The remaining contents of the Roger Conant, Ernie Liner, and Victor Hutchison Libraries are being stored at a facility in Salt Lake City, compliments of our former Publications Secretary Breck Bartholomew. It is time to find good homes for these books, journals, and reprints. Several boxes of Ernie Liner’s books will be taken to the JMIH in Snowbird (24-28 July 2019) for the silent and live auctions. Anyone wishing to sort through the material in the storage facility in Salt Lake City is invited to do so. The storage unit is 12 x 30 feet and is full. It includes the Conant and Liner filing cabinets (also available), boxes of books, journals, and reprints, as well as various pieces of framed art, posters, and other items from the Liner collection. Please note that to get to the storage unit in Salt Lake City from Snowbird, you will need a vehicle. Breck will be available throughout the JMIH to meet at the storage unit. You can make prior arrangements with Breck by email (Breck@herplit.com) or phone (801-867-1042). Materials at the storage unit will be priced as follows: paperback books $2; hardback books $5; other items will be on a donation basis. You will need to take the library materials with you and ship them home yourself. At the end of the JMIH, the remaining books, journals, and reprints will be given to a worthy institution.
SSAR is pleased to announce the George B. Rabb Undergraduate Poster Award, sponsored by Zoo Atlanta. The award honors our colleague George Rabb (1930-2017), former Director of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, IL, and highly respected advocate and spokesman for wildlife conservation.
To be eligible to compete for this award, a student must be an undergraduate, or have graduated in the previous spring semester. The student must be the first author on the poster and must present the poster during the student poster competition at the annual JMIH or SSAR meeting. There can be additional authors on the poster. As is the case for the SSAR Victor Hutchison Student Poster Award, the competing student must be a current member of SSAR. Abstract submission is the same as for anyone else submitting to present at the annual meetings. See the JMIH website for information. The first George B. Rabb award will be presented at the 2019 JMIH meeting in Snowbird, Utah. The prize includes a $250 check and an SSAR book.
Attention herpetology graduate students: the Herpetologists’ League’s Jones-Lovich Grant in Southwestern Herpetology is reopening & applications are being accepted until January 25 at 5 PM PST. This is $1000 grant awarded to one person per year, working on any aspect of amphibians and reptiles in the Southwestern US or Northwestern Mexico. For more information, see here.
HR December 2018, Volume 49, Number 4. Our cover features a beautiful example of an Amazon Banded Snake (Rhinobothryum lentiginosum), photographed in Peru by Tim Paine. As part of Field Projects International, Tim teaches a course in Amazonian herpetology. When not in the tropics, he works as a lieutenant with the San Francisco (California) Police Department. This issue is scheduled to be mailed on 31 December, and full contents are now available online to SSAR members here. All Natural History Notes, Geographic Distribution Notes, Book Reviews, and other select sections are Open Access and are be available for download at the same link. If you are not a member of SSAR, please consider joining the leading international herpetological society. Student and online-only rates available. Read here about how to join. Congratulations to Tim for another outstanding cover photo!
Below is a summary of results from a survey of SSAR student members, written by Jessica Tingle (chair, Student Participation Committee; email@example.com). If you would like to see the full report, please email Jessica for a PDF. You can also contact Jessica if you are interested in getting involved in the Student Participation Committee.
In August 2018, the SSAR Student Participation Committee conducted a survey of young members to collect data on their motivations for joining and remaining in the SSAR, and to elicit feedback to help the SSAR improve the young member experience. The survey specifically asked for responses from students, post-docs, and other young members. A handful of people who were neither students nor post-docs responded, with some of them specifying that they were early-career. In total, 178 people responded, including 134 students and 19 post-docs. As of August 2018, the SSAR had 1613 members, including 425 students. Thus, nearly 1/3 of student members responded to the survey. Of the 134 student responses, 46% came from PhD students, 25% from master’s students, 16% from undergraduates, 7% from students in between degrees, and 7% from high school students.
Why Folks Join the SSAR
We asked why people joined the SSAR in the first place. In general, students, postdocs, and faculty/professional members gave similar responses. People join the SSAR due to their interest in herps and the attraction of social benefits (meeting herpetologists, being part of something that friends are also a part of, JMIH). Additionally, advisors have been influential in encouraging their students to join over the years. Finally, a desire for professional development opportunities played a role for nearly half of the students and postdocs who responded.
