If Utah State University Ph.D. student Andrew Durso wants to handle a snake in the Biology Natural Resources building, he certainly has no shortage of the reptiles to choose from.
A basement lab provides a few dozen snakes locked in glass cages for students like him to conduct research; and in his case, his work is attracting quite a following.
Durso’s blog, Life is Short but Snakes are Long, has garnered thousands of hits online, and Scientific American selected it as its “guest blog” last year.
Now he will join a “blog carnival” Dec. 9 with other reptile bloggers worldwide. On that day, they’ll post on their respective blogs and tweet about snake ecosystem services using the hashtag #SnakesatyourService.
“We had this idea to write about ecosystem services of snakes. We use it as a term to talk about things that the ecosystem does for humans for free,” Durso said. “There are lots of examples. I always like to tell people, ‘snakes aren’t good for nothing.’ They play important roles as predators because they’re eating ... lots of small mammals, so they’re helping to control these populations and keep them in check.”
Durso will write about “Ecology of Snake Sheds” — one of his most popular blog postings.
“I got to thinking what other things do we know (about snake shedding) — turns out there’s a lot,” he said. “I can think and write about stuff with this blog that is a little more speculative than the kind of stuff I’d write about in my scientific articles. You should not overstep the boundaries of your data in a paper — but in a blog posting you can be more speculative.”
The USU student notes snakes are generally vilified in popular media, yet they’re fascinating creatures and provide crucial services within their habitats.
“Most people that don’t like snakes are just afraid — and there are good reasons to be for some of them — but most of the time, the perception is out of proportion to the risk they pose,” Durso explained. “Most people’s default behavior is, ‘I’m going to kill them all!’ But more than half of snake bites occur because the person is trying to kill them.”
Durso said he became interested in snakes as a kid: “I felt sympathy for them because people hated them so much.”
The USU student studies snake ecology with faculty advisor Alan Savitzky, professor and head of USU’s Department of Biology. One subject is studying snake stomach contents using bio-technology.
“I’m learning more about the secret lives of reptiles — what are they doing out there?” he said. “A problem in snake biology is we’d like to know how many are out there, and snakes are one of the only organisms, that if you go out (into the wild) what you see has nothing to do with the number there actually are. It’s not like birds, plants, deer hunting.”
In addition to his blog, Durso has tried to “dispel myths” about snakes — like with the Bull Snake he handled Tuesday night — during USU’s annual Science Unwrapped event hosted by USU's College of Science.
“I don’t meet people that don’t have strong feelings about them,” Durso said. “No one is in the middle.”