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Snake chasers and climate change

Guest post by Maya Master - Herpetologist, PhD Candidate: Evolution and Ecology, Bangor University.


Who knows what they really want to do? Becoming a herpetologist

Very few people in their early careers are doing exactly what they set out to do after leaving the fresh hell that was A levels. For all those studying or are early career conservationists – please let this sink in.

To say now that I’m a Herpetologist (a zoologist that specialises in reptiles and amphibians), where handling venomous snakes in the tropics to donning a lab coat is the fusion of skills that I always wanted for my career is incredibly fulfilling!

But it hasn’t been the smoothest of journeys and being one of very few female herpetologists, let alone being a woman of colour, hasn’t made this an easy path.

My way into this unorthodox sector of conservation biology started with the undergraduate course in International Wildlife Biology that I look at the University of South Wales; purely for the travel.

My interview consisted of several standard questions, ending with, ‘Will you be able to come to the compulsory South Africa trip?’. Although at the time it wasn’t a paid trip, I am delighted to now say that is it funded by the university – a move that I hope we trend towards to stop wildlife conservation work becoming a middle-class whitewash.

Immersion in the variety of field, laboratory and statistical skills meant that I didn’t get bored. I could hone in on each module without losing interest, which ultimately opened many doors. An early interest in botany and entomology lead to me a dissertation project with The Butterfly Conservation, a collaboration that is one of the highlights of my CV. Getting a good mark for this was one thing but getting real world data that was valuable to a conservation charity and determining habitat management through changes to the Wildlife and Countryside Act regulations meant much more than any grade.

Following this, I started an MSc in Climate Change: Environment, Science and Policy at King’s College London. The move to London for a country girl was horrendous and solidified my need for getting into the field, no matter how hot, sticky, humid and dirty it got away from the comforts of home. I was desperate to find a way to get to a tropical location to collect data on a species that would be affected by climate change. This was my turning point into herpetology. I settled on the montane cloud forests of Cusuco National Park, Honduras (yes, the drug capital of the world, no, I did not tell my parents this) with one of the more popular biological and conservation research programmes.

I will stress that I completely understand why people find it hard to get into the industry, to make contacts and do some ‘spicier’ conservation biology work as this trip was jaw-droppingly expensive. Although I enjoyed this trip thoroughly, you definitely DO NOT have to work abroad for your university projects to get a conservation job. As long as you’re getting to grips with some fieldwork experience and can show a willingness for physical work and resilience to being in the field, you’re good as gold.

Reptiles were the easiest choice for me to study if I wanted to measure the effects of climate change on wildlife. Who knew that I would fall in love with them.

Scenery at the end of Transect 3 in Cusuco National Park, the site of my MSc research.

The montane gradients surveyed in Cusuco provide a variety of habitats from semi-arid pine forest at the base, to moist-broadleaf forest, culminating in dwarf forests on the very top of each mountain. Each habitat has its own species assemblage and a suite of ectothermic reptile species: relying upon maintaining body temperature either through thermoregulation by basking in the sun or thermoconforming by using the temperature of their surroundings for bodily function. This makes them extremely vulnerable to climate change, as individuals will need to either:

  1. Move to cooler/warmer areas to withstand the changes in climate, whilst remaining within suitable habitat, and in their ecological niche;

  2. Adapt fast enough to make adequate behavioural changes in basking, hunting, feeding, breeding, etc or;

  3. Do nothing where only species with a high thermal tolerance will survive a changing climate.

In the case of Cusuco, modelling the predicted future temperature under various scenarios of climate change, there may be a three to four-degree celsius increase in temperature! From my work, I found that to survive the predicted temperature changes, the species that I studied would need to move up the mountain to reach cooler temperatures at higher altitudes. None are predicted to survive here at even at a lower predicted concentration of climate change.

They will either (1) move to reach the border of a higher altitude (cooler) habitat type that they are not suited to; with little hope of (2) fast enough adaptation and behavioural plasticity as they occupy such a small niche and are likely to or become extirpated; where little is known about their potential for (3) as thermal tolerance of these thermoregulatory and thermoconforming species requires further research.

For an area such as Cusuco, this is particularly devastating. Climate change and its knock-on effects within ecosystems can lead to not only to ecosystem collapse but losing beautiful, charismatic and unique endemic species.