Why Folks Stay in the SSAR
We also asked why people remain members of the SSAR. Overall, their answers were pretty similar to the reasons they joined in the first place. Some of the factors motivating people to join the SSAR play less of a role in their decision to remain members. Most conspicuously, advisor suggestion plays virtually no role in member retention. Not surprisingly, student research and travel grants play a role in retaining student members, but not postdocs or faculty/professionals, even though they contributed to many postdocs’ and faculty/professionals’ initial decision to join when they were students. Some factors matter more for retention than for the initial decision to join. Seibert and Hutchinson Awards for conference presentations play very little role in getting people to join, but they do contribute to student retention. Book discounts matter more for continuing student members than for newly joining student members – presumably students do not know about book discounts prior to joining.
Membership in Other Professional Societies
Many SSAR members also participate in other professional societies, especially Herpetologist’s League (35%) and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (34%). Only 18% are members of professional societies such as the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), the Ecological Society of America (ESA), and the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), and the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) that focus on a set of biological questions rather than on a taxon. Membership in these latter societies showed a marked trend based on career stages: the youngest students are highly unlikely to participate in these societies (0% of high school students and 5% of undergrads), only a small fraction of master’s students participate (9%), and much larger fractions of PhD students (30%), postdocs (16%), and faculty/professionals (28%) participate. This trend could indicate a shift in scientific focus over the course of a career. Many people first come to biology because they love a particular animal or group of animals, and then they get interested in a set of questions later on. For this reason, taxon-based societies like the SSAR probably draw more very young members (especially undergrads) than do societies like SICB, ESA, ABS, or SSE.
What Folks Want from their Membership in the SSAR
This open-ended question generated a variety of responses, many of which echoed responses from earlier questions on why people join and remain in the SSAR (e.g. interactions with other members, professional development, research grants, and travel support). Many people also mentioned the high-quality journals that the SSAR publishes; through an oversight, we neglected to include journals as a possible response to the earlier questions. Several responses indicated a desire for more engagement between the SSAR and its members, or more engagement with broader communities. For example, some of these folks as for more communication, possible in the form of a regular newsletter. Several wanted the SSAR to facilitate educational outreach.
What Folks Want from the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
This second open-ended question also generated a variety of responses. Nearly everyone attends JMIH with the goal of meeting new people (both professionally and socially). Some specifically commented that they hope to meet potential PhD or postdoc advisors. Many are drawn to the conference by the possibility of seeing old friends. Many young members hope for professional development opportunities such as workshops. Two people commented on affordability. One person called for more inclusivity (specifically, related to gender). Another suggested that conference organizers facilitate more opportunities for socializing over lunch and/or coffee to remove the onus from students (many of whom are introverted and/or attending the meeting alone).
This final open-ended question allowed folks to address topics not covered elsewhere in the survey. Many responses had to do with inclusivity. Two expressed concern over the lack of gender and other types of diversity in our society and among “herpers” more generally. One indicated that “diversity and inclusion are high priorities of any society that I support,” and another expressed gratitude to the SSAR “for addressing current diversity and inclusivity in the society.” Several respondents provided suggestions for future progress in this area, including: “providing more awards and editorial/reviewer positions on behalf of and to women”; “more female and minority speakers”; “don’t give awards to bigoted or objectifying members, regardless of their stature”; “preferred pronouns on name tags”; and “a student seat on the executive committee.” Several responses directly or indirectly called for the SSAR to be more proactive in building connections between its members. One of those said they are “not sure how to get more involved without it being overwhelming,” and another feels “there isn’t a lot of outreach to students or ways for us to participate in things.” Many responses related specifically to JMIH or to other topics covered in above sections. They included too many specific suggestions for us to summarize here, so anyone who is interested may request a copy of the full report (see contact info above).
The survey identified several areas where the SSAR can improve. First, the SSAR (and other taxon-based societies) seem likely to draw younger students than do other types of professional societies. Yet, many students want more communication in terms of what the society does and how they can get involved. They would also like the society to do more to help them meet other SSAR members. In response to these points, the SSAR will start a monthly email update, and we are expanding the role that the Student Participation Committee has played in the past. Additionally, outreach came up in responses to several of the questions. The SSAR executive board and Student Participation Committee are looking into ways that we can facilitate educational outreach so that our members can have a broader public impact. Inclusivity also came up several times. More people than ever have become aware than not everyone feels welcome in herpetology. We (like society at large) need to work hard on cultural change to make everyone welcome, regardless of their identity. This will be the largest issue for us to tackle, and it will require effort on the part of the whole membership. We are currently working on ways to facilitate this change, and we welcome any ideas from any members at any time.
