Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Researchers are Using Vibrators to Give Turtles Boners

Hey all, I hope you've had a chance to read my first article for Motherboard: Researchers are Using Vibrators to Give Turtles Boners that featured the research of Donald McKnight, a Ph.D. Candidate at James Cook University. If not, go check it out! The article is pretty short so there was a bunch from my interview with Donald that got cut out; I decided to publish the rest of the exchange here. When you're done reading the Motherboard article come on back here for more!



How did you come up with the idea to use a vibrator to sex turtles?


For my MSc, we were working with a population of western chicken turtles that appeared to have a very skewed sex ratio (far more males than females), and very few people have worked with chicken turtles in that part of their range, so we weren’t convinced that the published methods for sexing chicken turtles worked for our population. Thus, we began looking for alternatives, but because of the conservation status and relatively small size of our turtles, most methods were out of the question, so we began looking for alternatives. That’s when I came across a paper by Lefebvre, Carter, and Mockford, where they used vibrators to get male turtles to ejaculate for sperm studies. It seemed reasonable to us that if you could use a vibrator to make a turtle ejaculate, then you should also be able to use it to make a male turtle show you his penis, which would then allow us to distinguish males and females.

Your paper notes that certain techniques worked better than others and that the appropriate technique might vary by species or individual. How do you recommend future researchers evaluate their technique and figure out how to modify it?


It’s really going to be trial and error. When you have a relaxed turtle and you start to vibrate it, it is usually pretty obvious if you do something that it doesn’t like, because it will pull its tail up tightly against the body and tense up. In contrast, if you’re in a good spot, it relaxes even more and, often, you can see fluid forming around the cloaca. So when trying a species for the first time, researchers really just need to experiment with lots of different positions and techniques, and it should be obvious which ones are working and which ones aren’t.

Given the variety of available vibrators, are there certain features of vibrators that you think would make them more effective at sexing turtles?


I certainly suspect that some will work better than others, but I haven’t had a chance to experiment with anything other than the generic silver bullet vibrator that we used in the study. It did appear though that we got a better response when the vibrator had fresh batteries and was on its fastest setting, so I suspect that high speed ones will work better than slower ones. 

When you decided to publish the study, were you concerned that the paper would be criticized by people that were not biologists? Why or why not?


I was a little bit concerned because people often react irrationally and emotionally anytime that animals are involved. So, I think that it is really important to emphasize that we didn’t do this because of some perverse personal desire. Rather, we did this because we were looking for a non-invasive way to easily sex turtles in the field. The current alternatives include things like taking the turtles to a veterinarian to open them up surgically and look at their gonads, which is obviously far more traumatic for the turtle than simply vibrating it for a few minutes (surgery is potentially fatal). So, this really was driven by a desire to minimize our impact on these animals, and I hope the general public will realize that.

Are you planning any follow-up studies to refine the technique and increase its utility?


At this particular moment, no. We talked about trying to expand our methods and species before publishing, but I’ve moved on to work on my PhD and just don’t have time at the moment. So, we decided to just go ahead and publish what we have and let the rest of the scientific community move forward with it. I’d certainly be open to revisiting it in the future though.

Can you think of any other sex toys that may have applications for biology and conservation research?


I don’t personally have any ideas at the moment, but I think that there is definitely potential there, and biologists are a pretty creative, innovative group. So I don’t think this will be the last sex toy study.


Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Snake Identification Challenge of The Week: A Few Snakes Crawling Through the Heat of Summer




I am in McCormick, SC, and today I came upon this snake trapped down by our basement window. I allowed it to escape, and now I am hoping it is a water snake, but I wanted to check as it was very aggressive. 

Thank you so much,

Mea S.
South Carolina









I've got another snake for you to identify, if you have a chance.

My friend came across this one on the weekend while camping on the Bruce Peninsula (Lake Huron), a couple of hours north of Toronto.  Any idea?


Dan D.


What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.


Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week: That Third One Though.

Hi,

I just found this guy in a shrub, 4-5 ft. off the ground, in my front yard in Macon, GA. Looks to me like he just had a good sized meal. I'm guessing he's maybe 24" stretched out. My best guess is rat or mole snake. If so, I'm glad to have him!

I'd like to know if you can identify for certain.

Thanks

Kathy W.
Georgia




I live in southeastern PA and tonight found this small snake in my greenhouse. After taking the photos, I put him back where I found him. Would love to know what species it is. You can tell scale by the sunflower seeds in the box. 

Kathy S.
Pennsylvania





I am sending this email to you as my husband encountered an unusual snake today.  Not knowing what kind he researched and found what he believes to be the rainbow snake.  We live on the Wakulla River in North Florida.  I am attaching the photos he took today. Thank you.

Mary W.
Florida

What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.


Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Comic Strip: Cottonmouth Myth and Facts ---Guest Post----


      I’m a science writer and cartoonist, and I’m passionate about snakes. When Dr. David Steen asked me to collaborate on a comic about cottonmouths, I jumped at the chance. Through my work, I love sharing snake facts, including the difference between “venomous” and “poisonous” species (hint: only a few special types are poisonous). I also enjoy celebrating cool behaviors, such as tail-rattling in non-venomous species that are totally bluffing—they don’t even have rattles! Why am I so excited to write about, talk about, and draw these animals? Why did it have to be snakes?


    You can probably blame my mom. She’s an intrepid outdoorsperson, and she frequently took me to the woods when I was little, where she helped me flip rocks and uncover little gartersnakes and ring-necked snakes. The critters were tiny, so vulnerable that they had to be handled with care—gently supported and allowed to climb from finger to finger. These outdoor lessons helped me understand that even as a tiny girl, I had to be respectful of wildlife, because I was still big enough to intimidate some animals.

    Or, you could blame my pet snake, Snack. She was a gorgeous cornsnake that a friend rescued from a hoarding situation, and she was never totally healthy; despite my best efforts, she passed away just six years after I got her. But watching her behavior taught me valuable lessons. Snakes are never mean. They can’t be vindictive. They have a simple suite of needs, and they spend their time cautiously exploring their habitat and conserving their energy—and, lucky for us, being absurdly beautiful.

    Or, you could blame my friends who love snakes. One of them connected me with an organization that leads reptile-specific field trips. That’s how I found myself standing in a southern longleaf pine forest one sweaty afternoon last June alongside a half-dozen hikers, gazing in awe at my first diamondback rattlesnake. I was face to face with an animal that had inspired fear throughout history. But then I looked more carefully. I could see that this individual was young, and it was getting ready to shed—an especially vulnerable time for snakes, since they also shed scales over their eyes, and their vision is temporarily impaired. Furthermore, it was living in a protected forest surrounded by damaged and destroyed habitat. Logging trucks roared nearby. Airplanes zoomed overhead. Cellphones chimed. Down in the grass, the diamondback sat curled and silent, defensive, not aggressive. As we snapped photos (respectfully, from a distance), it was pretty clear which species had the upper hand.

    I’ve learned a lot from snakes, so it’s only right to pay it forward.

About the Author: A science communicator and naturalist, Rosemary has created cartoons at birdandmoon.com and yourwildcity.com, served in communications roles for groups such as NPS and Mass Audubon, written for nature publications, and led unique field walks. Her graphic novel Solar Systems comes out via First Second Books in 2018. Her favorite snake is the Speckled Racer.


This collaboration was made possible thanks to an award from the Mindlin Foundation. For more about Cottonmouth Myths on this blog, click here.