Wednesday, July 20, 2016

JMIH 2016:My favorite sessions @SnakeAdvocate @rattlesnake_mel

One of my favorite sessions was on behavior in juvenile Spotted Salamanders and how they used burrows and whether they burrowed separately, together, or randomly. The main thing I liked about this session is the study methods. They needed to test to see if the salamanders would exhibit clumped distribution (burrowing together) in a predation environment. But they didn't want to hurt any salamanders, so they simulated a predation environment and it worked! And yes, the salamanders did exhibit clumped distribution. 

Another favorite was on performance and morphology of rat snakes and king snakes. It concerned how a king snake can overpower and eat a similarly sized or larger rat snake. It actually discussed many things that weren't the reason. Larger snakes are more muscular but king snakes aren't more muscular than rat snakes. King snakes weren't better at escaping constriction than rat snakes. But king snakes constricted much better. More precisely, most rat snakes, when they constrict, are all over the place like this:

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However, when king snakes constrict, they're like this:

Image from
The constriction method of a king snake inflicts much more force than that of a rat snake. This explains how a king snake can overpower a similarly sized and similarly powerful rat snake.

One of my favorites from the entire conference was on whether or not drought drives rattlesnakes into people's yards. During times of drought, the Internet is ablaze with articles about how going into your yard is dangerous because rattlesnakes might go in there looking for water, like this one. (BTW, it's actually a really good article from the Los Angeles Times and involves tips on how to stay safe about venomous snakes.) The researchers in this study decided to test if drought actually drove rattlesnakes into yards. They discovered that coiling and half-burying yourself (sometimes I do this during the summer in Memphis) minimizes water loss. And they discovered that during drought, the rattlesnakes did just that and they sat there. This means that during drought, you're less likely to find rattlesnakes in your yard, not more. So, drought drives media reports about rattlesnakes into your yard, but no actual rattlesnakes. 

Another favorite was on the collapse of a bird-snake mutualism. The collapse was very sad and included some graphic pictures of suffering snakes, but the mutualism itself was fascinating. On this island known as Seahorse Key, there is no fresh water to bring freshwater fish, cottonmouths' usual diet. But there are a ton of cottonmouths. The island was also, before the collapse, frequented by birds. The birds would drop pieces of fish carcasses which provided food for the cottonmouths. In exchange, the cottonmouths would eat nest predators, protecting the birds. So, the snakes got food and the birds got protection. It's kind of like the relationship between a kid and a parent. The parent provides food, water, shelter, clothing, and education in exchange for the child taking care of them when they're older.

 However, my favorite from the entire conference was on social behavior of rattlesnakes. This presentation was in the middle of an incredibly interesting symposium on social behavior in reptiles, hosted by Gordon Burghardt. Yes, the Gordon Burghardt. It contained sessions about cooperative hunting in reptiles, vocalizations in turtles, sociality in pit vipers, and even a session on social behavior in tuatara! Also, I found out that the guy who invented Tabasco sauce was an avid amateur herper and actually was the first person to document maternal and paternal care in alligators in the 1930s. People didn't believe him until the 1970s, though. Oh, and about paternal care in gators? Yes, it's true. You often hear a lot about gators being good moms because they are. But, for all the dads out there, the dad gator does take care of his kids while the mom is hunting or otherwise unavailable. Anyway, back to the social behavior in rattlesnakes session. The main thing I loved about this session was not the topic, but the person who was doing the session. She was Melissa Amarello, the person who created Advocates for Snake Preservation and the reason My Little Python isn't just some 11-year-old's tiny blogcomic. Melissa has done amazing things for the snakes of My Little Python and snakekind. She discovered that rattlesnakes had friends and used this for an absolutely amazing advocacy campaign. She is awesome. Also, ASP has seriously helped My Little Python ascend to its modern form. Way back in February 2015, we created the "Shake My Tail" parody. We happened to be in the right place at the right time because it just so happened that it coincided with ASP's campaigns for rattlesnakes as a response to rattlesnake roundup's campaigns against rattlesnakes. My mom shared it with various rattlesnake pages, including ASP. I had serious doubts that an organization as big as ASP would acknowledge the existence of my tiny blog. And they did. They shared it! This meant that it managed to spread from ASP to people like the Texas Rattlesnake Festival. They asked My Little Python to create a Facebook page so they could feature them. Then, from the Texas Rattlesnake Festival, leading social media pages about reptiles like HerperProps and The Reptile Report to share about My Little Python. ASP kickstarted the My Little Python advocacy and really made My Little Python an advocacy campaign. That's one reason why I changed the slogan from "cute little snakies" to "changing the world one snake at a time". Cute little snakies is this. "We are a webcomic about cute snakes." Which we are, but we're so much more. Changing the world one snake at a time is this. "We're cute, but we're making a difference. We will change your views about snakes. We are awesome, but not as awesome as Melissa Amarello, to whom we owe our existence in our modern form." Thank you, Melissa Amarello. It was an honor to meet you at JMIH. 

And, poster sessions? There's no contest. This was the best poster at JMIH. I think one of the presenter's parent's students was canceled, giving the presenter her place in the sun.

But my favorite poster session from an actual presenter was from a University of Memphis student. A former mammalogist who turned to the snake side and decided to study urban copperheads in cooperation with the main herpetologist at the Memphis Zoo. I am now in contact with her, since she, for me, is local and someone I might be able to do work with. Welcome to the snake side. We have copperheads.

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