Category Archives: Science

The third and final day at Biology of the Pitvipers

I am sad to day that Biology of the Pitvipers is over.  I can honestly say that the Conference ended as it began, with a day filled with great pitviper talks!  We started the morning with a group picture.  If you haven’t yet requested your group photo you can do that here.  We started teh morning with a four talks on pitviper “-omics.”  This is admittedly not my area so I can’t say for certainty if the talks were venomics, genomics, or transcriptomics.  I can say his is a really cool area of research with a lot of potential to improve the human condition.  Through the work of guys like Ken Wray and Darin Rokyta we are learning the genes responsible for venom production have been around a long time in a lot of other places (livers, pancreas, heart, intestines), but are being recruited and duplicated by snakes to produce venom in the venom glands.

After a break for milk and cookies (no joke!) we saw a talk by Emily Taylor of Cal Poly about translocation and stress in Red daimond rattlesnakes.  Emily’s talk was followed by a neat biogeorgraphy talk looking at variation in scalation and body size in relation to elevation .  George Bakken blew everyone away with a talk about the physics of thermal imaging.  Pitvipers are able to see heat images stereoscopically, and George adn Aaron Krockmal have worked out much of the physics of that system. These talks were followed up by talks about the phylogenesis of diet and microbial ecology of the gut fauna of pitvipers.

The afternoon was dedicated to studies on movement and the natural history of feeding and reproduction.  Warren Booth et al. work on parthenogenesis  is pretty freaking cool.

The final four talks of the day were about phylogenetics of pitvipers, strike kinematics and photography of rattlesnakes.  I hate to short change the end of the day.  These were great talks, but I have to get checked out the hotel.  I am meeting on of the most influential rattlesnake biologists of the late 20th century for lunch.


Day Two at Biology of the Pitvipers Conference

This post will not do the day justice, but here goes, anyway…


Day two at Biology of the  Pitvipers was mostly about  demography, biogeography, venom, and translocation.   Steve Mackessy started the morning with a keynote address on the state of the art of venom research.  if you are not familiar with Steve’s work you need to be.  He is truly an integrative biologist who utilizes cutting edge biochemistry techniques and old school natural history to understand not just snake venom, but the ecology of venomous snakes.

Following Steve’s keynote, Bill Brown presented demographic data he has been collecting on Timber rattlesnakes of New York for the past three decades.  His is an amazing data set that includes a 45 year old individual!    Dan Beck gave a talk on a couple of populations of Crotalus oreganus and Matt Goode talked about his decade long study on urban Tiger rattlesnakes.

Timber rattlesnake coiled among leaves.

Timber rattlesnake coiled among leaves.


There were a couple of great talks on pitviper biogeography given by Mike Douglas and Allison Fenwick. Dr. Douglas’ talk centered on the impact global climate change will have on montane species of rattlesnakes and Dr, Fenwick discussed biogeographic hypotheses for explaining the current distribution of South American Pitvipers.


Chuck Smith of the Copperhead institute gave a talk on sexual selection in Copperheads.  There were a number of interesting talks on the ecological significance of rattlesnake venoms and venom components.  The venom talks were followed by talks by a number of people interested in the value of translocation as a management strategy for nuisance rattlesnakes.    Noteworthy among these were Erica Nowak’s talk covering the pros and cons of translocation and Jeff Mohr’s talk on the potential utility of the technique in Timber rattlesnakes of South Carolina.  The final talks of the day were about advances in radiotelemetry surgical implantation procedures by Dr. Thompson.

Following the sessions everyone attended a BBQ with killer food and a behind the scenes tour of the reptile/amphibian building at the Tulsa Zoo.  The Biologyof the Pitvipers meeting continues to be everything I expected it to be.

Day one at Biology of the Pitvipers

As expected, day one at the Biology of Pitvipers conferences was not a disappointment.  The keynote address “A Long View of Pitvipers: Past and Present,” by Harry Greene was great.  He talked a bit about about the morphology of snake jaws and how snake eat such large meals, then discusses the ancient and fascinating coevolutionary relationship between snakes and primates.  He concluded his talk by highlighting how scientists and snake enthusiasts can inspire appreciation for pitvipers.

