Me and the Copperheads

i-710d005c8660d36282911838843a792d-ClockWeb logo2.JPGLast week I had lunch with a good old friend of mine, Jim Green. He got his degree in Zoology, then a law degree (patent law) and is now coming back for yet another degree in biological and chemical engineering. He did his research on snakes, so we reminisced and laughed about the time several years ago (that was before Kevin joined the lab, which is why I was recruited for this study in the first place) when we were taking blood samples from copperheads.

What we wanted to do is see if snakes have melatonin and if so, if it shows a diurnal rhythm in concentration like it does in other Vertebrates (believe it or not, nobody's done that yet) and the copperheads were the only snakes he had, about ten of them, each in its own terrarium in a tiny shed outside of campus.

So, we needed to take blood samples at noon and, after a few days of recovery, again at midnight. So, we went in at noon one day. Jim would pick up a snake and hold it by its head. My lab buddy Christ Steele was holding the body of the snake. Jim's advisor Hal Heatwole was taking the blood samples straight from the heart, and I was the "nurse assistant" taking care of needles, syringes, anticoagulant, test-tubes, etc. The whole thing, ten snakes, took perhaps an hour or so and worked out perfectly without any glitches.
About a week later, when we came for a repeat session at midnight, we were starkly reminded that copperheads are nocturnal animals. They were active. And I mean ACTIVE! Due to acute effects of light on depressing melatonin release, we had to take samples in very dim red light, with some highly uncooperative snakes. The process took hours!

At one point one of the snakes got lose in the room and, since the room was practically completely dark, I could not see where it was underneath the cages. So I said "OK, you snake guys figure out where it is and call me back once you have it under control" and I slid out of the door. I got teased for this act of cowardice for years afterwards.

Unfortunately, the melatonin essay repeatedly did not work and we did not have enough blood volume to try with a new kit, so the study was never completed. The snakes got used in other experiments, Jim finished and defended his Thesis and left town and nobody else wanted to try to do a repeat. I hope one day someone will. Perhaps with a non-venomous snake species for a change - makes midnight sampling much safer and easier!



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Pedagogy has its hazards also.
One of our teaching goals at the outdoor ed camp I worked at in the San Bernardino Mountains was to help the sixth graders become acquainted with the local snakes. Before one hike Carl, the trail teacher, took our group to our little museum to give his five minute herpetology lecture featuring a gopher snake. Carl was being his usual pedantic, Socratic, self, explaining how dry the skin was -- not slimy at all -- and how harmless and inoffensive the creature was (if you weren't a mouse or a vole), all the while gesticulating freely. He held the snake rather further from the neck then optimal for control. With a suddenness faster than you might say "Thwack! Thwack!!" Carl changed the subject and put the seething critter back in its cage. I got to lead the hike while Carl went down the mountain for medical attention to his two bitten cheeks.

That's a lovely photo!

I learned, while showing off an otherwise inoffensive Thamnophis ordinoides, to never say "oh, these guys never bite..."