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Interview with Steve Allain (Herpetologist)
Julie Laurin, Steve Allain
Julie Laurin 00:17
Steve Allain, welcome to the podcast.
Steve Allain 00:20
Thanks very much for having me.
Julie Laurin 00:22
It’s a pleasure. I’m actually very excited because you’re the first scientist I’ve been able to interview so far that specializes in vertebrates!
Steve Allain 00:31
Julie Laurin 00:35
Well, I’m excited. So you are a herpetologist. And so what exactly is a herpetologist for somebody who doesn’t know what that is.
Steve Allain 00:44
So despite what your preconceived notions are, I hope to logist is somebody that studies reptiles and amphibians, so everything from frogs to snakes, lizards, crocodiles, nude salamanders and turtles.
Julie Laurin 00:57
Oh, I didn’t even I didn’t, I should have realized that it also included crocodiles. Now there are no crocodiles in England are there?
Steve Allain 01:05
There aren’t any No, not presently, unfortunately. But you know, a few million years ago. I think they were I think there are fossils of them around from the Jurassic. But yeah. Currently, there aren’t any. No. I wish they were. But it’s one of those things that you know, it’s child when you’re, you know, you’re out exploring the wilderness. And you watch, you know, the National Geographic documentary, and you’re like, Oh, yeah, I wish I could see that in my local neighborhood, and you never do. That’s the, you know, the kind of mentality that I’ve got towards these animals. Obviously, if crocodiles were here, and they were introduced, it would probably cause chaos for our natural ecosystems. But uh, you know, a boy can always dream.
Julie Laurin 01:47
Exactly. Um, so I want to actually deep dive into something that I know you’re very familiar with. And I’m probably gonna mispronounce it, but it’s called chi trid. I believe the Congress Yes. Kindred? Yeah, I actually, don’t worry. Okay. Okay, great. I actually heard about it because my partner pointed it out. One time, we were visiting a pond and these frogs weren’t moving very much. And so she was like, I think they might have some sort of parasite because she had heard about it, probably in a documentary or a book. And so I wanted to jump in. Because to me, I find this overly fascinating. And I know that you’re a specialist in fungus and diseases. So why don’t you tell me a little bit? What is Kindred? And do?
Steve Allain 02:31
Not sure so. So Kindred is, you know, as somebody that has spent, you know, the past few years before moving on to reptiles, studying Libyans, you know, it is my worst nightmare is a fungal pathogen, which infects the skin of amphibians, and causes hyper keratinization and phibian, such as frogs and salamanders, their skin is their most vital organ. So, you know, they use it to, to breathe, they use it to uptake water, they use it to, you know, exchange electrolytes and, you know, a whole host of different functions. Obviously, in some species, they use it to secrete poisons and toxins. They use it for sexual display, you know, there’s a whole host of functions of amphibian skin, that, you know, probably warrant their own podcast alone. And what it does is it disrupts these functions, it causes it to be become a lot harder and less permeable then than it would be otherwise. And essentially, the frogs, the newts, salamanders, whatever, if you’ve been infected, unfortunately, usually die of cardiac arrest, following infection, because, you know, they just can’t continue function. They can’t function the way they should do. And yet they they die that way, the different species, you know, dying at different loads of, of potential fungus to other species, you know, the new tropical species in South America tend to be more susceptible than those in the North America or in Europe. But yes, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that kitchen fungus has, has at least been implemented in the decline of 500 to 1000 phibian species and the extinction of potentially 200 or more.
Julie Laurin 04:21
Wow, have you seen it actively in in England?
Steve Allain 04:27
I haven’t. No. So I’ve been swabbing amphibians for a few years now. And we’ve also you know, we’ve taken this past native species, but also looking at non native species as well. And, you know, everything that we’ve tested so far has come back negative. Obviously, that doesn’t mean it’s not here, you know, more larger landscape scale projects have shown that there are pockets of catered around England, Wales and Scotland and other places in Great Britain. So yes, it’s here and at the moment The past only have a limited effect on on native species probably because, you know, they’re more resilient to, you know, fluctuations in temperature and pollution and everything else. So that probably helps them, you know, when it comes to disease. But, you know, with climate change, we’ve outgrown habitat loss, you know, with smaller population sizes, and you know, that everything that’s predicted for the future, this element of disease, being present in populations may be a significant driving force towards localized if not national extinctions, which is the scary bit.
