Q&A with a Guam Brown Tree Snake Biologist

I admit it: most of my friends are cooler than me.

You may have heard last month about the U.S. government’s plan to drop acetaminophen-laced mice on the island of Guam to control its invasive population of brown tree snakes. Well, I was able to get the inside scoop on this odd-sounding idea, because a college friend of mine happens to be a brown tree snake biologist on Guam and is involved with this project. Meredith, who has her own blog that you should all try to convince her to start updating more often, agreed to tell you all a little more about her awesome job and what is going on with the Tylenol mice. This may be the first in a series of similar Q&A posts, but that depends on me being able to talk other people I know into doing this, so we’ll see.

Q: Who are you?

A: My name is Meredith Palmer and I graduated with a degree in Zoology back in 2011. I have recently been accepted back into school for my PhD and am very much looking forward to grappling with my own research again coming up this fall! I will be working on the behavioral ecology of lions and predator-prey interactions in the Serengeti. (Note from Rebecca: yes, she is going to study African megafauna for her PhD. Wow. Meredith, can I visit?) Over the past few years, I have been working field assistant jobs in Africa and the Caribbean.

Continue reading “Q&A with a Guam Brown Tree Snake Biologist”

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More Snakes

As promised, here are the two snakes I found on Friday. First, as I was loading my car in the afternoon, I noticed a robin in the yard acting strangely – pecking at something and then fluttering back. After a moment I realized it was attacking a small snake, so I went running over. Yes, I suppose I was interfering in a perfectly natural predator/prey interaction, but there are plenty of exotic invasive earthworms around for the robins to eat, they hardly need to be going after baby garter snakes.

You’d think it would be grateful that I saved its life, but no, it coiled up and tried to strike at me. Well, fine, be that way. Garter snakes have nasty dispositions, even though they’re small.

Then in the evening, I took a walk in the woods. I’ve been saying ever since I moved here how much I’d like to find a Redbelly Snake, Storeria occipitomaculata, and yesterday I finally got lucky! I almost stepped on it before I saw it, stretched out in the trail looking almost like a twig. Unlike garter snakes, these guys are very docile and easy to handle, so I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Look how little and cute! Look at those gorgeous crimson belly scales! These snakes live on the forest floor and eat slugs and earthworms. With their tiny mouths, I don’t think you’d feel it even if you did somehow manage to provoke one into biting you. (And I don’t think you could – other than being a little wriggly, this one was completely okay with being picked up, handled, and photographed. What a dear.)

So, there you have it – Rebecca’s further adventures with snakes!

This Is One Foxy Snake

(Yes, a post that’s about neither insects nor plants! It’s a miracle!)

Yesterday afternoon I was in the office when, through the window, I heard someone exclaiming over a snake. Naturally I dropped what I was doing and ran outside. I was expecting to see a garter snake – for a reptile lover like me even a common garter snake is worth walking outside to see! However, I was in for a treat, because there in the landscaping was a totally new reptile species for me, a Western Fox Snake, Pantherophis vulpina. At the time I didn’t have my camera with me, and by the time I’d run and gotten it the snake had, of course, vanished.

The day wasn’t over, though. After I got off work in the afternoon, I spotted an undergraduate walking across the parking lot carrying the fox snake. He’d wisely decided to relocate it away from the buildings and cars into the woods, and this time I was able to snap a quick photo. I was very impressed with his snake-catching skills – it’s one thing I’m absolutely awful at.

Is that not a handsome animal? I mean, wow! Fox snakes, like many harmless nonvenomous snakes, will do rattlesnake impressions to try and scare off predators – this one was energetically vibrating the tip of its tail. Unfortunately, this probably leads to a lot of humans killing fox snakes as a result of mistaken identity.

I love snakes. Please don’t kill snakes. Even rattlesnakes.

UPDATE: Clearly I should have waited to publish this post until this evening, because since I put this up I have photographed not one but TWO MORE species of snake! Guess you’ll have to stay tuned and find out what they were on Monday!

A Terrifying Infestation of… Garter Snakes?

