Dr. David Steen is a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University whose specialty lies in studying reptiles and amphibians, a group collectively known as herptiles. One of Dr. Steen’s recent claims to fame is successfully giving CPR to a drowned turtle! His research focuses on how herptiles interact with their environments, and how this information can improve conservation efforts. Currently he is working to reintroduce the Indigo snake to Alabama. The largest U.S. native snake, it was unfortunately extirpated from the state in the 1950’s.
Q: Your research focuses on the ecology of North American reptiles and amphibians. What led you to study these creatures specifically?
A: For as long back as I can remember, I have been wading through streams and looking under rocks for salamanders and snakes. Sometime along the way I started getting paid for it. I am interested in reptiles and amphibians because they’re cool. Look at a 100 pound alligator snapping turtle or a six foot diamondback rattlesnake and try not to be impressed, these are incredible animals.
I study these animals because they are in trouble. For example, turtles are one of the most imperiled groups of vertebrates. But, for many species we lack even the most basic natural history information that would allow us to figure out how to conserve them. That’s where I want my research to make a contribution.
Finally, these animals often occur in diverse assemblages, many different species can be found in the same swamp. Because they eat different things and use the landscape in varying ways, we can generate interesting hypotheses and predictions regarding how they co-exist and how they might be affected by conservation threats.
Q: What are some of the behaviors expressed when different species of snakes share the same habitat?
A: Within the same habitat you could have sit and wait ambush predators like the rattlesnakes, these animals will stay motionless and wait for a small mammal (i.e., their next meal) to walk by. You could have fast and active diurnal predators with big eyes slithering through the grass to find prey like racers and coachwhips. You could have semi-arboreal snakes like the cornsnakes and the ratsnakes crawling into bushes and trees to find bird nests or squirrels. And don’t forget the small snakes that live under the leaf litter that are hunting things like worms and slugs. Snakes are a diverse group.
Q. What about when these snakes run into each other? Given that there are so many different species with various body sizes, behaviors, and hunting styles, there are probably some interesting confrontations.
A: From what we know about snake community ecology, if two snakes of different species are interacting with each other, it is likely to be apredator/prey interaction. Indigo Snakes and Kingsnakes are most famous for eating other snakes, including venomous species like rattlesnakes and Copperheads, but they are far from the only species that do so. Cottonmouths and Racers are also well known for chowing down on smaller snakes.
Q: Have you witnessed any interesting instances of snakes, turtles or other herptiles interacting with other animal species in an atypical way?
A: The amazing thing about reptiles and amphibians is that we know so little about them, as a result I am learning something new all the time and it’s hard to even say what’s typical. The Gopher Tortoise is a really important species in the longleaf pine ecosystem. Their burrows are known to provide refuge for many different species. But just last week a friend of mine and I found a Copperhead sitting in the mouth of a tortoise burrow, perhaps waiting to ambush a small mouse. This viper had never been observed using tortoise burrows before.
Yesterday I got an e-mail from someone asking me if it was safe to eat a bass that had a small snake in its stomach. When I looked at the picture I noticed that it was a Southern Watersnake. We suspected that fish probably ate this species but we never had proof before. Basic natural history work is sorely needed for many different organisms, including reptiles and amphibians.
Q: The recently discovered Ecuadorian Mutable Rainfrog can change its skin texture to be spiky or smooth, presumably to better blend in with its mossy environment. Can you name any North American species that have noteworthy camouflage abilities of their own?
A: Copperheads and Timber Rattlesnakes have an incredible ability to blend into the leaves on the floor of a hardwood forest. Speckled Rattlesnakes can virtually disappear against some rocky or gravel backdrops. Softshell Turtles have some neat tricks too, sometimes they will settle down onto the bottom of a stream and cover themselves with sand with just their eyes and nostrils poking out. Any small fish or crayfish should be careful.
Q: What was one of your most incredible moments in the field?
A: I may research amphibians and reptiles but I appreciate all wildlife. Big mammals are particularly exciting. My wife and I were hiking along thebeach out of Sirena Ranger Station in Corcovado National Park very early one morning a couple years ago (you have to time your hike with low tide so that some of the rivers are low enough to cross) and as we approached one river we suddenly saw a Tapir appear around a bend near the water. As we watched, the Tapir slowly entered the water and went for a swim right in front of us. It was stunning to watch this big animal just do its thingwithout a care. The day before, at a nearby river, we had watched Crocodiles cruise through the surf amidst Bull Sharks hunting for fish. Amazing place.
Q: What fact about animal cognition or behavior do you think is most important for the world to know?
A: I think it’s important to emphasize that there is a lot we do not know about animal cognition and behavior. The more we learn about the different ways that species perceive and respond to the world around them the more we will appreciate and be impressed by them. Even animals like rattlesnakes are showing us that they have a lot of secrets left to reveal. Recent work is suggesting that females look after their offspring, for example, and they may follow scent trails of their own species to help them find hiding spots.
Q: How can we learn more about the research you conduct?
A: I hope anyone interested in the ecology and conservation work that I’m conducting will check out my website: https://davidasteen.wordpress.com/research-projects/. My outreach blog is at: www.LivingAlongsideWildlife.com
This interview was conducted by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of AnimalCognition.org