Julie Laurin 05:33
Okay, yeah, I bet. I just want to interrupt our conversation just really quickly here, just to tell our listeners that Steve is in the UK, I’m in Canada. So our connection is a little bit interesting this evening, there are a few words that perhaps we won’t be able to make out properly, but I think we’re getting the gist of it, which is that this fungus is a threat, not just in in in the southern hemisphere, but also in Great Britain. Do you know anything about the Kindred in North America, specifically in Canada?
Steve Allain 06:04
So in North America, it’s been found in a few species, the the main one, which probably won’t surprise anybody is the American bullfrog. And so the, the American bullfrog has, you know, been introduced to lots of areas outside of its natural range, mainly for the production of, you know, frog legs for food and culinary dishes. And because of that, because they’re asymptomatic carriers have calculated, you know, they’ve been able to spread it to other populations of more susceptible and naive populations. And, and yes, this has caused declines, as you know, as well as those bullfrogs are competing, the, you know, the other phibian species, either directly or through predation, disease, you know, is the final nail in the coffin. And so, as well as the American bullfrog, there’s a few of the, you know, the green frogs that are also highly susceptible to infection, or those, they don’t seem to be that affected by it, which means that they can then go on and spread the disease around their environment to, to species that are more vulnerable to infection. And, you know, the, the green frog thing, you know, don’t exhibit any levels of population decline, or, or loss where it is more susceptible species do, which is worrying. And he’s very reminiscent what’s going on with the current COVID-19 crisis is that, you know, you’ve got these asymptomatic carriers going around, and potentially spreading disease to susceptible populations or, you know, groups of people in the case of pandemic, without any evidence to be able to track them, unless, you know, you’re testing every single one of them, which is both painstakingly expensive, and also, you know, labor intensive as well.
Julie Laurin 07:56
Yeah, I bet. And so is kitra in any way, shape, or form dangerous to humans as well.
Steve Allain 08:02
It’s not dangerous to humans whatsoever, no, thankfully, you know, it’s one of those diseases that I doubt will ever, ever jump to people, you know, a phibian is a highly susceptible because of the levels of keratin in their skin. And as I said earlier, you know, it’s their major organ in our skin, we do have keratin, you know, but most of our keratin is in our fingernails, no hair, in our skin, we also have collagen and other proteins that you know, also play vital roles that you know, you didn’t find those proteins in a phibian skin. So, yes, they are highly susceptible, where is you know, human skin, you know, laboratory studies have shown that Kindred spores, they die very quickly when in contact with a human skin due to either you know, that the lack of a suitable, you know, area to bed down or just due to a micro biome URIs are not more or hostile to that to the fungus than an amphibian.
Julie Laurin 09:01
Now, I know that in humans treating fungal infections can be pretty difficult and usually comes with a lot of side effects. How does it work in amphibians? Is there a way to treat a frog that’s, that’s got this, this fungus?
Steve Allain 09:14
There are some ways but not Fortunately, the issue is, is that they’re not 100% guaranteed all the time in every different species. So there are some, some fungus Seidel agents that you can dilute down in, you know, into different dilute quantities and, you know, pleasure from your salamander em, and treat them over the course of a few days or a few weeks. And, you know, this seems to work, you know, most of the time, but obviously, doing that on a population scale, you know, over a continent is, you know, impossible, particularly when the fungus itself can persist in environment, even after you’ve cured the infection in an individual, you know, there seems to be very limited immunity gained by these individuals and so the human life I want to be reinfected almost immediately after being placed back in the wild.
Julie Laurin 10:05
Man, I’m so, so fascinated by this. And I’m really curious now because I’m wondering, is there a way to eradicate it or are they or are amphibians essentially at the mercy of this?
