Published in the May/June 2011 issue of Ohio State Alumni Magazine
by Bill Eichenberger
photo by Chris Crook
Medusa’s head was covered with them. One of them killed Cleopatra. St. Patrick’s claim to fame was banishing them from Ireland.
They’re often described as “sly,” “deadly,” “fanged,” and just plain “evil.”
From time immemorial—or at least since the Book of Genesis was written—snakes have played the villain: slithering across the landscapes of our imaginations, haunting our nightmares.
Researchers at Ohio State are trying to repair the reputation of the scaled creatures one step at a time. They tend to use more positive adjectives: “fascinating,” “gorgeous,” “exhilarating”—even “useful.”
Herpetologist Lisle Gibbs was never more aware of the dual nature of snakes than when he underwent a heart procedure a few years ago.
“When I was having stents put into arteries in my heart, I had an allergic reaction to an anticoagulant drug called Integrilin,” Gibbs said. “The drug had originally been designed from the structure of a venom protein found in the snakes I have in my lab, dusky pigmy rattlesnakes from Florida.
“Afterward, I thought that it was poetic justice—given that we captured wild individuals of this species for samples of blood and venom before releasing them.”
Gibbs studies the proteins found in rattlesnake venom and how they vary within and between species. He is as likely to be out in the field tracking snakes and examining the contents of their stomachs as he is to be hunkered down in his laboratory running data through a computer.
Gibbs also conducts research in conservation genetics to guide the management of endangered species, and he studies snakes and birds to better understand how historical processes contribute to speciation. As he explained: “We want to know if snakes of the same species separated by geography will develop different types of venom for different types of prey over time.”
When Gibbs ponders the importance of snakes in a given ecosystem, he often thinks of what he’d tell the state legislature should an important wetlands or woodlands be at risk for development.
“As top predators, snakes control rodent populations that would otherwise destroy agricultural crops. When we destroy or overexploit natural systems, we lose these services without any accounting of how important the losses are,” he said. “The effects can crudely be measured in dollars and cents."
Gibbs obviously admires snakes.
“There is a visceral sense of amazement and wonder at seeing the end product of billions of years of evolution of an organism so unlike me—an organism that survives by killing its prey with venom, that lives underground in a crawfish burrow submerged in water for six months of the year, and whose connection with the external world is almost entirely through a sense of smell mediated through its tongue.”
A snake’s best friend
Kristin Stanford—also known as the Island Snake Lady—works at Stone Lab, Ohio State’s field station on Gibraltar Island.
Stanford has studied Lake Erie water snakes for more than a decade, and she’s happy to report that her chosen subject is about to be taken off the endangered species list.
“It’s a big deal. I’ve gotten to witness an actual recovery [of a species] to the point where it’s no longer in danger of extinction,” she said.
Stanford regularly talks to schoolchildren and other groups—not the easiest gig, considering society’s prejudice against snakes.
“I’m one of those weird people who absolutely love a challenge, and mine, in this case, is getting people to think a little differently about an animal who has been crucified and demonized and thought of as evil and dangerous and disgusting,” she said.
“I’m not necessarily going to turn you into a snake lover, but by the time I’m finished, I hope maybe you will respect snakes more than you did before.”
Like Gibbs, Stanford often considers the practical side of her affection for the so-called lower invertebrates.
“When I give talks to Lake Erie fishermen, I will remind them that watersnakes eat an estimated 1 million round gobies a year, which removes that many predators of smallmouth bass eggs from the environment,” she said. “I think they appreciate the watersnakes more when that’s pointed out to them.”
Pieces of a puzzle
Doug Wynn ’74, ’82 MA was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1994 to conduct a field survey of the eastern massasauga rattler. As a result of his research, the rattler eventually was placed on the endangered species list.
Wynn has continued to study the snake over the past 17 years on recurring contracts with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Much of his field work involves radio telemetry and tracking. “You do bond with them,” Wynn said of his rattlers, “especially when you radio-track them. Most tend to get used to you.
“By the time you spend a year or two following one of them, you feel like you’re slowly putting together a puzzle. It can be sad and frustrating when a long-time study individual is found dead, especially if was obviously killed by a person.”
The tell-tale signs of human depredation? “Their rattles are cut off, and even sometimes their heads,” Wynn said.
Stanford agrees that snakes have a kind of personality, albeit a limited one. She names some of them—mostly those she takes with her on school field trips and the like.
“I’ve found that kids simply cannot relate to anything if it doesn’t have a name,” she said with a laugh. “So I do indulge in a little bit of anthropomorphism. But then again, we’re finding out that snakes are very intelligent animals with problem-solving powers we hadn’t credited them with before.”
Gibbs finds it crucial to get inside the minds of his snakes. “I spend time trying to ‘think’ like a reptile,” he said. “Unlike us, a rattlesnake lives primarily in a world of smells, tastes, and vibrations. They spend much of their time just sitting around digesting food or waiting for days for a shrew to run by.
“They are very cautious and timid,” he added. A rash move might get them eaten by a red-tailed hawk.
“I wonder how all this feeds into their biology and the patterns that I see in my data,” Gibbs said. “Evelyn Fox Keller coined the phase ‘a feeling for the organism’—and I think that any organismal biologist must have such a feeling to do good science.”