HR September 2018, Volume 49, Number 3. Our cover features a breeding aggregation of Hansen’s Asian Treefrogs (Feihyla hansenae), photographed in Thailand by Sinlan (Sheila) Poo. Sheila is presently a post-doc at the Memphis Zoo, where her research focuses on assisted reproduction and conservation of endangered anurans. This issue was mailed on 24 September, and full contents are now available online to SSAR members at here. All Natural History Notes, Geographic Distribution Notes, and Book Reviews are Open Access and will be available for download at the same link. If you are not a member of SSAR, please consider joining the leading international herpetological society. Student and online-only rates available. Read about SSAR membership here. Congratulations to Sheila for her outstanding cover photo!
In this seventh installment of the human stories behind herpetological research, we hear from Dirk J. Stevenson. Dirk describes some of the experiences behind a recent Natural History Note that he and his colleagues published in Herpetological Review. The citation for that note is as follows:
Stevenson, D.J., J.D. Mays, and H.C. Chandler. 2018. Clemmys guttata (Spotted Turtle). Coloration. Herpetological Review 49(2):317-318.
I once soiled a new suit capturing a spotted turtle. In early March, just after a job interview, I detoured on my ride home to roll by a south Georgia natural area with which I had become smitten. At the bottom of a large sandhill (complete with gopher tortoises and some stout eastern diamondbacks that used the tortoises’ burrows for winter dens) the amber-colored water of a blackwater stream ran under the road (when they are this small, the locals call them “branches”). The waters of the creek spilled into a floodplain pool, creeping toward the road.
From the driver’s seat, I looked over to see the dark carapaces of four small turtles, all close together and basking on a platform created by a huge fallen tree. Ah, a fine herd of painted turtles (a species I grew up with), I thought… Then, it occurred to me that I was well outside the range of painters. My goodness, they were spotted turtles!
I tumbled from my Volkswagen and as I ran downslope toward the turtles I conducted a poor-man’s strip tease−tossing my sport coat over my shoulder, kicking off a new loafer that tomahawked through the air…I was still wrestling with my tie and crisply-starched white shirt when the turtles began to plunk. Spotties are smart, and below their perch on the root wad associated with this giant hardwood treefall (known as “hurricanes”) was a bowl of deep water (ca. five feet) in an otherwise very shallow swamp. For many minutes I groped for them in the leaf-strewn benthos of the swamp pool, they had to be there…as my hands became numb and pink from the cold water, I considered sobbing. Then, I felt the form of a four-inch flat stone, the movement of a black and orange leg.
Reared in southern Illinois, my experience with spotted turtles was non-existent. From reading field guides and turtle books, including the epic works of Phil Smith (The Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois) and Sherman Minton (Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana) I gathered that spotties inhabited fens, small bogs and marshy sites. You know, the idyllic open-canopied and extended-vista places where sphagnum moss
grows mattress deep and naturalists stroll boardwalks observing cacophonous blackbirds swaying from the cattails. When I began mark-recapture studies of spotted turtles in Georgia and Florida six years ago−with my esteemed colleagues the thoughtful, moustached scholar Houston Chandler of The Orianne Society and the ebullient, hardcore naturalist Jonathan Mays of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission−I was surprised to learn that in the Deep South Clemmys guttata is a denizen of the darkest swamps.
Our south Georgia and north Florida spotted turtle study sites include cypress swamps and hydric hammocks that possess a distinct subtropical feel. Epiphytes beard giant hardwoods and columnar cabbage palms form umbrellas above tannin-stained waters, waters carrying secrets. During my youth, I hadn’t pictured spotted turtles in places where pit vipers are abundant, where black bears roam. We use a trap type that cannot be moved, or consumed, by alligators or crawfish-crazed otters, and it behooves one to carefully scan the earth, the closest log, before sitting − due to the abundance of pigmy rattlesnakes and cottonmouths (a woman we met along the way described the diminutive, tightly-coiled and colorful Sistrurus miliarius as “yard flowers”). My wife Beth reminds me that the turtle traps housed in our garage smell a bit loud, that is they reek of aging sardine juice (to me it’s a smell akin to data).
One April morning in 2015 I lifted one our modified crab-wire turtle traps (Chandler, H. C., D.J. Stevenson, J.D. Mays, B.S. Stegenga, W. H. Vaigneur, and M. D. Moore. 2017. A new trap design for catching small emydid and kinosternid turtles. Herpetological Review 48(2):323−327) to find a trio of adult eastern mud turtles − and something else that caused me to holler, blink and reconsider. Now, you can bet that we encounter many odd-looking spotted turtles – males “Dent” and “Igor” came with grossly deformed carapaces (indented and swollen, respectively); from predation attempts, large chunks of shell had been bitten and removed from a juvenile (“Survivor”) and adult male (“Crash”); many turtles are missing a limb.
But, the strange little creature was a spotted turtle unlike any we had ever seen.