Steve Allain 10:18
So, this is an interesting question. And you know, the first thoughts of you know, what Kittredge was when we first discussed in the 1989 World Congress of hepatology held here in Canterbury. And, you know, phibian biologists around the world, we’re meeting for the first time to discuss the fact that, you know, they’ve been out for years and years and all these amphibian populations were nice and stable. And then they went back one year, and they just suddenly disappeared. And it wasn’t until 1998. So 22 years ago that we discovered the amphibian chytrid fungus. And you know, despite that amount of time, you know, there’s still so much about it, we don’t understand. And at the moment, it does seem like most populations are at the mercy of the fungus, although in some places, you know, because of the higher rate of turnover, in some phibian species, you know, they are managing to adapt and evolve immunity to the fungus. But this isn’t always the case. And unfortunately, it looks like that, you know, kindred is going to be the cause of decline slash extinction of a whole host of different Libyans around the world, for you know, at least the next century, because we have no way really to mitigate it in the wild, apart from, you know, spraying fungicide everywhere, which obviously isn’t the best for the environment. Because of the symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants and animals and everything else. So it’s a tough one. And obviously, the removing them and phibian from the environment effects the whole food chain, as I’m sure you’re aware, and listeners are aware, you know, frogs and newts tend to play the numbers game, you know, they don’t just have one, two offspring, like most mammals, there are a thousands of eggs. And each of those tadpoles, you know, is food for birds, mammals, reptiles, or amphibians, etc. And if you remove that food source, and unfortunately, it’s predators water going to suffer. And it has, you know, knock on effect all the way down the food chain, which can be traced back to the reduction in frog populations.
Julie Laurin 12:20
Yeah, it seems like such a terrifying prospect. I, I, I’m glad at least we know about it. I guess there’s nothing really much that the average person can do about it, can they?
Steve Allain 12:32
Unfortunately, not know. But depending where you are in the world, if you suspect that a frog is sick, or at least no phibian is sick, you know, there are different recording schemes to be able to, you know, to record sick and dying wildlife. And obviously, that can help alert people that working in you know, the disease set, what is going on, and where the spread of diseases may be. And, you know, that is probably, you know, the best early warning system we have at the moment is trying to figure out how far spread these diseases are, which species they’re infecting. And where they’re found. Because, you know, kids, what isn’t the only infectious disease that’s affecting their phibian. So there’s a whole host of them, which is, you know, the scary prospect is, you know, in the past 2030 years, you know, we’ve found a whole host of these infectious diseases that are hitting Fabians, left right in the center. And unfortunately, you know, they are suffering the consequences, which is a shame, because actually the someone who loves you know, going to a pond and seeing thousands of frogs having a fun time.
Julie Laurin 13:36
Yeah, it’s actually a great segue, because my next question was about the, there’s apparently a parasite that causes frogs to grow extra legs.
Steve Allain 13:47
Yes. So this was discovered in the US in the 60s, I believe. And it’s the, the intermediate host of the the parasite is frogs. So it infects a snail first, then a frog, and then, you know, water birds of the Heron. And so, the frogs eat the snails, the parasites into the tadpoles or the the young frogs, they grow extra legs, and because of that, they’re more liable to predation. By, you know, herons and other, you know, burden predators that you find in wetlands, and then the parasite can enter those birds and complete the lifecycle. So yes, there’s a is a great documentary and a great book on on this very subject. And I believe the book titled The plague of frogs, and yeah, it’s interesting to to just look at how the scientific discourse and the full process of these people who were studying these frogs You know, when because, you know, went from, you know, looking at nuclear fallout and, you know, environmental waste to you know, parasites very quickly after that, you know, everything you’ve checked out to be pretty okay. But uh, Mostly when it comes to those sorts of environmental contaminants, amphibians are quite susceptible. Because, you know, they absorb everything through their skin. And yes, it’s one of those things, I guess, if you were studying this for the first time, it must have been very daunting. But you know, like with cooter, it is great to know what’s going on. So we can try to do something in the future to mitigate it. And, you know, thankfully, you know, we do know what’s going on. And, and yeah, it’s one of those things that it’s still, it still manages to freak people out from time to time and it, you know, it’s very natural, but, you know, at least we have a handle of what’s going on, which helps us understand the whole natural process of everything that
Julie Laurin 15:40
yeah, it’s amazing. And so the, the birds consume the frogs at the extra legs. Now, what happens to the bird, you know,
Steve Allain 15:48
so the bird, as far as I’m aware, is perfectly fine. So, you know, the, the parasite, the parasitic worms use the stomach’s of the birds as the place to breed and release their eggs, and which then, you know, end up back in the water in their feces, and then the snails eat them and in the snails and by the frogs, and that whole process continues. So the birds are unaffected. In this whole process, it’s just the frogs that are, you know, more susceptible to predation through the production of the extra legs, which is quite an interesting strategy when you think about parasites, because usually, they don’t tend to cause their hosts to grow extra limbs or waiting for like, yes, you know, like a quarter steps fungus, as I’m sure some of you will have known or seen with ants, they grew these huge, spore like, antennae after the ends grown to the top of it, climb to the top of a tree, or, you know, a long blade of grass, and then releases of spores there to dry, you know, some parasites that can affect the behavior of their animals, but not many that can change their anatomy, which I think, you know, is truly fascinating in itself.