After a particularly taxing MSc year (why it’s one year in the UK but two years everywhere else in the world I will never know, do it part-time for your mental health), I took three years out before going back to academia. Yes, you read that right, three years. It seems, in the UK especially, that we need to speed through our education, that the journey to becoming Dr X or getting to your dream conservation role is a race! But believe me when I say that these years will be the most formative and enjoyable in your career and should be valued.

Also, a gentle reminder, finding out what you don’t like is just as important and finding out what you do! Hate doing field work by yourself because it’s lonely? Hate working in the Arctic because it’s too cold? Hate sitting at a desk inputting data all day because it’s boring? You don’t have to do it ever again.

During this time, I used every opportunity to fill my CV with field experience. I’d done the education part and was glad to see the back of it for a while. I wanted to do this abroad but how was I supposed to fund this? I would recommend finding an office job, I had a couple of insurance roles but I often found myself in an out of retail; a few months here, a few months there, working my way up in some places but mostly filling the bank!

Not only was this worth it to fund travel to Thailand to track King Cobras for six months, to go back to Honduras to work as a project manager at a conservation facility, and take trips to India to study snakebite risk with Captive and Field Herpetology, but it provided me with transferable skills to fill holes in my CV.

This is ,one of the largest recorded at Sakaerat Environmental Research Station, Thailand but I did enjoy my experiences with other individuals.
I won’t pretend for a second that I could lift this monster of a King Cobra (Ophiophagus Hannah)

The King Cobra above was one of the largest recorded at Sakaerat Environmental Research Station, Thailand!

The ability to translate skills from even mundane jobs is a trait that all early-career conservationists should have. For example, Sales Supervisor may not seem like much but this means you can showcase your: leadership skills, being able to delegate tasks, ensuring target are met, keeping accurate records of stock and being trusted with budgeting and cash handling – all skills valuable to early-career conservation and wildlife roles such as Ecological consulting, Marine Biodiversity surveying and postgraduate research!

Having ticked off two big boxes (qualifications and experience), to get to my goal of a herpetological PhD, the last and arguably the most important was networking. Again, this is usually an expensive endeavour where the most important and influential academics within any given field convene at conferences. ‘Conference’ in itself is such a grownup word and to say that I should be speaking at the largest herpetological conference in the UK, ‘Venom Day’ hosted by Bangor University, towards the end of the year is still quite terrifying!

My first foray was ‘Venom Day’ 2017, I had come back from Honduras for the second time and forced myself to get on the academic ‘map’ by attending the event. Prices are usually discounted for students but the best way to get yourself there for less money is to present a poster and if you’re feeling particularly brave, speak at them!

I presented a poster of my MSc work at this event, where I only knew four people. I got the most insight I have ever received in talking to people in the field about my research. It was these interactions; listening to people speak about MSc research to Post-docs as well as seeing the social and sometimes even the tipsy side of researchers, lecturers and professors, that made me feel like my goal of research was accessible to me. I highly recommend it! From this conference, I did the yearly circuit of conferences so people could put a name to a face when I applied for jobs or research. This was so important to me, especially as I am usually one of a handful, if not the only, woman of colour at any event.

This often fills me with despair, where do I look to see people like me represented in such a competitive field? Who do I turn to when I look and feel different from the majority? It can be a scary and lonely place but I try as hard as I can to be that person for myself, because who else is there?

I try to share my experiences and tips on my Instagram page @mayathebiologist, to make sure that young women of colour know that any conservation job is a viable option for them.

This is especially important when I hear a group of middle-aged men debating research that I know I have an opinion or valid contribution to and making sure I force myself into that circle and talk about what I’m doing – because you can be sure that I’ve been asked by them to fetch some coffee for everyone before they realise that I’m there to correct their outdated methods or quote up-to-date research in favour of my own arguments. 

It’s from interactions like this that gave me the drive to walk up to my now PhD supervisor, Dr Wolfgang Wuster, at Venom Day in 2018 with questions about his talk. Fast forward to a year and a half later, where after many PhD interviews with other researchers, failed ideas with prominent academics, to the project I hold now – researching why there are vastly different venom types within one species of rattlesnake in Arizona, USA.

This project came about as mutual friends of myself and Dr Wuster’s were discussing my fascination with rattlesnakes whilst trying to bring my previous research ideas to fruition. After some to-ing and fro-ing, some emails, and discussions over food, he proposed that we start a PhD project following on from a post-doc that he had supervised. He remembered me from our conference interactions and had confidence in my qualifications and experience. These discussions came about by finding contacts, from making like-minded friends in my field, from continual research discussion – my PhD was founded purely from networking.

