.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

How the Plethodont Got His Tongue

It's the end of spring quarter here at Cal Poly, which means that my herpetology students have turned in their projects. Instead of term papers that no one wants to write or read, my students do creative projects that they share with the rest of the class.

This quarter, as always, I taught the students how plethodontid salamanders lost their lungs over evolutionary time, and the how space in the chest is filled with an elaborate musculo-skeletal structure allowing them to project their tongues to capture prey, sometimes great distances. (read more about this here)

A plethodontid salamander projects its tongue to capture prey. Image

Wren's project blew me away. She wrote a Just-So story in the style of Rudyard Kipling on how the plethodontid salamander got its tongue. It is witty and lovely, and I am pleased to share Wren's work here as a guest blog. Enjoy!

How the Plethodont Got His Tongue

By Wren Thompson

Not long after the High and Far-Off times when the world began, O’ Best Beloved, the Plethodont did not have a Long Tongue. He had only a small little pad, a ‘scule little tongue that would wag to and would wag fro but never—never, Best Beloved—both to and fro.

It was not long after the world began that a new Plethodont made friends: the Chameleon and the Tree Frog, both Agile and Formidable Predators. The three friends could oft be found hunting on the shores of some-such grey-green pond or some-another chuckling brook, hunting for Agile Prey. The friends would blend with their speckle-spotted hides and quiet toes among the mosses and branches and ferns, hunting the Fly, the Moth; the Cricket, the Grasshopper, all from their most various perches and hides.

To carry this tale any further, however, I must first describe to you just how the Chameleon and Frog were such Wondrous Hunters with Long Tongues of Agile Prey:

Chameleon had been given—back in the High and Far-Off times when the world began, but that is a tale for another time—a tongue to be envied, a great muscly contraption with twists and turns and folds and flaps, all with her sticky tongue pad at the tip, poised to snatch Agile Prey from branch, stone, air, and leaf.

Tree Frog in his turn had a far less impressive arsenal, yet when tempted with the fattest and tastiest Cricket could flip-flap-flop forward his tongue in his jump, catching the most rollicking Cricket with both tongue and tooth. The insects hardly knew where to jump, for wherever they turned was the threat of Unenviable Digestion.

While they hunted on the springy moss and winding branches, Chameleon and Tree Frog often tried to help the new Plethodont to become yet another Formidable Predator. Every which way an ant would gallop, the Plethodont’s ‘scule little tongue could never reach, leaving him Hungry and Grumbly. His friends looked on, hinting and hoping for the little Plethodont to learn Formidable Predator skills.

“Perhaps if you were to jump a little further, or a little faster?” Tree Frog would say, as his lean legs launched him towards his next prey.

“Or perhaps if you blended with branches, and kept an eye out for slower prey?” Chameleon would follow, her odd eyes darting to watch a wayward wasp.

The new Plethodont was not encouraged, and his thin skin—remember that skin, Best Beloved! — itched and scratched and rankled and wriggled with their suggestions. It simply wasn’t fair that he had such ‘scule little tongue, that his legs were too short and his eyes pointed only one way. With every hint and hope his friends handed to him, the Plethodont fumed more; for he was not a Calm and Tranquil animal, nor was he one of Infinite Wisdom and Veracity. The Plethodont steamed and grumbled all the way home, his stomach full only of hunger and resentment.

The new Plethodont then had an idea: He could not hear their stinging hints and hopes if the only words he could hear were his own! He would fill the air around him with Meaningless Chatter that would stop the hints and the hopes, and his friends would have to realize that he simply would never be a Formidable Predator.

The next day as the friends went a’hunting beside some-another chuckling creek, the new Plethodont brought along his Shining Idea. All afternoon, the Shining Idea bobbed behind his long tail like a wayward balloon, forever glimmering and tempting the new Plethodont. After failing to catch yet another acrimonious ant, Chameleon and Tree Frog stepped and hopped over to help their friend find a meal.

“Perhaps this time you could—”, started Chameleon.

As soon as the words were off her impressive tongue, the new Plethodont unleashed a torrent of words. His Shining Idea was released, and from his ‘scule little mouth spilled forth Meaningless Chatter. He chattered and chittered; babbled and burbled; proselytized and preached; ranted and raved; and he shouted words of origins both High and Low, in the Old Tongue and in spite for his friends’ Long Tongues.