Julie Laurin 17:00
That is absolutely wild. Actually. I’ve got shivers. Steve, why did you become so interested in this? I mean, now I get it, but I’m curious about you your story. Why did why why frogs? Why, why specifically, fungus and pathogens.
Steve Allain 17:19
To be fair, I just never grew up, you know, I was always chasing frogs around, you know, when I was a child, and I’m still doing it 20 years later. And it’s one of those things that, you know, when you go through, you know, this whole level of professional development, you know, you start to realize that the species that you love aren’t going to be around forever, and there are threats affecting them. So, you know, I got involved with disease, because to me, that seems like one of the biggest threats I could help understand, with, you know, relation to the declines in our Fabians in my local area. As it goes to the largest decline of amphibians worldwide is habitat loss as it probably is for most species. But yeah, when I first got involved, you know, in academia eight years ago, you know, the disease side of a phibian was still relatively new. And during the course of my undergraduate degree, the second of being Kindred fungus was discovered that one infect salamanders, which is been given me the shortened title of the sound, but its scientific name is Patrick aka dream southern edge of origins, or the Devourer of mutes. And here in Europe, in the Netherlands, and Belgium and Germany, you know, it has caused huge declines in fly salamanders and other other new species. Thankfully, so far, it’s absent from the US and Canada. But the worry is, is that, you know, it could easily spread there. And the Appalachian Mountains, which I’m not sure if many people will be aware of, are the salamander hotspots of the world. So, you know, if, if this new fungus that originated in Asia, spreads to the Appalachians, you know, it could be, you know, lights out for, you know, 150 or more species of salamanders. You know, the example is, is the European fire salamander. And in the Netherlands, over the course of, you know, six years, their populations crashed by 99.99% because of the introduction of this fungus. And again, like with BD, it is this scheme that compromises your immune systems and, you know, they die of lithology and cardiac arrest. So, yeah, the disease side of things, as much as they’re scary, and, you know, they’re, they’re sort of the, you know, the, the enemy from your really bad Doctor Who episode. You know, they’re also interesting to learn about how to combat and I think, you know, it’s that curiosity that, you know, despite all of the depressing outcomes and potentials, you know, keeps me moving forward. Because, you know, hopefully, we’ll be able to find a way to save, you know, the animals that I love from these diseases and reverse these trends that we’re seeing.
Julie Laurin 20:11
It sounds like a beautiful vocation for you. And you mentioned really quickly that habitat loss is a major threat to amphibians. I remember doing an interview with a conservation biologist, biologist, and his specialty was bees and pollinators. And so I asked him, you know, if I buy a property, what’s the best way for me to help them? You know, in terms of the the the habitat preserve the preservation of their habitat? I’m gonna ask you the same question. What’s the best way? If I move out into the countryside? For me to preserve the habitat in my yard? Is it helpful to build perhaps a pond?
Steve Allain 20:52
Exactly, yes, go to pond, and also keep an area of long, rough graph somewhere. So, you know, there’s lots of misconceptions about amphibians. And you know, the, the correct one, you know, is that most people know that amphibians need the ponds to breeding, which is great, but they don’t spend their whole life or the whole year and upon, you know, adults come to the pond, at least in you know, temperate climates, to breed in the spring. And then leave shortly afterwards. And we’ll hunt around for insects, for earthworms for other invertebrates in in long grass somewhere, and then find somewhere to bed down for the winter. And then you know, in the summertime, the, the tadpoles will have metamorphosed into tablets and tablets, or tiny newts and salamanders. And you know, they’ll be joining the adults. So, yes, build a pond, but also, also leave an area of rough grass somewhere. And if you are going to build upon, please stop it with native vegetation, you know, that is appropriate to your location. So that, you know, there’s no issues there with invasive species or anything, enter that the amphibians that do find it can make good use of it. And see, obviously, that will depend on where you live, but you can usually find, you know, sorts of handy guide to this stuff online or in your local garden center, or, you know, the general sorts of places that you find this kind of information.
