Welcome to our first installation of Herpetology Spotlight! In this interview we speak with Dr. David Steen better known by his website Living Alongside Wildlife and Twitter handle Alongside Wildlife.
Living Alongside Wildlife in the Herpetology Spotlight
I caught up with the ever popular Dr. David Steen which many will recognize by his Twitter handle. @Alongsidewildlife who’s most known for his incredible skill of identifying snakes from photographs and encouraging education of the general public. He does this in a most entertaining way. As can be seen in his more recent work #Showwolfaturtle which is a hashtag sensation where folks share their Chelonian companions and a little natural history or tid bit of info with none other than Wolf Blitzer of CNN fame. Atlas Obscura covered the story very well.
RA: Let’s begin with your current work which some may believe is identifying snakes via Twitter. The real story is you’re a Wildlife Ecologist who studies the impact of humans on wildlife populations. Can you explain some of the details of your daily work as a wildlife ecologist?
LAW: I’m an assistant research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn University. I study wildlife ecology and conservation with an emphasis on reptiles. One of my primary projects involves reintroducing the federally-threatened Indigo Snake to southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle while monitoring the ecological impacts. We are also studying the age and sex structure of invasive Argentine Tegus in south Florida and the ecology of Flattened Musk Turtles in central Alabama, for some examples. Most of my time is spent in front of the computer writing grant proposals, filling out paperwork, and writing papers and these days the field work is largely done by graduate students and technicians.
RA: One of my personal burning questions ‘how did you come to science outreach via social media?’
LAW: I study wildlife conservation and I am interested in understanding how wildlife use landscapes so that we can incorporate their needs into development plans. None of that matters unless the general public cares about this stuff too so I’m hoping to provide that perspective on social media and explain why I think it’s important. I’ve also found that most people are genuinely interested in learning more about the wildlife around them but don’t really know where to start and certainly don’t have a scientist on speed dial. I’m happy to be available for people when questions come up about creatures they find, particularly snakes. I hope that in addition to learning more about these animals they will also gain an appreciation.
Science, Public Outreach, and Living Alongside Wildlife
LAW: My outreach efforts really took off with my blog, which came together in its current form in 2009. Since then I’ve also become quite active on Twitter; I think it’s a great platform not only for quickly answering questions but actually finding people that have questions but don’t know who to ask.
Part B) Do you think it difficult for science to be explained publicly? Why the seeming gap between science and public?
There are many science communicators and journalists that do a great job of explaining science. Lots of scientists do it too but they’re often overlooked.
I think more scientists don’t get involved in science communication and outreach because it’s frankly not part of their job and there is little professional incentive to do so. Is there a gap between science and the public? I’m not sure; it does feel that way sometimes.
RA: What was the first reptile species you ever kept?
LAW: I had a ton of reptiles as a kid. I had green anoles and sliders and curly-tailed lizards from the pet store and I would also catch painted turtles where I grew up (Orange County, New York); I was allowed to keep those for two weeks before I had to let them go where I found them. My Dad also had Jackson Chameleons and a Green Iguana.
RA: Do you currently keep reptiles? If yes we’d like to hear genus and species.
LAW: I do not have any pets.
RA: Why do you or do you not keep reptiles?
LAW: I like the freedom and independence I have without worrying about taking care of other creatures. I’m also not convinced I could provide an interesting and good life for an animal in my home. Although many if not most reptile keepers are responsible and ethical people that take good care of their reptiles I’m not too keen on the pet industry in its current form and I don’t want to participate.
RA: Who is your greatest inspiration for choosing the path of reptiles?
LAW: For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in reptiles and would spend time looking under rocks and in bushes for snakes. I think they’re a greatly unappreciated group and we have so much to learn; I think that presents a huge opportunity. Perhaps because we don’t know much about them, many are rare or otherwise imperiled and I hope I can make contributions that advance their conservation.
RA: Why do you think some people fear reptiles?
LAW: I think many of us are innately fascinated by reptiles and society and peer pressure can often push this fascination into fear.
RA: Reptile litigation and its effect on the industry and you personally?
LAW: Because I don’t keep reptiles I’n not affected by legislation restricting their ownership or trade by private individuals. I think that concerns about the impact of captive reptiles on human health and safety are overblown. However, I’m passionate about conservation and invasive reptiles are a real problem to some of our native ecosystems; so, in general I’m not opposed to legislation intending to reduce this (real or potential) problem. That said, reptile keepers have brought up a number of important points regarding how these laws could be refined. Overall, invasions like that of the Burmese Python in Florida are real ecological disasters and I think preventing these invasions should be our priority.
RA: What is the most satisfying element of your work for you on a personal level?
LAW: It is very gratifying to generate knowledge that can result in clear guidelines that will help us live alongside wildlife in perpetuity.
RA: Is there a gender bias in the world of herpetology as a science in your experiences?
LAW: I haven’t seen the statistics for herpetology specifically but I expect it is similar to science overall, which has a well-documented gender bias. I see many young herpetologists that are women; it is important to help make sure herpetology is inclusive so that they stay around.
RA: In your experience please explain the importance of science funding and what it means to the research you’re currently involved in.
LAW: My research doesn’t happen without funding. I don’t get paid without funding. Most of my work and salary is covered by multiple grants that last a year or two. A day does not go by without thinking about how to fund my research program.
RA: If money and laws were taken out of the equation, what is the ultimate reptile species that you would keep if you could?
LAW: I have a fascination with caiman lizards; I’m not sure if I would want to keep them personally but I do appreciate seeing them at zoos and aquariums. We have a lot to learn about this mysterious creature and I’d love to get involved in a research project with this species.