We described this interesting specimen − we have recaptured her in each year since her initial capture− as being hypomelanistic (reduced black pigment) and/or erythristic (pronounced red pigment). I remember thinking that “Melanie” would be an appropriate moniker given her cantaloupe-colored carapace. If you have had the pleasure to work with them, you know that all spotted turtles are beautiful (and although we mark each of our charges with a unique notch sequence, adults come with different spot patterns − easily discerned using photos).
Wading a spottie swamp in our region, in the spring, is a spiritual gig. Swallow-tailed kites, newly returned from Brazil, careen overhead. The cool water is refreshing. To the speedy zzzzipp tunes of Northen Parulas I wade slowly and dial in my search image, hoping to pick up the cryptic pattern of a small speckled turtle motionless on the bottom. I pass plants with cool names − dog hobble, titi, lizard tail− and ogle the soft lavender petals of blue flag iris, sniff the scenty maroon blossoms of Florida anise.
There is a spotted turtle specimen in the USNM collection from the south Georgia county where I now reside, collected by an R.J. Thompson from a rice plantation in 1892. An endearing local name in use then for Chelopus guttatus was “speckled tortoise”. The excellent field research and demographic studies of spotted turtles by Jacqueline Litzgus and colleagues tell us that, remarkably, male spotted turtles may live to ages of 60 years in the wild, females to 110 years.
I last saw a spottie on a sunny but brisk afternoon in late February. It was a male, “Poolboy”. A turtle I have known a long time, he was basking on the same log I have seen him on many times. Having just emerged from the bottom ooze his shell was discolored and crusty with debris. I saw him wince several times, blinking as small gnats attempted to sip from his eyes. Working with these small handsome turtles, reflecting on their long, experience-rich lives, has been as meaningful as it has enjoyable.
Dear Members of SSAR,
We are writing to bring everyone up-to-date on the current situation regarding “The Rochester Affair”: that is, the debates that are occurring about a range of issues that arose after The Herpetologists’ League “Distinguished Herpetologist” lecture. This letter will summarise the SSAR’s responses to date, and it is modelled on a similar letter that ASIH has drafted to send out to its members. The three societies (SSAR, HL, SSAR) have been communicating with each other frequently, and are committed to moving forward on a united front to address the problems that have been revealed. We sincerely believe that the tensions that surfaced in Rochester can be harnessed to enable meaningful changes that will improve the functioning of professional herpetology in general, including the SSAR, into the future.
First, a sincere thank you all for your membership and continued support. Some of the issues that have emerged have the potential to be deeply divisive, and we appreciate the fact that our membership has remained highly supportive of SSAR initiatives and responses.
The meetings in Rochester, New York were a success thanks to all of you, our local hosts (Brian Witz, Nazareth College, and the city of Rochester), and our meeting’s management company (Kansas State University). Nonetheless, a number of issues were raised at the JMIH meetings that we need to address. Some of these are long overdue. One strong positive from the debates that emerged has been to elicit ideas and reflections by a wide cross-section of SSAR membership, including from groups who feel that the previous structure of meetings was not ideal for them. We are deeply committed to creating a safe and inclusive environment for all our members. We will need input from the entire membership to truly achieve that goal.
These are the actions that we have already taken or will have taken by JMIH 2019:
(1) The joint JMIH societies are working to expand the draft Code of Conduct to cover all JMIH attendees with a new joint Code of Conduct that will have explicit guidelines for proper conduct, a clear protocol for assessing breaches of the Code of Conduct, and consequences for violations of the Code of Conduct at our annual meetings. ASIH is to be congratulated for taking the lead on this important initiative.
(2) We are in talks with several ombudsmen services, to provide a trained professional for JMIH attendees who have any harassment issues to contact. This professional will independently evaluate and help us enforce our Code of Conduct.
(3) We have appointed Jessica Tingle (whom many of you will remember for her powerful presentation at the beginning of the SSAR business meeting in Rochester) as Chair of our Student Participation Committee. Jessica and her committee will look into ways of changing the practices of the SSAR to better represent our diversifying society. And we are determined to look broadly at issues such as race and identity as well as gender: SSAR needs to welcome everyone with a professional interest in herpetology.
(4) The societies are collaborating to support a symposium for next year’s JMIH that will focus on issues women herpetologists face and highlight opportunities for women within and outside academia.
As the details of these activities play out please feel free to reach out to the SSAR Board of Directors to provide any feedback, advice, or concerns you may have.
