An Essay on Herpetology

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A buffalo walks along the riverbank. Its large, muscular body can be easily spotted from 100 feet away. His horns look sharp enough to make even a lion reconsider trying to hunt him. The beast stops to take a drink. The water is calm, warm, and murky. The area is generally silent. Just when it seems like just another day for this buffalo, another creature explodes out of the water and clamps its powerful jaws down onto the buffalo’s neck. Water is splashed everywhere when the panicking bovine is pulled into the water like a rag doll. From this point on we can barely see what is happening. Once everything calms down and we can see clearly again, both animals seem to have disappeared. But, some moments later, the corpse of the once mighty buffalo rises up from the murky water with the predator’s jaws still locked onto its neck. The attacker’s teeth are large and intimidating. Its skin is scaly and dark colored. It’s piercing, yellow eyes show no emotion. The creature suddenly begins to tear away at the corpse of its victim, swallowing the chunks whole. Suddenly, more of these aquatic reptiles appear from the depths of the river and join in on the feast. These are crocodiles, one of the many animals I will be studying in the field of Herpetology. Before continuing, the definition of herpetology should probably be stated. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. From their behavior, to their interactions with their natural environment, all this is included in this division of biology. Reptiles are certainly unique creatures. Their unique design and special survival methods made them among the greatest survivors in the world.

Many can survive long periods of time without food and have life spans far beyond those of most other animals. They have many tools at their disposal for keeping one step ahead of their predators. Some use camouflage to remain unseen by the larger animals. Others rely on speed to outrun their enemies. Venom is commonly used by many species of snakes to keep their predators away. But these are all typical methods of survival. Many lizards can drop their tails and run away while the hunter is distracted by the still moving tail. Some lizards, frogs, and toads puff up their bodies to appear much larger than they really are, in hopes of intimidating their enemy. One species, the Texas Horned Lizard, can even squirt blood from its eyes at its predator’s mouth. These survival mechanics are just some of the unique ways these animals can stay ahead of their problems. And many of them need those traits, because most reptiles and amphibians are small and fairly low on the food chain. Not all, though. Some, like the crocodilians mentioned previously, are the apex (top) predators of their environment. Their large size, bone-crushing jaws, and aggressive behavior keep even other large predators away from them. Large snakes like pythons and the anaconda are also rather high on the food chain. All these different features and lifestyles make them among the most varied of animal classes. All of these behaviors and details are studied in depth in the field. And there are many animals that we know very little about. But the field extends well beyond just studying the behavior of these creatures. Their biology is just as important.

From studying snake venom to find better cures or better understanding how animals’ abilities work, there is still a lot more that can be done using the information we retrieve from the creatures. Reptiles and amphibians are also very useful in the protection and understanding our environments and ecosystems. Cold blooded animals are especially sensitive to the habitat around them, and when even minor changes are present, some species may reflect that change in their behavior or health. Fish may be able to swim to river systems or the ocean to take them away from change, but many species of reptiles do not encounter such a chance due to their inability to travel very far distances. As a result, they make excellent animals to study in order to understand the changes in the ecosystem they belong to. And from that point on, we can begin to better understand how the environment works and what we can do to better the health of the ecosystem. It should be easy to see now why herpetology should be considered for someone interested in the field of zoology. Its many uses, especially when applied to other studies, make it a very effective career. If applied to medical sciences other environmental protection, it can also prove beneficial not just for you, but for the many other people in society. It is a field with potential that is all too often overlooked.

So, what exactly do you need to be a herpetologist? Well, above all, you need to have a strong math and science background. Apart from that, many classes must be taken before beginning work on these biology courses. It’s usually a long road, but being able to study a modern day “dinosaur” like the Nile crocodile is well worth it for people interested in the field. Ecological studies as well as chemistry and other fields of sciences are also usually required before beginning work on what you want to study in just about any zoological science. Algebra and some other mathematical studies might seem unnecessary to you at first for a field like herpetology, but you soon learn that it can make the difference between making it a hobby and truly applying your full attention to it. A major part of herpetology is traveling. You can’t study these animals in a fun way without making a few trips to their home, right? And since reptiles and amphibians are found in many locations with other exotic species of plants and animals, these trips would prove to be very enjoyable and can result in you learning things about other animals or plants you wouldn’t think you would ever learn. Furthermore, since herpetology and ecology, the study of how organisms interact with their environment, go hand in hand (as we covered in the short description of how cold-blooded animals are sensitive to their habitats); these travels will prove necessary if you want to truly bring out the best this science has to offer.