Which brings us to today! Travelling to a variety of locations in the Sonoran desert to collect data, getting to a lab to conduct my experiments, coding, mapping and modelling to statistically analyse the results and using hours-worth of reading (sometimes a real slog), to make well-informed conclusions, is what I do for my PhD – and I don’t even have all the skills I need to do this yet!

A piece of advice that I want to offer to early-career conservationists is to get as much experience and practice in as many skills as possible. This may feel a little ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ but there is nothing wrong with this until you decide to specialise later in your career. Of course, we all have a taxon that we would like to focus on, whether it be marine biology or herpetology but knowing that you have a range of field and reading, writing or even statistical analyses and lab skills is what every employer or supervisor wants to hear. They don’t want to know that you can do everything, they want to see if your experience shows that you can pick up or refine the skills for the job they’re offering.

Snakebite, the neglected tropical disease and how climate change will affect it

Snakebite envenomation or ophidism is a potentially life-threatening occurrence, only recently accepted as a tropical disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO) (Chippaux, 2017). Snakebite doesn’t cross many of our minds. Even in countries such as India, where rural populations can be crippled by the physical and economic repercussions of snakebite, people in cities such as Mumbai are unaware of the minimum of 50,000 deaths and 2 million incidences of envenomation in India annually (Mohapatra et al., 2011). The deadly cocktail of venom toxins from the snakes inflicting the damage can result in coagulation defects, destruction of red blood cells, renal damage and neuromuscular paralysis among a range of other issues, dependent on snake species (Bawaskar, Bawaskar and Bawaskar, 2020).

It will be no surprise to most that high-risk groups include agricultural workers, working children and those living in inadequately structured housing. These demographics also coincide with limited access to education and healthcare (Mohapatra et al., 2011).

As well as poor infrastructure for emergency services, few medical professionals know how to treat snakebite in India. Even in areas where antivenom is free and available, such as in public hospitals in Maharashtra, how to administer antivenom, the dose required and need for constant supervision or life support, is unknown to most (Bawaskar, Bawaskar and Bawaskar, 2020).

Survivors are often permanently physically disabled, plunging their families into debt to pay for treatment and further poverty where it is usually the working members of the family that are envenomated. The depth of the socio-economic impact is not well understood and remains under-researched (Gutiérrez et al., 2015; Harrison and Gutiérrez, 2016) . The WHO have developed a strategy utilising the scientific research community, health foundations, advocacy groups and stakeholders to strengthen health care systems, aiming to reduce global snakebite deaths and disabilities by 50% by 2030.

The start of this bold ‘prevention and control’ plan begins with scientific research. I have been lucky enough to have a small part in species and bite incidence research with Captive and Field Herpetology by conducting surveys in high-risk areas in Himachal Pradesh, to determine which species are envenomating people.

Along with this, BITES research team lead by Dr Anita Malhotra are answering the call to incorporate social research in the struggle against snakebite by interviewing bite victims to determine, what species, how, when and where (what habitat and areas on the body) people are getting bitten.

The group from the 2019 Captive and Field Herpetology India trip, surveying for as many snake species as possible.

The survey group in the Himalayas are pictured above – a diverse group but still all men apart from me! *eyeroll*

Aside from areas of study such as identifying culprit species and species specific antivenom production, the effects of climate change need to be addressed where it poses a significant threat in the tropics through predicted weather extremes (Rodrigues and Christiani, 2012) . Snakebite is prevalent across the whole country, however higher incidence has been reported in central and southern areas of the country (Salve, Vatavati and Hallad, 2020) . Species moving to higher elevations or latitude in response to a changing climate have been recorded across all taxa (Chen et al., 2011) .

It can be expected that ‘the big four’ snake species that are responsible for the largest amount of recorded snakebite deaths in India (the Indian cobra – Naja naja, the saw-scaled viper – Echis carinatus, the common krait – Bungarus caeruleus and the Russel’s viper – Daboia russelii), would move northwards to cover more of India’s area. I don’t doubt their success in range expansion into growing areas of suitable climate where they are all generalist feeders and each be found in a number of habitats.

In relation to the actions of the WHO, I believe climate change to be a vital consideration. Measures to reduce the number of deaths that must be implemented before 2030 will require an even larger scale in the coming decades to respond to higher prevalence of bite risk in light of climate change.
A photo of the infamous Russell’s viper, a formidable viper that is the reason for many vital bites across the country.

Follow Maya's journey at @mayathebiologist

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