Celebrating our Scaly Friends
Day Commemorates Research and Conservation of More Than 10,000 Cold-Blooded Species
It's Oct. 21, which means it's National Reptile Awareness day — an occasion to highlight research, educate people and promote conservation of these cold-blooded creatures.
While some people might shy away from – or even fear – animals like snakes and alligators, Florida Atlantic University (FAU) alumna, Amanda Hipps, uses her reptile research to inspire others to appreciate them as much as she does.
“Reptiles are often an overlooked and underappreciated group of animals, yet many of them are at threat of extinction,” Hipps said. “By devoting a day to reptiles we can help spur the public’s interest in them while raising awareness of their threats and encouraging people to take action.”
Several researchers at FAU study reptiles, ranging from sea turtles and diamondback terrapins to lizards, including Hipps’ former advisor Jon Moore, Ph.D., a professor of biology at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College. Moore has conducted research on the gopher tortoises in South Florida since 2000, and has amassed a catalog of more than 300 individuals, studying everything from their reproductive to movement patterns.
“Reptiles are extremely important mesopredators, meaning they are very important links in the middle of the food webs,” Moore said. “They control populations of insects, for example, and provide food for upper level predators, such as hawks and foxes. And a few species are linchpins in their ecosystems,” like gopher tortoises.
With their powerful hind legs, these shelled reptiles can dig burrows in the ground more than 40 feet long, and 12 feet deep. Their holes provide shelter and food for more than 350 other animals, including owls, coyotes, snakes and insects. A healthy ecosystem needs the gopher tortoise, which makes them a keystone species.
Yet, these animals are threatened in the state of Florida with declining populations, primarily due human activity. They face threats because of habitat loss due to development and death or injury from car strikes.
Despite his original scientific training as a deep-sea fish biologist, Moore will continue his research on gopher tortoises and even other reptiles. Recently, he’s started projects on diamondback terrapins, which are understudied on Florida’s east coast, he said.
“As long as I work at the Wilkes Honors College, I will continue to mentor undergraduates and graduate students interested in wildlife studies,” he said. “As a kid, I was always interested in natural history. It is impossible for me to not want to do a dive into how these animals live, behave, reproduce and disperse.”
Hipps agrees. Her graduate research documented the animals that share the tortoise burrows in southeastern Florida, which had never been done before. She found more than 100 animals, some of which need the burrows for survival. Her most exciting find was the gopher tortoise copris beetle, which cannot exist without the gopher tortoise. They eat the tortoise dung, and in doing so, potentially act as a housekeeping service by reducing parasite loads, Hipps said.
“I have always had a fascination for all things scaly. However, having grown up with a tortoise who is still a part of my family today, tortoises are near and dear to my heart. The family tortoise was the reason for my desire to study gopher tortoises throughout my undergraduate and graduate career,” she said.“ Having the opportunity to get to learn about them in their natural habitat only fueled a deeper fascination for them.”
During her time as a graduate student, Hipps used social media to help communicate science by sharing her research and field adventures. She’s continued that work in her new role as director of communications for a nonprofit conservation organization, called WildLandscapes International. While she’s not conducting original research, she does work to disseminate the most recent science to help inform decision-making, unite stakeholders, and empower them to make decisions that will benefit conservation. She still uses social media to share science and natural history about wildlife.
“People want to conserve the things they feel connected to,” Hipps said. Through social media, I want to help people find an appreciation for the wildlife they might see in their own backyard, whether it’s lizards and snakes or the smallest of bugs.”