This article caught my eye in the morning paper today: it describes a young couple who discovered a horrible infestation in their new house in rural Idaho. They describe it as being like living in a horror movie… the man was worried his pregnant wife would miscarry from the stress… now that they’ve left they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What was their house infested with? Garter snakes. Small, nonvenomous garter snakes. Garter snakes = horror movie? Really? Even the term “infestation” seems like a bit of a stretch, since the article only describes one incident where they actually found a snake inside the house (the wife found it in the laundry room, and naturally she panicked, screamed, and jumped onto a counter to escape it). Apparently they were mostly in the crawl spaces in the walls, and in the yard.

I mean, I can understand not wanting to live in a house infested with snakes. Really, I can, especially since the article mentioned that their well water smelled like garter snake musk (ew – although the more I think about it, the less sense that makes; snake musk somehow permeated the groundwater???). But if you really, truly think about it, which would you rather have in your house, garter snakes or mice? Which one carries hantavirus, nibbles on the food in your cupboards, and shreds the clothes in the back of your closet for nest material? Not the snakes.

I don’t know. Some people.

One Last Bit of Jekyll Island…

Surprise! Even though I’m in Arizona now I do have one more batch of Jekyll Island photos to share with y’all. It doesn’t feel right to close that chapter without doing a post about Walter.

Walter is a pine snake, Pituophis melanoleucus. Of all the education snakes at the Jekyll Island 4-H Center (which include seven individuals representing five species), he was my favorite. Anyone who doesn’t think it’s possible for reptiles to have individual personalities has definitely never spent much time handling different snakes. Walter was born in captivity at another 4-H center and has been an education animal his whole life, and according to my boss he had at various times been screamed at, dropped, and even accidentally stepped on by nervous people, and had never once even threatened to bite anyone. (Not great for the snake, I know, but these things happen when an animal spends its life being handled by excitable children.) This is the sweetest, most laid-back reptile you will ever meet.

Doing herpetology programs, particularly snake programs, was my favorite part of my job at Jekyll. Showing a nervous kid (or adult!) that “scary” snakes can actually be docile, friendly, curious creatures is a lot of fun. Pine snakes like Walter are constrictors with a wide range in the U.S. (My understanding is that Walter himself is actually a hybrid between two subspecies.)

Anyway, I’ll be staying with my parents out West for about the next five weeks, during which time I’ll mostly be here in southern Arizona – but we’re also planning a road trip to visit Arches, Rocky Mountain, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks. (Expect lots of photos!) After that I’ll be flying back to Georgia to pick up my car and then heading north to Wisconsin, with stops along the way to visit friends in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Rebecca in the Woods is on the move…

Snake Tracks

Down in the dunes…

…the sign of a snake.

The plates in my copy of the Peterson field guide to animal tracks suggest that the wide loops mean the snake in question was moving quickly.  Apparently a more leisurely-crawling snake leaves a straighter trail.  (Incidentally, the Peterson animal track guide is a delightfully idiosyncratic field guide, with as much anecdote- and sidetrack-filled narration as actual hard information on identifying tracks.  I kind of love it.)

The snake stopped to investigate a ghost crab burrow, as well.

The next time a kid asks me if the the burrows in the sand are “snake holes,” perhaps I’ll think twice before saying no.

Why I Do What I Do

Tonight I gave two back-to-back programs on snakes for groups of young Boy Scouts.  I pulled out three of our snakes, a hognose snake, a Mexican milk snake, and the star of the show, Walter, our five-foot-long pine snake.  I finished each program by letting anyone who wanted to put Walter, who is extremely docile and laid-back, around their necks.  The second time around, a man whose son insisted that Dad had to hold the snake too looked up from the snake coiled comfortably around his shoulders and said to me, “You know, I never liked or had any interest in snakes before, but you’ve really changed my opinion of them.  This is great.”

The last couple days at work have been very stressful, and I’m working both days this weekend as well.  So it was nice to hear, just when I needed to hear it most, that yes, me doing what I do has made a difference to someone.