The rest of the day was devoted to devoted to talks about snake behavior, venom, education, pitvipers in a cultural context.  I cannot summarize all of the fantastic talks from yesterday, but i can give a couple of highlights.  The Talk by Terry Farrell of Stetson University on the feeding behavior of Pigmy rattlesnakes  had some great video clips of pigmy rattlesnakes depradating on centipedes and skinks.  Theses snakes vary they feeding behavior based on prey type.    Cool stuff.  Bill Hayes of Loma Linda University gave a neat talk linking specific venom components to specific symptoms experienced by snakebite victims.Melissa Amarello of Advocates for Snake Preservation (Yeah, ASP) gave a great talk telling us about their great new advocacy and outreach group.  If you are a snake nut, you need to join this group!  The last talk of the day was by Aaron Krochmal, Travis LaDuc, and myself about the last 25 years of pitviper research.  I gotta say Krockmal gives a good talk.  We highlighted the value of the venom research and stressed the importance for more natural history related work.  Less than 10% of the current research on pitvipers (which are distributed from southeast Asia through North, Central,and South America) is on ecology, morphology, and behavior.


The day ended with a poster session.  I lament to say I spent the entire poster session standing near my posters discussing my current work on rattle fluorescence and operant conditioning in rattlesnakes.  A quick burn around the room though suggested that posters ran the gamut from thermal physiology to population genetics, to education and conservation.

I have no doubt that today’s talks will as enlightening as yesterdays.  I’ll keep you posted.

An experiment in scientific discourse: Fluorescence of the rattlesnake rattle

I get the sense that many people feel as if science and scientists are in an ivory tower; that science is out of reach of most people because they don’t have the educational background or the quantitative skills typified by professional scientists.  I think also that sometimes scientists disregard the ideas of non-scientists because they don’t have the educational background or quantitative skills most scientists have.  I think that both of these notions are mistaken.

Science is a community endeavor.  It benefits form discourse; the tossing around of ideas and interpretations by multiple people from many different backgrounds.  Whether we admit it or not, all humans are bias.  Our thought processes and interpretations of the natural world are the result of our prior experiences.   Hence, science benefits from many different people eyeing up the same problems because what one person may see as an intractable problem or routine observation is seen as an easily solved problem or extraordinary phenomenon.

In an attempt to engage a wide community of people, both professional and non-professional in the human endeavor called science, below I describe a research project I am currently working on related to the ultraviolet fluorescence of the rattlesnake rattle.  I will be presenting a poster of this very project a the 2nd Biology of the Pitvipers meeting in a few days.  After the description, I provide a short URL to a form where you can leave your comments and suggestions about the scientific process in general and the fluorescence project, specifically.  I ask that you use the URL instead of the comments section of this blog so that I have everyone’s comments in one place in a user-friendly format.

Ultraviolet Fluorescence of the Rattlesnake Rattle: Preliminary findings

All animals communicate within their own species and between species. For example honey bees do the waggle dance to tell other bees in which direction and how far to a plentiful food source.  Rattlesnakes advertise their potentially harmful bite by rattling the rattle on their tail.  Essentially, communication is the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver in which both parties benefit from the information exchange.  In many cases it is helpful to send information in more than one sensory channel.  For example some rattlesnakes use an auditory signal and a visual signal (some rattlesnakes have a conspicuously colored tail).

Fluorescence is a physical phenomenon in which light is emitted when the electrons of a substance are excited and change energy levels, whereby in the process photons are released.  The late, great rattlesnake biologist Laurence Klauber noted over 50 years ago that the rattlesnake rattle fluorescences under ultraviolet light.  No one has investigated the phenomenon since even though it is known that other animals utilize UV fluorescence, including parrots, many fish, and scorpions.Diversity_of_fluorescent_patterns_and_colors_in_marine_fishes_-_journal.pone.0083259.g001.png (1620×2741)

Our study had three objectives:  1) Develop methods to quantitatively  assess rattle fluorescence, 2) Document interspecific variation in rattle fluorescence, if it exists, and 3) Test hypotheses regarding the function and biological role of rattle fluorescence.

To meet these objective we built a 3×3 UV-LED (395-400 nm) light array in a black box and photographed rattlesnake rattles.  We utilized western diamondback and prairie rattlesnakes from the Northwestern Oklahoma State University Museum of Natural History.  We then quantified the intensity of the fluorescence using computer software similar to Photoshop.

