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New gadgets are opening windows on reptiles

It’s a relief to lizards and scientists that new hands-off methods are making their way into herpetology. Kaptain Kobold/Flickr

You have probably heard someone utter the cliché “I grew up in a different era”. Compared to today, my youth was technologically anorexic. It was a time where you would never be told “Please turn off your mobile phone” before a movie. In fact, I think the most technologically sophisticated piece of equipment in the house would have been the computer. It was a Commodore 64 and had the computing power of a broken abacus.

Consequently, most of my youth was spent with friends foraging in the scrub for snakes, lizards, and spiders — actually all manner of creature.

I loved being in the bush, and still do, but I would never wish for a world without gadgets. Technology is great and can lead to exciting new discoveries.

For example, when Galileo observed Saturn in 1610 he claimed to have seen three bodies rather than a planet with rings.

Unluckily, his telescope was not able to provide enough clarity, and as such, Galileo went to the grave in 1642 mumbling about the strangeness of Saturn.

Eventually, Christaan Huygens in 1655, equipped with a bigger and badder telescope, showed that Saturn is surrounded by a solid ring. Problem solved!

An approximation of what Galileo would have seen in 1610.

The discovery of echolocation in bats is another great example of technology enabling a discovery. Donald Griffin receives the wiki-credit for this, having used new ultrasonic recording technology in the early 1940s.

However, it was the 18th century Italian priest-cum-scientist, Lazzaro Spallanzani, who was experimenting on bats and concluded that they navigate by hearing, he just didn’t know how exactly.

And more recently we’ve had the discovery of Higgsy at the big collider thingy. In fact, if you scour the history of science, there are numerous examples of new gadgets enabling scientists to make novel discoveries.

So, to return to my youth in the scrub, finding and catching animals was the name of the game. Yet, though I watched the Curiosity landing, live, on my iPhone, when it comes to researching reptiles trapping or searching are still the main tools of choice for herpetologists.

Unfortunately, these invasive methods are shackled with a number of ethical and scientific problems.

An individual survey requires a number of experts to be in the field for several days at a time. This elevates research costs and introduces variation in observer ability (a real problem when people are hung-over on day four).

If stomping around the habitat doesn’t do it, certainly trapping animals will stress, or worse, kill them. Trap mortality is a serious consideration. Animals caught in traps can be predated upon, or die simply due to the environmental conditions within the trap.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Despite all the technological advancements, many researchers still use old and problematic methods. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame herpetologists.

Unlike the mammologists or the birdos, technological solutions have not been fruitful. Birdos can watch or trap birds too, but if the research question doesn’t require the animal to be captured, they can simply record calls for identification. Similarly, if you don’t need to catch Skippy, automatically triggered cameras (camera traps) have made studying her much simpler.

The problem for herpetologists is, unless you have an alligator infestation, recording calls is out as most reptiles are not vocal. Camera traps also have seen little use for reptiles due to trigger limitations (the thing that tells the camera to take a picture) … but this may be about to change.

Using camera traps for reptiles: simple and effective. Dustin Welbourne

I am investigating the use of non-invasive research techniques, such as camera traps and sound recorders, to monitor communities of animals. Last year, I developed and deployed a new reptile survey method using camera traps.

The first deployments I made were in late autumn and winter. I know, winter may not be the best time of year to find reptiles, yet, the method was successful.

This is bloody exciting.

First and foremost, this new method will hopefully be useful to others. But more so, this success has a quote from the cosmologist Lawrence Kraus ringing in my ears:

Every time we open a new window on the universe we are surprised.

Despite deploying in the middle of winter, reptiles were still regularly detected. What are they doing? What are their activity patterns? Do they party hard in the winter as well as the summer?

Red throated skink out for a wander in the middle of winter. Dustin Welbourne

Again, a new gadget is allowing us to look at the world in a way we couldn’t prior.

To be fair, I don’t think that this method will replace other techniques entirely. Many questions will require animals to be captured, and using cameras may not work in all habitats. Nevertheless, it is another tool.

Since I was that kid playing in the dirt, technology has advanced dramatically. We now have tools that can access new types of data about wildlife. Although gadgets will never replace the value of being in the environment, they form extensions to our limited resources and abilities.

It’s an exciting future. What gadget will open the next window?

Red bellied black snake in a camera trap.

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