Rick Shine, President (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Marty Crump, President-Elect (Marty.Crump@nau.edu)
Aaron Bauer, Past-President (email@example.com)
Marion Preest, Secretary (firstname.lastname@example.org
Ann Paterson, Acting Treasurer (email@example.com)
SSAR Board of Directors:
Robin Andrews, Board Member (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lee Fitzgerald, Board Member (email@example.com)
Tony Gamble, Board Member (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jackie Litzgus, Board Member (email@example.com)
Ann Paterson, Board Member (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Melissa Pilgrim, Board Member (MPILGRIM@USCUPSTATE.EDU)
Emily Taylor, Board Member (email@example.com)
Greg Watkins-Colwell, Board Member (gregory.watkins-colwell@yale.
The SSAR student poster awards honor Victor Hutchison for his extensive contributions to herpetology and the development of future herpetologists. The 8th annual SSAR Victor Hutchison Student Poster Awards were presented at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists & and Herpetologists in Rochester, NY, 11-15 July 2018. This year there were 35 eligible poster submissions. In recognition of outstanding student poster presentations at the annual meeting, an award was given in each of the following categories: Physiology & Morphology (9 presentations); Evolution, Genetics, & Systematics (5 presentations); Conservation & Management (6 presentations); and Ecology, Natural History, Distribution, & Behavior (15 presentations). All awardees received a check for US $200 and a book from the Taylor & Francis Group of CRC Press.
This year’s judges were: Betsie Rothermel, Chair (Archbold Biological Station), Russell Burke (Hofstra University), Gerardo Carfagno (Manhattan College), Brad Carlson (Wabash College), Andrew Durso (Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry), Marina Gerson (California State University, Stanislaus), Brittany Ousterhout (University of Arkansas), Josh Pierce (U.S.F.S. Southern Research Station), Jonathan Rose (U.S.G.S. Western Ecological Research Center), John Rowe (Alma College), Phillip Skipwith (University of California, Berkeley), and Peter Uetz (Virginia Commonwealth University)
The Winners – Physiology & Morphology: Rebecca Jasulevicz (Villanova University), “A Bolder Shoulder: Pectoral Girdle Morphology in Geckos.” Evolution, Genetics, & Systematics: Haley Moniz (University Nevada, Reno), “Costs of Adaptation: Tradeoffs in Organismal Performance of Tetrodotoxin-Resistant Garter Snakes (Thamnophis).” Conservation & Management: Chelsea Kross (University of Arkansas), “The Effects of Prescribed Fire on the Development of Larval Crawfish Frogs (Lithobates areolatus).” Ecology, Natural History, Distribution, & Behavior: A.Z. Andis (Yale University), “A New, Noninvasive Method of Batch-marking Amphibians Across Developmental Stages” and Honorable Mention to Thomas Nhu (undergraduate, California Polytechnic State University), “Inglorious Baskers: Comparative Behavior of Pacific Rattlesnakes in Coastal and Inland Populations.”
For more information about this award, see here.
In this sixth installment of the human stories behind herpetological research, we hear again from Dr. Joe Mendelson. Below is an interview with Joe that was recently published in Herpetological Review 49(2). It was conducted by Conservation Section Editor Jennifer Stabile in November 2017.
Having dedicated over 20 years to working on amphibian research and conservation programs, you have made quite an impact. When did you first realize that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
A lot later than you would expect. Everyone of course cares about conservation, and I did too, but even when reports of the amphibian crisis were first brewing in the late 1980s, I remember watching and saying, “Huh, this is scary, and fascinating, and interesting” and all of the other terms you could use for it. But I remember thinking, “I’m not an ecologist,” I don’t know what I possibly have to contribute here. We didn’t even know it was a disease at that time, so certainly I’m not a disease ecologist, or a mycologist, or anything like that. I remember thinking, “Well, I’m kind of not needed here.” So, I was just watching from the sidelines back then, say around 1991 or so.
I was also becoming friends with Karen Lips at about the same time. We were at different schools, but in the same grad-student cohort. She was front and center on the unravelling amphibian decline story. She was the one who was finding the dead frogs, not just noticing the missing frogs. Karen said to me one day at a conference: “You’re going to get pulled into this Mendelson.” And I said, “I’m a taxonomist, I don’t really understand what I have to offer.” And she said, “Well, for example, what’s going on in Mexico? Is this happening in Mexico? Has it already happened in Mexico? You know Mexican frogs, and you know your way around Mexico, so let’s go!” And I remember thinking, “Oh, she’s got a point.” So she and I got a grant and went to Mexico together. And she was right. I got sucked into it for some 20 years or so now.
So you shifted from taxonomy to conservation at the height of the amphibian decline. Did you have any mentors or guidance during this transition?
