I sip coffee out of an old to-go cup as we wind through the Arboretum’s dusty back roads in the back of the 4Runner. We pass plots of trees organized like chess boards and dendrological experiments in various stages of completion, the sun already noticeably hot at 7:30AM. The car rolls to a stop at one of the dozen or so fields that occupies so many of our summer mornings. When the survey’s starting time, temperature, and weather conditions are recorded, we begin our hike and search for snakes.
Once in the field, the brambles tug on my pants and invite me to stop for a moment and make a quick snack of midsummer blackberries. The curious calls of the Eastern towhee ask me to pause and scan the tree line for the ones who serenade me. But there are coverboards to flip and snakes to catch. The morning is young, and the blackberries will be there when I return.
Mornings working at CRESO typically start like this: the pull of dozens of distractions around, each demanding their own unique question to ponder, but the knowledge of data to collect that drives you forward. Therein lies the beauty of CRESO. It’s an opportunity to let your mind wander, contemplating endless questions about the abundance of corn snakes or the shape of a red-eared slider’s feet or the way mosquito larvae flit through the water. But it’s also a time to practice mindfulness, focusing on the details of the world around you, and appreciating the precision required to foster and maintain good scientific practices.
Throughout the last four years, I’ve participated in nearly every CRESO project, and snake survey is my current favorite. I started snake survey four years ago during my first year of CRESO because I was petrified at the thought of crossing paths with one. I hoped that if I learned more about which snakes are friends and which should be appreciated from a distance, I wouldn’t be nearly as frightened by them. As my summers catching snakes passed, my fascination and respect for these animals grew with my knowledge. I fell in love with all herpetofauna—amphibians and reptiles, that is—but snakes have captured a particular aspect of my curiosity.
As I’ve grown up with CRESO, so have my interests. Although I can trace my love of the outdoors back to the early morning hunting outings of my youth, CRESO sparked my curiosity for ecological research. I immediately wanted to learn more about how individuals interact with other members of their species, with other species, and with the environment around them. Wetlands, as well as aquatic turtles, helped me to contemplate some of those questions. In the fall of 2017, one of my coworkers and I pondered some of these questions and presented our findings at the Tennessee Herpetological Society’s annual conference. We looked into how different species of aquatic turtles were distributed throughout two adjacent ponds. We wondered, would smaller turtles, like painted turtles, only be found in areas that the snapping turtles never frequented? Did any species turn up more in one pond than the other? We searched for answers like pond sliders searched for vienna sausages (something we use as bait that some turtles seem to get a weekly hankering for).
Through the years, the capture and recapture data gathered from snake surveys, like aquatic turtles, has allowed CRESO students to analyze growth patterns, compare assemblages, and investigate movement patterns. Although I still find this to be fascinating, my interests have evolved to consider other aspects of ecology as well. The following summer, a student from the Wildlife Epidemiology Lab at the University of Illinois came to CRESO for the summer to survey for snake fungal disease (SFD), a mysterious new pathogen that has been infecting populations of snakes. The disease, caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, is severe and often fatal. I was excited for this new opportunity to look into wildlife disease, a topic I had recently been recently introduced to through an independent research project at the University of Tennessee. Megan, the veterinary medicine student, introduced me to new survey techniques and ways at looking at ecological problems.
The data we collected at CRESO that summer has larger implications beyond the snakes in Anderson County. Current research into the extent and severity of SFD could be used for future management strategies if the infectious disease continues to ravage snake populations. Hopefully, by identifying the species infected as well as the range of the fungus, future research could decode how the disease is spread and offer strategies to mitigate its proliferation into new areas. When analyzing our data, we often ponder the concept of “One Health,” or the idea that environmental, animal, and human health are all intertwined. Trying to improve the status of any of these branches is a collaborative and interdisciplinary enterprise that can help elevate all three. Therefore, learning more about the health of local snakes, box turtles, or wetlands, may help elucidate the status of human health as well.
At CRESO, you get paid to learn, and I’ve learned many valuable lessons that go beyond research practices. I’ve learned to ask thoughtful questions, and the importance of clean, accurate, and precise data, but I’ve also learned that I can pursue a career full of excitement and value that can have a tangible difference on the world around me. Going into my sophomore year at Emory University in Atlanta, I’ll continue to use the skills and foundation CRESO has given me to pursue a BS in environmental science and a master’s in public health. I want to explore the intersections of climate change, environmental health, and human health, especially as it relates to transmission of zoonotic diseases in altered habitats. Working at CRESO means being set on a path: a path to be a lifelong learner, steward of the environment, and an observant, analytical thinker that isn’t afraid to ask big questions.