Julie Laurin 22:16
Is it okay for people to handle frogs
Steve Allain 22:20
it’s perfectly okay for people to handle frogs. Although if you’re going to, you know, wear gloves, or make sure your hands are wet First, the issue is, is that if you’re if you’re handling them with dry hands, there is the potential that you can give them burns, cuz obviously, there were a lot warmer than they are. And also, you know, there’s potential to spread disease between individuals as well. So, you know, it’s best to try to wear gloves at all times, but if you can’t make sure your hands are at least wet so that, you know, you mitigate the effect of the burns. But yeah, like, I do a lot of average with with school groups. And I always encourage children to, to handle these animals, you know, it’s one of those things that because they move in such a weird way compared to everything else that they see in the environment. You know, they tend to, to, you know, scare people into, like, my family dog is completely terrified the frogs, you know, anything else, you know, he’ll happily just sit there and look at that frogs, you know, steps get a lot out of him. But yes, handle frogs handle salamanders. But if you’re going to do it, please wear gloves, make sure you all make sure your hands are moist, and you know, make sure it’s under the supervision of an adult or somebody that know what’s going on. Just in case, you know, things do go wrong. The last thing we want is somebody accidentally squish a frog in their hands, whilst they’re trying to you know, admire their beauty.
Julie Laurin 23:50
Yeah, it’s interesting because I grew up in in the countryside in Northern Ontario. So, you know, forest lakes and stuff like that. And I always grabbed frogs, I’ve always grabbed frogs without, you know, making sure that my hands were wet. So this is very good information, I’m definitely not going to handle the frog with a dry hand ever again. So thank you for that.
Steve Allain 24:10
And then things that I did the very same thing. You know, I grew up in a, in a suburban part of England. And yes, there were lots of wild spaces around me. It’s one of the things as you grow older and more wise, these things, you start to realize that you know, the behaviors and the actions that you take, or used to take, you know, could be creating detrimental effects. And now, when I’m handling amphibians, you know, I’m always wearing gloves, or at least even working within the same population. You know, my hands are always wet.
Julie Laurin 24:40
Okay, well, I mean, like I said, it’s something that now that I know I can also tell my friends and family to you know, it’s one of those things, the information just spreads. I have also, I have a huge fashion fascination actually with toads. I find them just beautiful even though a lot of people you know, in fairytales are considered very grotesque. There’s all sorts of myths around them, which we know are not true. Like, you know, they give you warts, for example, at least I don’t think it’s true. Is it true?
Steve Allain 25:11
It’s not true at all? No, it’s one of those things. You know, I handled certainly tears as a child, I should be covered in water, but I’ve never had a single instance of a war. So, you know, I am evidence right there. But yes, there there. There are lots of myths about them. And I think some of them lead back to the Middle Ages, because, you know, obviously, they were seen as familiars of witches. And, you know, there’s all sorts of towels in Shakespeare and, you know, other texts that, you know, relate toads and they’re, they’re somewhat ugliness to, you know, Satanism, or at least, you know, the black magic side of things. And, yes, there’s this whole misconception about them, which I always try to, you know, to crush when I speak to children, about them and other people, you know, to, to play an important part in the food system, you know, to Hoover up a whole host of, you know, potentially parasitic insects, as well as ones that spread disease, such as mosquitoes, as do frogs. And, you know, really, you know, they are our friends, just because we have these preconceived notions about you know, what they do, and you know, how unimportant they are, you know, they can easily be turned around, you know, by, by showing people just how important they are. And by having some hands on experience, I find, it always helps.
Julie Laurin 26:35
For toads, what I’ve noticed about them is that a lot of times I see them in very dry environments, not like in a lake or in a pond it is that because they prefer the warmth.