Ecology and its importance to the field of herpetology must be understood. Herpetology could very well be almost useless as a science without applying the field of ecology to it. The behavior of these animals and the understanding of how they function, adapt, and live out their lives are all dependent on this field. In fact, this applies to just about every study of animals and microorganisms. So, in short, the environment and the way reptiles and amphibians interact with it must be observed to learn new things about them. Molecular biology also tends to have a part in the field. This applies stronger to both amphibians and reptiles, but more so with the former. Amphibians rely greatly on the functions of their skin in order to survive in pretty much any situation. They breathe through their skin and most species go through fairly dramatic changes throughout their lives. For example, when a frog starts out as a tadpole and slowly changes into the more terrestrial adult. Many amphibians also rely on their skin to produce slimy or waxy substances to keep them moist and protected from times of greater heat. These are just some out of many details of the biology of amphibians. From mathematics to environmental studies, certain things must be learned first before even beginning to understand how to succeed in this field; especially since herpetology is usually combined with knowledge of even more branches of biology in order to be used correctly. It’s one of the considerations that must be taken when choosing zoological fields like herpetology. You can end up spending several years studying before you get to the “main point” of your journey. But, for those willing to accept this reality, there is room for reward in the field. There is no doubt about this.

Competition is generally strong in this field, mostly because few colleges offer it as a course. This is something that also must be dealt with, though many other fields have similar problems. More importantly, the salary for a herpetologist can be rather low if you do not know how to make yourself known. What information you can receive from your studies and how you present it is a major factor in whether you succeed or fail. How much money you make in this field can vary greatly. Rarely are people able to make a living out of this science alone; as explained before, herpetology must be combined with certain other careers if you wish to be successful. Some fields that herpetology could be easily applied to include college or university professors, high school teachers, veterinarians, environmental technicians, and biomedical researchers. Jobs can also be found in museums and zoos. And just like in just about any career, making a living writing books or magazine articles is also a possibility. The amount of money you receive in most of these fields can be very different from what you expected. For example, if you wish to be a professor or researcher in a university using your knowledge of this field, you may earn anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 a year. A collection manager of preserved reptiles and amphibians in a museum can make anywhere from $18,000 to $45,000, while a museum assistant will earn much less at $12,000 to $18,000.A research assistant or laboratory assistant will make about $17,000-$35,000 a year in a college or university. Zoological park curators and supervisors have a salary range of $30,000 to $50,000. The pay varies on your experience, and if you wish to pursue other goals involving the field, the salary could be very different. On top of this, scientific fields of many types tend to have a slow start in the salary department compared to what is considered “great pay” these days, usually averaging out at around $40,000 a year at the beginning of the career time. This, together with the extensive amount of studying that must be done could be enough to deter some people. However, if you are passionate about these animals and studying them, as well as determined in what you’ll have to do to move forward, then pay is probably not the first thing in your mind. In the end, you will have enough money to put food on the table if you make wise decisions in your progress. Of course, you should be expecting to do that in ANY career so it shouldn’t be a problem anyway.

There is one other thing that must be recognized in the life of a herpetologist: the danger. Yes, it is true that you will not always be handling animals in the field, nor necessarily coming close to dangerous species all the time; but like marine biology and any other field involving close contact with animals, you never know what to expect or what you will encounter. Though most species of lizards and turtles/tortoises are usually incapable of giving a person serious injuries, many species of poisonous snakes and crocodilians can easily kill a person. This is especially a problem with snakes, since the danger is still present after its attack if finished. Some snakes don’t have powerful venom, but others can kill a person in less than an hour, such as the Inland Taipan of Australia. This is just one of many snakes that can prove deadly to a careless herpetologist. Although crocodilians may not be studied nearly as much, they can prove to be just as dangerous. A 4ft. crocodile is already capable of ripping off an adult’s finger; a 15ft. adult will prove quite a lethal threat in nearly any situation. Even the poison arrow frog can be a dangerous creature if its skin-produced venom is absorbed through your own skin. But these are the very first things that you will have to understand before you even begin to read into the basics of not just this field, but nearly all other zoological sciences. These animals demand respect and understanding in order to work with them properly. If you keep this in mind and treat them correctly, then you will truly begin to see the wonder of these animals.

Herpetology is by no means an easy field to work in. Some people who do not try hard enough to succeed end up having to study another branch of biology or something even completely different. Others lost interest after being unable to cope with the occasional difficulty. Worst of all, some people have been killed in the field by that unexpected snake strike. However, for the person that is interested it can prove very rewarding. When applied correctly with other fields, the money you receive can soon begin to rise. The knowledge and experience gained is also something that grows better with time. And best of all, you enjoy time well spent studying the animals that inspired you to choose this path. The room for reward is more than many people tend to see in this field. It is a science with a lot to offer, but also a science that has already helped us greatly in the fields of medicinal and environmental studies. From finding snakes and extracting their venom to find cures to studying the local frog and studying its behavior to determine the changes in the environment, it is a field that holds benefits for both the ecosystem and ultimately us humans as well. With this knowledge, people can understand the potential this field can hold for discoveries. And once this potential is added to with other sciences, its importance also grows. This is the field of herpetology, full of many risks and many rewards. Hopefully we will see more individuals brought to this science and helping in the search for the next important discovery.

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On July 21, 2010
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13 Responses to An Essay on Herpetology

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