I didn’t fully shift away from taxonomy, or other topics, but certainly amphibian conservation took most of my energy. As for mentor, not initially other than Karen. But, I met George Rabb in 2004, coincidentally immediately after I took the position at Zoo Atlanta, and he became my mentor for conservation, and beyond, for the rest of his life.
The groundbreaking dataset that changed everything was the Lips et. al. 2006 paper documenting how this new amphibian disease was moving across Costa Rica and Panama. The story is legend at this point but, simply put, she made a bold prediction of where, and roughly when, this pathogen was going to invade a pristine site. She and her team worked there (El Copé, Panama) for years. Then, in 2004, just after I arrived at the zoo, she called me one day and said, “Joe, it has hit, the frogs are dying. It’s happening right now, aren’t zoos supposed to be set up to take care of endangered species and things like this? What about frogs?” And I thought, “Huh. I just got to a zoo, and you’re right.”
So, I got funding from Zoo Atlanta to host, essentially, an emergency stakeholder meeting. As I started putting the international team together that we were going to bring in, George Rabb’s name was at the top of the list. That’s when I actually first met him, when he joined us at that meeting.
So that is how it began, the long-term friendship with George Rabb and your long career at Zoo Atlanta. Was it difficult for you, leaving academia as a professor at Utah State University and transitioning to Zoo Atlanta?
I get asked that question often, everybody wants to know how in the hell did that happen. The short version is I had just gotten tenure at Utah State, which of course means you’re golden, you’ve succeeded, everything’s secure moving forward. But at this time, I was getting more and more pulled into this conservation stuff. I remember looking around going, “This is not really an ideal place to manage these types of issues.” Not because it was Utah State, but because it was a typical university.
I was having these thoughts in my head, but not talking to anybody. Then, I got a call one day from Dwight Lawson. He and I had overlapped for a year in Jonathan Campbell’s lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, and had remained loose friends ever since. When he got his PhD, he came straight into the zoo world in terms of both research and conservation. Unbeknownst to me, Zoo Atlanta, although not a large zoo, was a leading example of a modern zoo that was active in both realms. So, he cold-called me one day while I was in Utah and just said,
“Joe, it’s Dwight. What would it take to get you to move to Atlanta?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He responded: “I’m going to send you a couple of plane tickets to fly out here and I’ll show you what we’re talking about.”
The backstory is that Zoo Atlanta has a long and prestigious history of research on great apes and, by this time (early 2000s), it was heavily invested in giant panda research. The zoo made the decision they wanted to bring herpetology up to that level as well. So, they hired our colleague, Gordon Schuett, who came out and built the essential base of the new program. Modelled after the great ape program, it was essentially an academic herpetology program inside the zoo. After Gordon left Zoo Atlanta, on very good graces, Dwight called me and asked me to pick up where Gordon left off. I reminded him that my background was in museums, not zoos. He said my job was to put Zoo Atlanta on the map as a top-level academic institution in herpetological conservation and research.
My academic mentors told me it would be academic suicide and that I was making the biggest mistake of my career. But I believed Dwight, and I believed in the program. I was excited for the opportunity to develop a novel program. It was a really hard decision, but ultimately I went to my Department Head (Edmund D. Brodie, Jr., no slouch himself!) and my Dean at Utah State, and quit. I took the job at Zoo Atlanta.
Was this ultimately a good decision?
I’m extremely happy, and very enriched, and never bored. Oh, yeah. It was the best decision I ever made.
What are a few of the conservation programs you have been involved with that you are proudest of?
I would say getting the Amphibian Ark up and running. That concept came out of that original 2004 meeting. It took a couple of years, but we did get it formalized as a branch of IUCN and launched it here at Zoo Atlanta, and I’ve been associated with it ever since. The ark concept was never intended to be the “grand fix” of the amphibian crisis, but Amphibian Ark certainly has worked hard to bring the quality and quantity of necessary captive husbandry programs up to speed.
Also, the role that I’ve played in different high-level decisions and policies, entirely following the lead from Karen Lips, George Rabb, and others. Among the roles I’ve played is taking my experience of seeing how bad it really can get out there, and lobbying incessantly, doing dozens of lectures and seminars every year, to do everything I can to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I emerged, professionally, as the consummate gonzo field herpetologist. I never realized I could have so much influence by putting on a suit and tie and simply talking. Over the past 6 years this is probably where I’ve put most of my conservation energy. I no longer see the amphibian crisis, especially the amphibian chytrid fungus, as a veterinary or even a biological problem. It is a policy problem. Policies won’t help much at all in retrospect, but we have to learn from our naivete in the 1980s–2000s to create policies to limit the spread of emerging infectious diseases in all taxa. No longer is this just an amphibian issue.
