This is the third 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: Gregory Watkins-Colwell
What is your study species (or species group) and why is it interesting?
I manage the specimen collection of Ichthyology and Herpetology at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. I am mainly interested in collection management, archives, curation and ensuring that specimens (and their data!) are available to researchers. This interests me because collections are a library of biodiversity and there is no limit to what these specimens can teach.
In my spare time I literally dream about lizards; especially geckos and Sceloporus (an occasional salamander is in the recurring dream too). I also participate in several local amphibian and reptile projects, such as documenting the distribution of Podarcis sicula in New England. I also occasionally conduct some field collections in various other parts of the world. In my career I’ve joined expeditions to Brunei, China and New Caledonia to collect amphibians and reptiles. I’ve also participated in a research cruise of Bear Seamount to collect deep-water fishes. I’ve collaborated in multiple specimen-based studies, including the description of Rana kauffeldi and Chelonoidis donfaustoi and Sceloporus brownorum.
What is it about this species that you study?
I’m not sure why lizards find their way into my subconscious. But they do. They always have. When I was twelve, I got a flying gecko for a pet. Before that I had a green anole when I was six, but it didn’t live long (because I was six!). But that hooked me on them. I’ve been addicted to them ever since.
Some of my favorite specimens in the collection have interesting stories to tell. For example, YPM has a large collection of spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus holbrooki) larvae that represent a major project conducted by Stanley Ball who was among the first researchers to mention amphibian decline in a publication (in reference to spadefoot toads in New England). His detailed notes on the developmental biology of the species were never fully published and the specimens represent populations whose breeding ponds were filled in during the early half of the 20th century for public health reasons. Some of the ponds were located where town halls and other buildings now exist.
YPM also has a large collection of specimens from Egypt that were mostly collected during the construction of the Second Aswan Dam and were collected from sites that are now under Lake Naser, and thus represent a snapshot in time of populations now extinct, not unlike Stanley Ball’s spadefoot toads.
Other cool specimens I get to see every day include a 17 foot long taxidermy mounted Gavialis gangeticus that was exchanged to the museum in 1890 from the Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. The notion that a biological supply company would offer such specimens is amazing to me.
Who are you, how did you get where you are, and what’s your story?
I grew up in a small town in northwestern Ohio (Antwerp) where I was the only person I ever knew interested in herpetology. During high school I worked at pet stores and volunteered at the zoo in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I also participated in some herp society activities in the area and kept a lot of lizards in my parents’ spare bedroom. I participated in science fair, quiz bowl, marching band, and other nerdish things (dungeons and dragons, audio-visual assistant, etc.). I chose my undergraduate university (Ohio Wesleyan University) because that is where the Ohio State Science Fair was held, and I got to take a tour of the zoology museum collection there every time I went to state science fair. During college I did as much as I could involving herpetology despite the fact that the university did not have a formal herpetology course. While in college I also met my wife, but she wasn’t called that then.
In 1995 we moved to Connecticut and I taught as a lecturer and as an adjunct faculty at several universities before landing a job preparing skeletons at Peabody Museum. I’ve now been at the museum, in one capacity or another, for nearly 20 years. My wife and I have been married 25 years, our two kids are in college and we have 2 dogs and a spare room full of lizards.
Why are you a member of SSAR?
I joined SSAR when I was in middle school after exchanging letters with Henri Seibert. I had written him about colleges that offer Herpetology and about career goals and to share with him that I was participating in the 7th grade science fair. Following conversations with Henri, my parents paid my membership fee and I started to receive Journal of Herpetology and Herpetological Review at home. During high school I became more involved with a local herpetological association (Northern Ohio Association of Herpetologists) and lost track of SSAR until I went to college where I again started reading Journal of Herpetology and Herpetological Review. In Graduate school (Ohio University… where Henri still had a desk in the collection room) I joined again and have been a member sense. In fact, at some point I joined as a Life Member. I decided that it’s not like I’ll wake up some morning and hate lizards. I may as well commit my life to the things in my dreams.