Here at Dispatches from the Field we are VERY excited to welcome our first guest blogger, Amanda Xuereb, a PhD student from the University of Toronto. For more about Amanda, check out the end of this post!
Hot mid-afternoon in late June, 2011. Sitting on a large rock overlooking a local community beach north of Parry Sound, Ontario. Taking a lunch break of PB & J with Caroline, my field assistant, after a sweaty morning of flipping rocks and cursing myself for wanting to study such a cryptic animal. Suddenly, shrieks of fear from below – a woman yelling at her kids “GET OUT OF THE WATER RIGHT NOW! HURRY!!” We look down at what looks like a scene from Jaws as all the kids are running and splashing to safety and in the distance, the silhouette of something swimming along the surface of the water – A SNAKE! We haven’t seen one in days! No words were spoken. As quick as a reflex we dropped our sandwiches and ran to the water. No time for bathing suits (our clothes needed a wash anyway). We tread water to slowly approach the beast from either end and Caroline makes the grab – success! It’s a 3.5’ long eastern foxsnake, one of the most beautiful and docile creatures I have had the pleasure of working with.
My first summer of field work was in 2009. I was an undergrad between my third and fourth year and I scored a job as one of two field assistants to a PhD student. Our primary task was to collect blood samples from eastern foxsnakes for a study on genetic population structure in Ontario. The three of us bunked in a shabby 2-bedroom apartment in Kingsville, ON for 4 months that summer, which we furnished with air mattresses, Rubbermaid containers, and a tent so that the person who got to sleep in the “living room” at least had some privacy. I knew I would be in for a summer like I never experienced before, but I didn’t realize just how much I would love it. I loved spending our days wandering around such pristine areas like Point Pelee National Park, Hillman marsh, various sewage lagoons (yep), searching for that distinct gold and brown pattern slithering in the grass or basking on rocks. On a good day, and in the right places, we could find upwards of 10 snakes in one day. That fall, we found a nest in a compost pile in someone’s backyard with nearly 100 eggs (in clutches of about 10) that were hatching right before our eyes! That was cool.
After finishing undergrad, I started a master’s degree in the same lab. I was interested in understanding the effects of the landscape (namely anthropogenic features like roads) on shaping the genetic structure of species at risk. I chose a species about which very little was known – the eastern hog-nosed snake – and I quickly understood why this was the case. Although they are extremely charismatic (with a unique way of defending themselves against predators, see pictures below and YouTube), they are pretty elusive. As their name suggests, hog-nosed snakes have an upturned snout, which they will use to burrow themselves in sandy soils (females also use their snouts to dig themselves a nest to lay their eggs in). In one 3-month stint in the field, I personally found and collected a blood sample from five individuals – hardly enough of a sample. My field assistants and I literally spent weeks walking up and down and up down the shores of beaches only to come back empty handed (I know, it doesn’t sound so bad saying it now but the beach thing got old pretty fast). For most of that summer I felt frustrated and discouraged and scared that my project was going to flop, but I was saved by some incredible people all over the province who stayed on the lookout and called me if they came across the coveted hoggy. The acknowledgements section made up a good chunk of my thesis.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my field work was the opportunity to meet and talk to so many people. I spent a lot of time searching in provincial and national parks, cottage areas, and backyards, sometimes even pulling over to sample a snake on the side of a road, which always begged the question “what are you doing?” by passersby. Of course, interacting with people who lived in the communities in which I was working often benefitted me when they agreed to be my eyes when I couldn’t be in 20 places at once. But some of the most fulfilling interactions were with those for whom idea of chasing after snakes was totally bonkers. I’ll return to the shrieking woman from above: When we reached shore with the snake in hand, the kids were naturally stoked and ran over to us to get a good look, while the nervous woman pleaded for them to stay back. When we approached her, she confessed that she thought all snakes in Ontario were rattlesnakes, and thus all snakes were venomous and must be feared. After explaining that most of the snakes you would find anywhere near here are harmless, and even the Massasauga rattlesnake (our only venomous species) isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be, she became very interested in understanding what species occurred where she lived and how to tell them apart. I was thrilled to (seemingly) change someone’s view of a creature so misunderstood from downright terror to “Hmm, I guess they’re not so bad”.
Disclaimer: I do not advocate picking up any snake that you come across in the wild; you probably wouldn’t like that very much, would you? Admire it, but let it be.
Amanda completed her master’s degree in the department of biology at Queen’s University in 2012. her thesis focused on the impacts of land cover and habitat fragmentation on the spatial structure of eastern hog-nosed snake populations. She is interested in understanding how environmental or landscape features influence an organism’s ability to disperse and ultimately shape patterns of genetic structure at a broad scale, especially in a conservation context. She is currently a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at the University of Toronto.