Based on your experiences, if you had to create a formula for a successful conservation program, what would that be?
You really must understand the realities of the primary threats that you’re dealing with. It was a very difficult message to sell, back ca. 2006, that traditional conservation measures of land protection and such could have no effect on emerging infectious diseases. People like Karen and me took enormous flak for our strongly entrenched logic along those lines. I became quite disappointed in the mega-NGO conservation organizations that embraced us swiftly because of the sheer scale of the amphibian issue, but quickly distanced themselves when they realized we were not going to paint a feel-good story on this—“if you just give us this much in donations, we can save XX number of amphibian species.” That was not true, and we would not say it. Very rough times. Quite unpleasant, and, as I said, I really lost faith in a lot of the motives and messaging of many conservation organizations. But, we always had George Rabb at our back! He never, ever let us down and supported us through the worst of it. Conservationists simply were not prepared to hear a tale in which money could not mitigate the problem. My snarky quote, to sum up that era of experience, is in response to real-world conversations where NGOs would say “But we can’t raise funds for lab research on microscopic fungi, we have to have a success story.” My response: “This fundraising goal, then, isn’t about the frogs, is it? It’s about simply raising funds.”
So, I guess the take-home here is to be very careful diving into something that you don’t know you can fix. It’s one thing to start a conservation program and then put all your efforts into restoring the habitat, but this idea of putting frogs in captive care and having no idea how to stop chytrid fungus… we still don’t, we’ve made no substantial progress on that front at all, from my perspective. In fact, the quote that I use all the time in my talks is, “With all due respect to every chytrid-based conservation program out there, more frogs have saved themselves from chytrid fungus than have any of our conservation programs across the world.”
Some of these populations are coming back and we didn’t help them. The ones we’ve tried to help, we haven’t really helped. That’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the nature of the beast.
Why do you think that is?
Fungi are unbeatable. There are no vaccines. The only thing you can do with fungal infection is treat the individual. That’s, logistically, just impossible, especially because it confers no resistance. So, this fungal problem is just going to get bigger, whether it’s snake fungus disease, bats, the newly discovered Batrachochyrtrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), or what have you, it’s going to get bigger. Without getting too doomsday about it all, a core of us still-engaged stakeholders are pushing the agenda that proactive programs and policies to control movement of animals around the globe is the best answer. This stance has not made me very popular in some arenas.
What is on your desk today and what programs do you see yourself working on over the next decade or so?
Honestly, the nasty politics and the lack of major successes in amphibian conservation wears on me, personally. So, I’ve found myself over the last 8 years or so taking “conservation sabbaticals” to focus on teaching and unrelated research. So, on my desk today are manuscripts naming a couple of new frogs, wrapping up a fun study with my students on lizard learning cognitive trials, a boa nutrition study with Robert Hill, and wrapping up a book chapter about zoo research, specifically academic research at zoos.
The advantage of this job is that it is so flexible. I’m sandwiched between a very progressive zoo, and a mega research university. There’s really nothing I can’t do with the opportunities and resources around. A few years ago I was even making robots based on sidewinders.
You have described around 40 species of reptiles and amphibians; do you still find that rewarding…. or tedious?
Discovering a new species, or solving a century-old taxonomic problem is fun. Like working on nature’s puzzle. Selecting the final name is fun. The work only gets tedious when a project starts to snowball on you. The one I’m working on right now is exactly that. This was going to be pretty simple and it got way more complicated than I could have expected. I don’t really enjoy when projects explode beyond the scope I had envisioned.
Having done so much throughout your career, what keeps you motivated?
Learning new stuff. Figuring out things that either were brought to my attention or I just noticed for the first time, and realizing, “That’s interesting!” My head never stops racing with questions to follow. I’ve been obsessed the last couple of days trying to figure out why roadrunners have zygodactyl feet. I don’t know where I’m going to go with it, but that’s the kind of thing that keeps me motivated. It’s just constantly challenging myself to figure out new stuff and new perspectives on things. The best way to do that is to talk to really smart people, because then things just pop up.
On top of being an esteemed researcher and conservation biologist, you are also a musician. Your band has played at multiple science festivals, you have bridged a gap between music and science. Tell us more about that.