We found that Western diamondback rattlesnakes exhibit more intense fluorescence than prairie rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnake rattles fluorescing under Ultraviolet light.

Rattlesnake rattles fluorescing under Ultraviolet light.

We have come up with a few ideas about why this might be.  First, it is possible that the fluorescence is a signal enhancer (that is how humans use fluorescence; that’s what Woolite and Tide do do to your clothes).  We thought this might be related to differences in habitat use or activity in these species, but they use very similar habitats (at least in Oklahoma) and both are active at night (there is available UV at night, however).  It is interesting to note that the Western diamondback has a banded tail which is also conspicuous.

Another possibility is that the fluorescence enhances the mimetic similarity between the rattle and segmented insects.  Several species of rattlesnakes exhibit a behavior called caudal luring in which they wiggle their tails to lure food within striking distance.  The video at this link is of copperheads luring, which are close relatives to rattlesnakes.

So, now is your chance to think like a scientist.  Follow the link below to a Google form that will provide you an opportunity to record your thoughts on this research.


The form can be found here:


Is Naturalism a religion?

A couple of days ago Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum debated Bill Nye on the topic “Is creation a viable model of origin in today’s modern scientific era?”  Early in Mr. Ham’s introductory remarks he suggested that Naturalism is a religion and that if creationism can’t be taught in public schools, that naturalism should be prevented as well. Is Ken Ham right?  Is Naturalism a religion?  What is Naturalism anyway?  What is religion?  What would science education be without naturalism?

Naturalism, as defined by Wikipedia, is the philosophical idea that only natural laws and forces operate in the world or that there is nothing in the world beyond what can be observed in nature.  So, I guess, Ham implied that not believing in a god is a religion.  That sounds self-contradictory to me.  Perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper.  Some philosophers distinguish different forms of naturalism.  There is philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism.  Philosophical naturalism is essentially the naturalism defined in the first sentence of this paragraph.  There is observable nature and nothing else.  Methodological naturalism centers on the process or method of knowing (which Ken Ham pointed out is the Latin definition of science) about nature.  That is the scientific process.  By definition, methodological naturalism excludes SUPERNATURAL explanations.  So, potentially, someone could accept methodological naturalism as a way of discovering how the world works (e.g., where it came from, how it functions, etc) and embrace a supernatural worldview that gives their life meaning (why am I here?, what is my purpose?, what happens when I die?).

So methodological naturalism is clearly NOT a religion, but philosophical naturalism could be.  But that begs the question, “What is religion?” Again, if we consult Wikipedia, religion is a collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.  In short, it is a collection of customs that a group of people share in common.  It is interesting to note the etymology of religion is fuzzy which potentially hampers determining its original definition. It may refer to holding gods in reverence, considering something carefully, or to bind together.  So by the first etymology, methodological naturalism is not a religion.  By the second and third definitions it could be, I suppose.  I suggest the latter, because science does require careful consideration and the scientific community is bound certain processes and rituals (consider the peer-review process or the ritual associated with performing a radioimmunoassay.)  Philosophical naturalism may also be a religion if reverence of nature is replaced for reverence of gods, perhaps.  During the debate, Bill Nye commented on his wonderment for the natural world and the process of discovery.  I must admit I have felt it myself.

Back to the original question, should naturalism be outlawed in public education?  I think not.  The naturalism taught in public schools is methodological naturalism and is the only way to advance scientific progress.  Recognizing a creationism model for origins opens up a garbage can of worms no one (especially the religious right in America) wants to deal with.  Which creation “hypothesis” do we teach in American public education?  Clearly we cannot limit it to the Christian version, but where then DO we limit it?  Do Americans want their children exposed to “other” religions in school?  That is in indirect opposition to the first amendment.

As I said earlier, a creationist model hinders progress.  How did the Earth form?  God did it. Done. Now what?  Instead we need to be teaching kids good, solid science methodology so they can explore the wonders of nature in an intelligent and meaningful way.  The notion that we can advance technologically without methodological naturalism is simply not true.  Creationism stifles wonder.  It prevents kids from asking questions and more importantly from seeking answers.

Don’t keep the keg by the TV during an Evolution/Creation debate

I just watched the Nye-Ham debate on YouTube.  I intend to give a more thorough treatment to the debate tomorrow, but I wanted to get a couple of thoughts into cyberspace tonight as the blogoshere explodes in the aftermath.