Steve Allain 26:49
turds, yes, so you tend to find frogs, you know, basking on the edges of ponds, or if not in the pond, soaking up the sunshine in the water at the same time, it’s, you know, they tend to be the people that are enjoying, you know, the poor during the summer, and the terms of the guys that are, you know, a little bit more apprehensive and trying to hide from the UV rays and just, you know, laying load that they’re still enjoying the weather, but, you know, they’re being undercover, or, you know, a little bit further away from one of the action. And the reason being is that toads themselves are the more resilient to desiccation to draining out, and so they can tolerate those, you know, those conditions. And so, you know, I often find them, you know, in log piles, and other bits of pieces, you know, when just trying to move up, you know, rubbish and trash around the garden, or, you know, when you’re doing some hobbies that work in a woodland, and you’re, you know, you’re trying to build a habitat for these guys. And excellent, you find out that you’ve disturbed one in a, you know, in a semi habitat for them, and yes, so, toads prefer the dryer, but still damp and you know, cold environments compared to frogs, although when it comes to breeding, they’ll be in the ponds just as much as the frogs are, but as soon as that breeding is over, you know, there’ll be often out and, you know, seeking somewhere to shelter.
Julie Laurin 28:19
Okay, so other than those differences, then in terms of preference as to where they like to hide or, or be out in the sun. What else is different between frogs and toads?
Steve Allain 28:29
So, this is an interesting question, and it’s one that I’m often asked. So, it depends on what you define as a toad. So toads, you know, scientifically belong to the family bouffant a day, which is the true toads. So you know, here here in here in the UK, we have Bufo Bufo, which is the common Toad, and epidemic a kilometer, which is an esoteric toad. And you know, those are two quintessential Toad species. In the US and Canada, you know, there’s a whole host of other species. They used to belong to the buffo genus, but have now been split up into you know, different, different genre. And so the main differences between frogs and toads, is that frogs have smooth skin and turtle bumpy skin turns also have a set of bean shaped glands behind their eyes on the back of their head slash next where they produce their toxins called parotid gland. And so, these are only in those true toads. Although, in most languages, there is no distinguish, you know, there is no distinguishing word between frogs and toads. And so, yeah, for most of the neurons, which are frogs and terrorism, which there’s about 7200 species can be recognized by science. You can use the term frog or Toad interchangeably, apart from those few species that are in the befriended family. So It’s it’s a very complex question. It doesn’t have a simple answer. But yes, if you want to distinguish a frog from a toad chiggers, you know, check his skin, is it water is its move? Does it have these parotid glands? And the other thing is that the toad tend to crawl, whereas frogs tend to hop. And so yes, if, if it gets a bit of speed going on it you’re hopping across the lawn? Or is it you know, just crawling slowly for the grass? And I can help you distinguish whether or not it’s a frog or toad.
Julie Laurin 30:32
Thanks about that. Steve, I have an absurd question for you. But I have to ask just because I’m super curious. We were talking about our mutual French heritage before we started recording, and I was curious, would you ever eat a frog?
Steve Allain 30:48
I wouldn’t know. And, you know, the same is when it comes to, you know, crocodiles, and you know, other new reptiles and amphibians that are often seen on the menu. And there are two reasons for that one, I’m a vegetarian, you know, I, I believe you can’t save animals and eat them at the same time. And the second thing is, is that a is a Yeah, I don’t think I could stomach eating an animal that I love so much. without, you know, forcing it down myself, and, you know, possibly puking up afterwards. See, I’d give it a mess. And, you know, enjoy a more traditional dish, and, you know, a beer instead.
Julie Laurin 31:31
Yeah, I kind of figured that would be the answer, but I figured I’d ask anyway, another creature that you seem to enjoy studying are? Is the snake essentially. So what is it, in particular about snakes that you find absolutely fascinating.
