This is the second post in this new series from SSAR! Our members often join SSAR to learn more about the organisms that fascinate them. Each month, we are excited to profile the herpetological interest of one of our community members and to feature their focal amphibian or reptile species/system.
Featured SSAR member: Sebastian A. Harris
What is your study species (or species group) and why is it interesting?
Luckily, I get to study several snake species as I’m primarily interested in community ecology. Small to medium sized colubrids will be my focus for the next few years. Northern Ringneck Snakes, Eastern Garter Snakes, Eastern Milk Snakes, Northern Red-bellied Snakes and possibly Smooth Greensnakes will be incorporated in my research. I’ve always been infatuated with snakes from afar, and I actually had the opportunity to study Timber Rattlesnakes during my Masters research at East Stroudsburg University. It’s difficult to pinpoint why snakes are interesting. Perhaps their enigmatic nature is a big reason, along with the fact that they’re among the most misunderstood creatures on the planet. Their diversity and proliferation despite being limbless on a planet full of bipeds and tetrapods is one unifying intrigue of snakes. Overall, snakes simply possess some intrinsic allure about them. I’ve always found them to be the most interesting group of animals on the planet, and I’m grateful to have set out on a path where I can study them!
What is it about this species that you study?
I’ve always been most interested in dynamics between vastly different organismal groups. I’m also interested in factors that influence their spatial distribution on several scales. With that being said, I’ll be studying how snake (and possibly salamander) diversity is affected by a dominant mound-building ant species, Formica exsectoides. Ant mounds have been reported to support large numbers of hibernating reptiles (especially juvenile snakes) and amphibians. Hence, the engineering effects of Allegheny Mound Ants may be associated with greater snake diversity than nearby habitat patches. Conversely, the territorial nature of ant colonies may negatively affect local snake diversity. There’s been very little research exploring this relationship, despite its possible importance for understanding snake community ecology. On a larger scale, much attention has gone to climactic drivers of distribution patterns. However, biotic factors, such as ecosystem engineering by dominant ant species, may contribute to snake diversity patterns we observe at the landscape scale.
Who are you, how did you get where you are, and what’s your story?
I grew up in Allentown, PA, devoid of any real exposure to nature. However, I, like many others born in the 90’s, was captivated by Zoobooks, Discovery Channel Documentaries and people like Steve Irwin. I was also obsessed with Pokemon (bear with me) which sort of fulfilled my desire to explore and find cool things. Growing up in the heart of a city without a car in the family meant I was tied to my neighborhood. Hence, I found solace in things like Animal Planet (Jeff Corwin especially) which kept my interest in wildlife active throughout my childhood. I spent some time during high school as an intern at Wildlands Conservancy, where I made connections to established herpetologists in Pennsylvania. I eventually was accepted to Delaware Valley College and graduated in 2014. I then went on to East Stroudsburg University for my Masters degree, where I studied Timber Rattlesnakes under Dr. Thomas C. LaDuke. I’ve since graduated and am now working on a PhD at Rutgers University. I spared many details but that’s the gist!
Why are you a member of SSAR?
SSAR allows me to keep up with the latest work in our field, and serves as inspiration for my own work and time spent out in nature. One of my former professors would frequently tell me: “the more you know, the more you notice.” Discoveries made by fellow herpetologists make outings more meaningful. It adds dimensions to my own observations, and adds to a database of random natural history notes I can carry around in my head. It’s rare that I get to share the societies wonderful discoveries in casual conversation, but I do my best to share when I can! Of course, the welfare of our reptiles and amphibians matters most, and tireless work from fellow members keeps me up to date with the state of our field and the subjects we care so much about.