Reptile Research and Studies at the Museum

Reptile research and studies focus on many areas, including genetics (studying the molecules that carry an organism’s hereditary information), habitat ecology (environmental factors that influence behaviour or population dynamics), conservation, human-reptile conflicts and wildlife management.

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However, some taxonomic groups are underrepresented. For example, snakes and lizards have been studied much more than higher-order reptiles such as Testudines and Crocodylia.

Courses

A knowledge of reptiles, even without a long university degree, can open up many exciting career opportunities. You can work as a herpetologist, which is a field of study that is becoming increasingly important due to the declining populations of many reptile species.

Herpetology is the scientific study of amphibians and reptiles, and it incorporates several subfields such as ecology, morphology, behavior, conservation biology, and systematics. Unlike other vertebrate fields, herpetology tends to be relatively narrow in its focus, and most herpetologists work on only one order or family (eg. frogs, salamanders, or snakes).

For those who want to learn more about reptiles but don’t have the time or money to commit to a full degree programme, we offer an Ofqual regulated Level 3 Award in Reptile Studies. This course covers all the essential information that you need to know about caring for and studying reptiles, and also explores vital conservation efforts that aim to protect them.

You will learn about the natural history and identification of amphibians and reptiles in their habitat, and you’ll be encouraged to participate in field trips. You’ll also be able to develop your skills with an independent research project that will form the basis of a written assignment. The class will be taught by experts in their fields, including Scott Moody (classical herpetology, comparative functional morphology and evolutionary studies of lizards), Steve Reilly (herpetofauna of Connecticut), Don Miles (ecology, behavioral ecology and conservation biology of reptiles and amphibians), and Willem Roosenburg (ecological genetics and genomics of all reptile orders). You’ll also have the chance to meet other like-minded learners from around the world.

Careers

Reptile studies can lead to a wide range of careers. Herpetologists, for example, work within the zoology field and specialise in amphibians and reptiles. They can also find jobs at zoos and museums, or in wildlife conservation. They can even go on to teach about reptiles in a professional capacity.

Other careers that focus on herps include veterinary work, zoo curator and supervisory positions and herpetological writing. These all require at least a bachelor’s degree in a related subject like biology or zoology. Some of these careers also need a higher level qualification such as a masters or a PhD.

Herpetologists who are involved in research will need to develop a wide range of skills including fieldwork, laboratory work and data analysis. They may also have to spend time preparing scientific papers and giving talks and presentations to the public. Those who are involved in medical herpetological research can get involved with developing antivenoms to treat snake bite victims or drug development from herps (e.g., using gila monster venom to help treat diabetes).

Herpetologists can also become members of herpetological associations and clubs. These can be great ways to learn more about the field and meet people with similar interests. Keeping herps as pets can be another good way to observe their behaviours and habits, although this can be challenging for anyone without the right space or experience with these animals.

Research Opportunities

Reptile research at the Museum is interdisciplinary and diverse. The Division of Amphibians and Reptiles is primarily concerned with systematic herpetology, the scientific study of what amphibians and reptiles are and how they fit together as taxonomic groups. This is the area that encompasses such topics as the genetics of herpetofauna, their biogeography, and their conservation. For example, Assistant Curator Sara Ruane’s laboratory focuses on snake systematics and evolution. She and collaborators use molecular, ecological, morphological, and behavioral data to address questions about snake species boundaries and the processes of herpetological diversification. Her work on Madagascar’s pseudoxyrhophiine snakes is particularly noteworthy, and has produced several new species descriptions.

Other researchers are investigating the role of reptiles in providing ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, biological pest control, and cultural and religious rituals. Such research is essential, because human well-being increases as biodiversity increases, but decreases as biodiversity declines (Lutz & Hibbitts 2008; Aronoff 2010).

A major thrust of our reptile research is also investigating reptilian cognition, or the way that reptiles perceive their environment and make decisions in it. This work has many practical applications in conservation, as it can be used to help animals avoid dangerous situations. For example, in Australia, where goannas and blue-tongue skinks face the deadly risk of consuming cane toad sausages, our researchers have trained these lizards with food laced with nausea-inducing chemicals to learn to avoid the toads.

Conservation

Reptiles are important part of ecosystems and many species are in decline due to human activities. A global reptile assessment is being used to identify species with the most urgent conservation needs and to measure changes in extinction risk over time.

As with other tetrapod groups, the major threats affecting reptiles are habitat destruction, agriculture, logging and urban development, along with wildlife trade, invasive species, disease and hunting. For most reptile groups, threats that cause habitat loss are proportionally more prevalent than those causing habitat change. Those with the smallest ranges are most at risk, and a substantial proportion of reptile species are currently threatened.

Like mammals, reptiles are capable of feeling pain and suffering [2,3]. Indicative behaviours such as slowing down, changes in appetite and laying eggs have been recognised as signs of stress, but the fact that reptiles have a much slower metabolism means they can tolerate poor conditions for longer than a mammal could.

KU researchers are using a variety of approaches to understand the ecology and conservation of reptiles. These include assessing the impact of land use and human activities on turtles in Central Africa, exploring phylogenetic relationships among a remarkable group of Madagascar geckos, and examining why reptiles have evolved such an enormous range of body shapes and sizes (see below). Research into herpetofaunal conservation is also being carried out by other institutions worldwide.