1.  Don’t keep the keg of homebrew next to the tv during a science vs creation debate.  Much imbibing will ensue.

2.  Citing your cadre of hack PhD ‘s may impress those who have not been in graduate school.  Those of us who have are not impressed (I am can at least say I did not go to the same Oklahoma university as Fabich)

3.  Evolution does not mean antiGod

4.  Did Ken Ham really have to make a statement about gay marriage in a Creation/Evolution debate?  No he’s a prick. (Again homebrew by the TV a bad idea)

5.  Observational science/historical science is a false dichotomy.  Both follow the same process called the scientific method.

6.  Are we really still confusing methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism?

7.  Yes, science does make assumptions in formulating radiometric dating, the big bang, etc.  But isn’t divine creation by THE CHRISTIAN God  an assumption, too? (see next)

8.  Why is the Bible the “Go to” book?  Why not the Quaran,  Taiji tushuo, or one of the Native American creation myths?

9.  What is a “kind” anyway?

10.  It’s okay in science to say, “We don’t know, yet.”

Keep your eye on the prize

I want to write a quick post on why I teach.  Not just why I teach, but why I enjoy teaching at a small liberal arts university (at least as liberal as it can be in NW Oklahoma, which isn’t very ;-)).

The story starts about a year ago when I got an email from the Oklahoma EPSCoR office announcing a small grant opportunity for undergraduates.  I read the announcement and it said that preference would go to projects at primarily research institutions working on problems in energy, but that all were welcome to apply.  I asked a student of mine who I knew would be around over the summer and would be interested in getting some research experience.  We tossed around a couple of ideas and decided we would test an hypothesis about mimicry in a little studied snake of Woods County, Oklahoma called the long-nosed snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei).  It was definitely a long shot, but we wrote up a short proposal and submitted to the program.  I had my doubts given the nature of the work and our low standing among research institutions in Oklahoma.  Amazingly we were awarded the grant

Now, Long-nosed snakes look somewhat like coral snakes in that they are black, red, and yellow banded.  The weird thing is that there are no coral snakes in Northwestern Oklahoma, so we wondered if the banding pattern afforded the snakes any protection from potential avian predators since many birds migrate to tropical habitats in the winter that are home to venomous tri-colored coral snakes.  To test the hypothesis, we created 400 clay models of tri-colored brown snakes and placed them around east central Woods County.  If birds pecked or grabbed the models they would leave behind tell-tale marks in the clay.  We later discovered that mammal teeth marks are also preserved in the clay.

The student worked all summer fashioning models, placing them in the field, collecting them and looking them over for evidence of depredation.  She learned field work is not always glamorous, especially when it’s 98 degrees and your clay models are melting.   Preliminary analysis showed the colored models were avoided by birds, but we were not sure if they were avoided because of the warning coloration, or because the banded pattern served as a disruptive pattern on the grass background.  To find out the student created 100 more models and laid them out on white backgrounds so that they banding was not disruptive on the grass background.  This would tell us if was avoidance or camouflage.  Unfortunately, this stage of the project was thwarted by a plague of locusts that literally ate most of the clay models.  Who knew locusts ate clay!

Undaunted the student wrote up a paper detailing the project.  I tightened it up a bit and made some suggestions and it looked to be a decent little paper on the protective coloration of R. lecontei.  I asked her if she wanted to submit it as a short paper to a peer-reviewed journal.  She agreed and formatted the paper herself according to the journals Guide to Authors.  We submitted the paper together last week and waiting with crossed fingers to hear back from the editors.

Long-nosed snakes resemble venomous coral snakes.

Long-nosed snakes resemble venomous coral snakes.

I know this is getting to be a long post, but for those of you not in science, this is a pretty big deal for an undergraduate to submit a paper for publication.  Personally, I am proud of the experience I was able to provide this student.  She “did science” from start to finish.  She assisted in writing the grant, collected the data, assisted in data analysis, wrote parts of the manuscript, and submitted the paper.  She presented the results of the research at our campus research day and won second place (the student who won did her research at one of the state’s R1 schools).

Things don’t always go your way, but if you give it your best shot and keep your eye on the prize, Nothing can stop you.  Not R1 universities nor swarms of locusts.

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