Authored by Dr. Stephen Spear

SSAR Update 2015

This summer, from July 30 to August 2, I participated in the meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) at the University of Kansas. In most years, the three major societies for herpetologists (the others being the Herpetologists’ League and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists) get together for one large summer meeting, but this year SSAR decided to have a meeting on their own, which they have occasionally done in their history. As a result, the meeting was smaller and provided the opportunity to involve other reptile and amphibian groups that are not normally directly included in the larger herpetological meetings.

One of these included groups was the Partners for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC). The involvement of PARC was especially exciting to us at The Orianne Society because it is an organization we support, and we participate regularly in PARC meeting and activities. For instance, Orianne CEO Dr. Christopher Jenkins has served in a leadership capacity within PARC, both as a co-chair and advisory committee member, and the Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area (PARCA) project that Dr. Jenkins and I worked on was initially born as a PARC project.

PARC sponsored several events at the SSAR meetings and invited Dr. Jenkins and I to participate in the meeting. These included a session highlighting efforts to identify PARCAs across the nation, talks describing habitat protection and restoration efforts for reptiles and amphibians, and a workshop on science communication. Each of these events served to highlight how individuals and organizations are working to further reptile and amphibian conservation efforts through both on-the-ground activities but also through effective education and outreach efforts. The latter can often be the most difficult, due both to the negative view many people have of these animals and the fact that many scientists need to be better communicators themselves—more on that below.

At the PARCA session, I joined with collaborator Dr. JJ Apodaca (Warren Wilson College) to talk about the PARCAs we identified for the southeastern United States. PARCAs are areas that have overall high numbers of reptile and amphibian species and also provide habitat for threatened species. Calling an area a PARCA doesn’t give it protection by itself, but the goal is to use PARCAs as an incentive for more conservation work in those regions. They were inspired by the Important Bird Areas, which many people may already be familiar with.

While the idea of a PARCA may seem simple, it’s actually quite difficult to draw solid boundaries around areas and use that as a scale that could support conservation efforts. You could draw a line around the entire Coastal Plain of Georgia, for example, but that doesn’t help prioritize conservation work. Instead, we used map layers that estimated where intact habitat still existed and maps of species ranges that allowed us to add up the number of species in an area to confirm that there was good habitat available. We then met with state experts to draw the final boundaries.

In addition to our presentation, several other people talked about ongoing efforts in Canada, the northeastern United States and California to define PARCAs in those regions. At the panel discussion following these talks, there was quite a lot of interest and questions from scientists representing other regions of the country about naming PARCAs in their local areas. We were excited to see the interest in this conservation tool and are hoping to see the PARCA idea take hold throughout the broader conservation community.

During the habitat session, Dr. Jenkins gave a presentation highlighting several habitat protection and management efforts that Orianne has successfully implemented. The most prominent is of course our Eastern Indigo Snake and Longleaf Pine work where we have protected land through the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP) in South Georgia and have improved Longleaf Pine habitat through prescribed burning and native grass restoration on the OISP as well as on private lands. Dr. Jenkins also talked about new projects that Orianne members may be less familiar with at this point.

We are beginning to do restoration for Hellbenders and other aquatic species by participating in streambank restoration and cattle exclusion. We currently have partnered with the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in North Georgia to build fencing to exclude cattle from a stream known to have Hellbenders while building cattle watering areas away from the stream. Such a project is a win-win for both Hellbenders and the cattle. Finally, Dr. Jenkins talked about future plans to look at the use of prescribed fire and American Chestnut restoration to improve Timber Rattlesnake habitat in the Appalachian Mountains.

While both the PARCA and habitat sessions were successes, perhaps the highlight of the meeting was the communicating science workshop. PARC arranged several nationally-known speakers to appear. The speakers had several common messages that could be used to connect with any audience: develop a story around your message to get people’s attention and to provide them a reason to care about the outcome; build connections with people that will pay off over time as attitudes change; and use multiple forms of communication that can connect directly with people such as public speaking, news articles and social media.

The day ended with a small-group workshop that Dr. Christine O’Connell (representing the Alan Alda Center for Communication Science) organized and led. The workshop was limited to a few people, but I signed up and participated. One of my roles as part of Orianne is to communicate our work to members and the general public, and I’m always looking to improve my communication skills, even if it doesn’t always come naturally to me (but if you’re still reading this, that’s a good sign!). The workshop was really interesting—she began by having us do a couple of physical exercises that are designed to force you to really focus on your audience, in this case the other workshop participants. For example, we had to mirror the movements of a leading partner but do it so seamlessly you couldn’t tell who was leading. Although at first I was skeptical about what these exercises had to do with communication, I think I see the point—too often we are only worried about what we want to say without thinking about whether our audience will even care. We need to instead focus on whether our audience is following what we are saying and adjust how we talk to maintain that connection.

The remainder of the workshop had us practice our “elevator speeches.” An elevator speech is when you talk about what you work on to someone for one minute, with the goal that they will be interested in learning more at the end of that minute. It’s a lot harder than it sounds (try it at the next party you attend), but it’s really important to master because we often only have a short time to engage someone in our conservation work. After attending this workshop, I would urge anyone interested in science communication to look up the Alan Alda Center and consider attending one of their workshops.

As I hope this article demonstrates, the SSAR meeting was overall an exciting time to learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and to showcase some of the work that The Orianne Society has done recently. And please check out more about PARC in general at—it’s an inclusive organization that anyone can participate in!

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