The connection for me is based on the ethos of punk rock. I am not a particularly good musician or singer, but I have things to say and contribute. So, there you have it—harder, faster, and louder than you can imagine. I just have to express myself, and I won’t let lack of virtuosity stand in my way. Same goes for science. I am not the smartest person in our field, but I work hard, and am insistent upon contributing and expressing everything I have to offer. Nevertheless, there had not been any real connection between music and science for me over the years. But, one day in 2005 I was exhausted from the political trenches of amphibian conservation, and laid low to play guitar. Unexpectedly, the song that came out that day (“I Want My NGO”) was a really bitter take on conservation. I guess the two halves of my brain fused? On a less serious path, after I settled at Georgia Tech, a faculty member in Biology, who also had played in bands back in the day, cornered me in the hall one day and explained that I was the missing guitar-vocal link in her imagined band “Leucine Zipper & The Zinc Fingers” and that I had to join and rehearse in time for the upcoming inaugural Atlanta Science Festival. The premise is that all of the band members are academic scientists, now transmogrified as genetically engineered rock organisms. So, we hunkered down and wrote a dozen punk-rock songs about science. So much fun! Exactly what I needed to balance out the reality of watching Rabbs’ Fringed-limbed Tree Frog go extinct in my hands. Our band is loud, fast, sincere, scientifically accurate, and silly. I really needed that in my life. Five years in now, we play 4 or 5 shows a year. We have more songs, a few videos, and new grant from a Georgia Tech Science-Arts council to record a full album in a real studio, and more videos. We played to 12,000 people at the Atlanta March for Science 2017. I’m pretty sure that beats any audience I’ll ever reach again. How does one calculate that for their impact factor?
Thinking back to your previous question about what keeps me going, I’m going to say everything I said before is true, but I forgot one, and that is the opportunity to be creative. That’s why I like writing. That’s my favorite part of the whole scientific process is the writing part. I get to use words to best explain what I’m talking about, whether I’m writing a popular piece, or a lecture, or a manuscript, a song, or anything. Words are fun creative tools. The band’s songs are the same thing. I have no interest anymore in bashing angry teenage punk songs, but I like the challenge of writing those songs about entropy or the scientific method! I just cannot be serious all the time. Basic research is one thing, but conservation in this era of disasters will eat you alive. You must have other things in your mind.
Let us know when your first album is out! In the meantime, do you have any advice for the next generation of herpetologists?
Go read every important paper you can find on the concept of shifted baselines. Perhaps the best way to do this is to dive deep and read every historical paper, and I mean every one of them, on any aspect of the zoology or botany near your field site. You must realize that we are all working in completely shifted, and shifting, baselines with respect to that older literature you will find. You must connect the dots, as neither the old literature nor the new literature is going to do that for you. So much has changed that you can be lulled into thinking that what you’re looking at is normal. You may make mistakes, like, “Well, I’m going to study the community ecology of these frogs,” without even realizing that this is a highly-modified ecosystem, and X number of species in this community went extinct in the 1990s. You have to acknowledge that. It doesn’t make your science useless. It doesn’t mean you can’t do your study. But if you don’t acknowledge that then you’re artificially studying something that’s not what you think it is.
I got completely tripped-up by this whole mess myself, because I didn’t see it coming. During my first trip to the Neotropics, in Guatemala, and then soon thereafter my first trips to Mexico, I couldn’t find any frogs. I went through every reason I could possibly think of, including, “I suck.” And it never occurred to me that they were simply gone and nobody knew it. A couple of years later, this was exactly the point that Karen Lips was making. What caught me off guard was that, after so many decades of field work in these areas by the most famous of our senior colleagues, was that I was the one just figuring that they were gone.
I was bewildered. I had no concept of a shifted baseline. No one had any indication that this had happened. That they were simply gone wasn’t even in my vernacular.
Also, just as important, don’t put off field experience, because the opportunities to do that are going to become less and less. I wouldn’t want anyone to regret what they missed. Things can happen in life. I lost my knees. I lost my ability to do field work, and that just really crushed me.
Fortunately, I have no regrets. I did years of tons of fieldwork, and I’m very happy about it, and it gives me lots to look back on. But if I had decided to not keep spending every summer in Guatemala with Jonathan Campbell, or that I needed to instead be writing more papers, I would not have gotten to see so much before it wasn’t possible to do so anymore—either because of my handicap, or socio-political reasons, or lack of habitat, or restrictive laws. Do as much fieldwork as possible. I am testament to the fact that you can write it up, on crutches, for the remainder of your career.
Also important, try to look at the big picture. Focusing on places, sites, valleys, species that are going away at just appalling rates, there are going to be some that you just can’t mitigate. You can wave signs, and sign petitions, and pull things into captivity, and do all of this stuff as best you can think of, but ultimately, you’re going to lose some of those battles. So my advice, as a bitter pill to swallow, is to pick your battles where you think you have a chance of success. Look forward 50 years and imagine what might be saved and what likely cannot. Hence, I am a strong proponent of the value and goal to keep the common species common.