In The Company of (Herpetological) Giants



Last month I was able to attend the 2013 Joint Meetings of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH). Hosted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the surrounding desert punctuated by the Jemez Mountains (home to the endemic Jemez Mountain Salamander) in the background made for a fitting location for scientists studying “Ichs and Herps” to gather.

The Joint Meetings are called joint meetings because they are actually organized by four scientific societies: Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR), Herpetologists League (HL), American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH), and American Elasmobranch Society (AES). Elasmobranchii is the subclass of cartilaginous fish that include the sharks, skates, and rays. The International Society for the History and Bibliography of Herpetology also joined with SSAR in the planning. ASIH is the oldest of the societies, formed back in 1916, while AES is the newest, formed in 1983. All of these societies are dedicated to the scientific study of their respective taxa and the dissemination of knowledge through the publication of peer-reviewed scientific journals, conferences, and symposia. Such a diverse group of organizers ensures a diverse group of meeting participants and scientific presentations.

The Joint Meetings are very similar in format to the conferences held by numerous scientific societies around the world. The primary purpose of these conferences is for scientists of ichthyology and herpetology to communicate about their research by giving oral or poster presentations on and receiving feedback about their work. This allows university professors, graduate students, state and federal biologists, private consultants, museum curators, and even herping enthusiasts to hear and discuss the latest research, often long before such projects make it through the lengthy peer-review process to publication. Researchers often get valuable feedback on their research from other attendees. Many a research project or collaboration was conceived over drinks at the end of a day during a conference like JMIH! Additionally, these conferences are important networking opportunities, particularly for graduate students. In fact, many resources are available at these conferences specifically for graduate students. Each society has student award sessions where judges assign awards for best student presentation or poster. The societies also host student-professional social events and a variety of workshops on topics such as preparing for job interviews, submitting manuscripts for publication, or conducting field work overseas. Each society offers a small number of travel grants to help graduate students attend and present their research. To help raise money for these grants, the societies host a series of live and silent auctions and book raffles, which also serve as memorable social events!

The 2013 Joint Meetings were started with the plenary session Thursday morning featuring presentations by several distinguished researchers. Of particular interest to me was the presentation by Dr. Steven Beaupre from the University of Arkansas covering his long, and still active, career in studying the physiological ecology of Timber Rattlesnakes. After lunch, the meeting attendees scattered to attend the various concurrent sessions of presentations. These sessions consist of 15-minute presentations (including the student award sessions) and, since one has four sessions to choose from at any given moment, I was kept busy for the rest of the conference running from presentation to presentation. The exception was Friday when the HL hosted an all-day symposium on detectability in herpetological field studies. Detectability refers to estimating one’s ability to detect individuals or species during field studies. Any field herper knows that some amphibian and reptile species are difficult to find even in areas where you know they are present. Recent developments in statistical modeling allow researchers to directly estimate detection rates and use them to correct estimates of abundance and occupancy. The Orianne Society has used this type of statistical modeling to estimate detection and occupancy rates in our monitoring program for Eastern Indigo Snakes and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes in southern Georgia. At this symposium, I was able to hear some of (literally) the world’s leading experts in this area of herpetological research and left with new ideas to apply to our own work in the Southeast. .

During the conference’s remaining sessions, I was able to listen to a wide variety of presentations on a host of topics. A graduate student from Georgia gave a presentation on how American Alligator predation on Blue Crabs in salt marshes may alter plant communities. During a symposium hosted by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, The Orianne Society’s own Dr. Stephen Spear talked about modeling habitat connectivity for Western Rattlesnakes and the impacts energy development may have on that connectivity.(Read more about Dr. Spear’s work here) One of the most interesting talks I attended was about translocating Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes. This study showed, somewhat surprisingly, that translocated rattlesnakes quickly settled down in their new surroundings and remained within the intended release area. There were many other talks on radio telemetry, the effects of urbanization, population trends, taxonomic classification, body temperature patterns, physiology, and captive breeding. I was able to present the results of our Eastern Indigo Snake occupancy monitoring (Read more about this work here), and was very pleased by both the reception my talk received and the amount of helpful suggestions I received for future analyses. For three days, following the afternoon sessions, a poster session was held where attendees were able to see posters on different research projects. The poster session provides a more informal environment where people can discuss projects in more depth over drinks and refreshments.

The Joint Meetings are always a great time – a chance to learn about new science, bounce ideas off of colleagues, catch up with old friends, and make new connections. These meetings are the place to meet the herpetological equivalents of rock stars or famous athletes – scientists who have made an important mark on the field of herpetology and whose work inspires subsequent generations of herpetologists. I always leave these meetings with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, excited and full of new ideas to apply to my research.

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