As he pronounced and denounced so loudly and incessantly, all the flies and crickets and worms and ants went away, hoping to escape the lambasted litany. As he prattled and rattled on, Chameleon’s odd eyes met those of Tree Frog’s wet head, and they exchanged The Look—Best Beloved, you know the kind—that said all things while no things were said on their parts. And in the moments after The Look, Chameleon and Frog parted ways from the Plethodont, heading up, up into the trees where the breeze whispered away the Plethodont’s words.

Through all this the new Plethodont followed his Shining Idea, vocalizing and verbalizing, his ‘scule little tongue wagging now both to and fro. His ‘scule little tongue grew and grew the more he used it, swelling out of his mouth so that it was no longer ‘scule or even miniscule, and pressing back down his throat so it was no longer little, past his heart that so boiled with envy for Chameleon’s tongue, down to his little legs that Tree Frog had so wished he would use well.

With triumph, the new Plethodont pressed on with his oration to show his friends—now long gone, little to his knowledge—just how fine his new tongue could be. He pressed and pressed until finally— with a small pop and an even smaller wheeze—he could press no more.

Despite his now eloquent, elegant tongue that attached down to his pelvis, he had no lungs to murmur, let alone shout. His great tongue—so long hoped-for by the Plethodont—had destroyed his lungs, taking forever his power of speech.

Over and over the new Plethodont tried to call to his friends up in the trees for help, help that he had long shunned and rankled over, but they could not hear his breathless cries up, up in the trees with the whispering breeze that drowned out his tirade so well.

He squeezed and pushed his Long Tongue that so quickly felt cursed, and it shot from his body to the one ant left beside the chuckling creek. The new Plethodont pulled the ant closer to hear his whispered calls, but his Long Tongue shot back into his body so quick that the little ant was gone before it knew. After such long resistance and repugnance, the Plethodont had become a Formidable Predator…

But his friends were nowhere near to see.

The new Plethodont sat beside the babbling, rollicking, chuckling creek, and breeze tickled his Thin Skin—did you remember that skin, O’ Best Beloved? — that had taken his friends from him. The tiniest breath of air filled the new Plethodont’s body through that Thin Skin, and in that moment the Plethodont was filled with another flood of eloquence of love for his friends. The Plethodont pushed, wishing this time to unleash a soaking monsoon of apology…but could only manage a single quiet word that the chuckling creek erased from the World’s Memory.

And this, Best Beloved, is why the Plethodont has such a very long tongue and must live beside chuckling creeks for company, breathing through the Thin Skin that doomed him to be without Chameleon and Tree Frog and words. He is most certainly a Formidable Predator, and his Long Tongue will keep him alive for eons to come.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Herp Haikus

Every time I teach Herpetology, I ask the students to make a haiku on their final exam that encompasses something they've learned. It needs to include both reptiles and amphibians, and follow haiku rules (3 lines only, with first and last having 5 syllables and second having 7). I thought it was time to start immortalizing these gems. Here, in no particular order, are the haikus of the fabulous and talented herpers of the Cal Poly class of summer 2016!

Frog’s feet greatly webbed
Draco’s skin flap opens wide
They glide in the sky

Snake is a noodle
Salamander is slimy
Slimy noodle fun!

Garter in water
The bullfrog fails its escape
Vengeance of locals

Treefrogs have toe pads
Snakes’ ventral scales overlap
They have better grip

Vipers have venom
Newts can carry a toxin
Let’s leave them alone

Some Caudata swim
Some cool snakes can also swim
Lat. undulation

Order Squamata
Order Gymnophiona
Know taxonomy

Snakes do a tongue flick
But salamanders shoot it

Aves soar high up
Caecilians burrow deep
Herps rule the world

Treefrogs are so small
Crocodilians are huge
What a crazy range

Rattlesnakes rattle
Amphibians have short ribs
Herping is so fun

Ensatina swim
Aspidoscelis are fast
They are hard to catch

Snake’s prehensile tail
Anura’s permeable skin
Pollution in bad

Bullfrogs are spreading
And so are red-eared sliders
Causing extinctions

Golden toads are dead
Tuataras are alive
Humans are evil

Snake strikes naïve mouse
Mama python warms her babies
Golden frog waves bye

And last but not least, my favorite!
Images from Squishable.com