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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.

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