Steve Allain 31:50
I think that what it did, there’s lots of crazy things that I find fascinating with snakes, but you know, the, the main one is that, you know, they’re, they’re so diverse, despite the fact that the basic body plan of a head with, you know, a long neck and body and a short town, and obviously, you know, they vary in size massively, you know, from, you know, a few centimeters up to, you know, 10 meters in length and everything in between. and, you know, they’ve colonized and, you know, adapted to, you know, a whole host of environments from right into the Arctic Circle, to, you know, tropical oceans to deserts, to mountain ranges, you know, to Marsh lens, to, you know, their Lake, there are snakes literally everywhere. And, you know, that to me, just just blows my mind, you know, particularly, you know, here in England, you don’t tend to see many snakes, if you’re looking in the right places, they tend to tend to be quite shy, or they tend to be quite timid. And when I tell people, I’m studying snakes here in England, you get a lot of confused looks because like this, they can England and like, yes, there is you just have to look in the right place. Or at least know you’re looking forward to begin with. And yes, snakes are fun. Unfortunately, there aren’t there aren’t, you know, a small fraction of them that are medically significant and you know, can cause death. So, unless you know you’re doing don’t handle snakes, or pick them up, unless you’re, you know, 100% certain on your ID, if you are bitten by a venomous snake, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Because, frankly, that the species that I’m studying is non venomous. And the worst thing it’s going to do is duplicate all over you and pretend to be dead. Which, you know, is humorous. And, you know, it is wonderful for trying to collect fecal samples for dietary analysis. But yeah, it’s tough to try to, you know, I’m a one man band when it comes to my data collection, so it’s hard to try to collect everything and measure the snake and take photographs and swab it and everything ya know, I’ve only got two hands the restraining and do that one at the same time.
Julie Laurin 33:58
Yeah, I bet. I want to tell you something you just said though, that that kind of astounded me there are snakes in the Arctic, or do you mean?
Steve Allain 34:07
So did the only venomous snake species we have here in the UK is the the northern either by para Barris. And yes, they’re found way up into the Arctic Circle. Along with one of our lizard species Zootopia vivir, parrot de vivre Paris lizard, and both of these species give birth to live young. They incubate their eggs internally and then give birth to live young. The reason being is you know, isn’t adaptation to the cold? You know, if you’re a reptile, why would you lay your eggs in the snow where they’re going to freeze when you can, you know, bask in the open and incubate those young until they’re ready to ready to leave you and then you go off and do their own thing. So yes. I’m not sure if there’s any snakes in the Arctic on, you know, on the Canadian side of things, but at least in Europe, there are others in the Arctic Circle, which is great. Crazy. And you know, whenever I tell people it blows their mind, but yes, I Peripera says one of the largest distribution range of any species in the world is strangers, right? It’s right across Asia, through, you know, Russia, Asia, you know, all the way to Japan, you know, it’s got a huge range. You adapted to a huge range of environments. But it wouldn’t surprise me, you know, if in a few years time because of that range that the species is broken down into a number of different species. Because Yeah, obviously, some of them may become adapted to different conditions compared to some of the other locations so much so that they can be regarded as a new species.
Julie Laurin 35:44
But yeah, Steve, do you know, do you know what these these Arctic otters? What do they eat up there?
Steve Allain 35:51
So this is a very good question. Do they feed primarily on small mammals? So I can only assume that you know, lemmings and mice and that kind of thing?
Steve Allain 36:06
Julie Laurin 36:09
Well, I was gonna Sorry, I was gonna ask you what actually eats the snake after that?
Steve Allain 36:16
I think it depends. You know, here here in England, it varies, you know, birds of prey tend to be, you know, a big predator, as do introduced pheasants for, you know, for shooting for sport. But, you know, foxes, cats, dogs, you know, all these sorts of animals tend to prey on them as well. So I assume in the Arctic and a predator such as the Arctic Fox and snowy owls, and you know, all those sorts of things, opportunistically, we’ll take them as well. Particularly, as some of the others in the Arctic Circle are melanistic. So they’re completely black. Which obviously, if you’re on a white background, gives you a thermal advantage to collect solar energy to warm up and incubate your young that you know, obviously makes them stand out like a sore thumb to predators, which may increase the risk of predation to visually orientating predators such as owls and foxes.
Julie Laurin 37:12
Yeah, I was gonna say that’s not a very smart adaptation but like you said they need it for for collecting warmth, but I guess it would make sense. The other thing that you study with snakes is snake fungal disease. Tell me about that.
Steve Allain 37:25
Okay, so this is an interesting topic. So recently, in the scientific literature, Snake fungal disease has undergone a name change, it’s now known as a video mycosis. With you know, mycosis, denoting a fungal disease, and a video being a Greek root word for snake, hence, ophidiophobia if you suffer from a fear of snakes, and here in Europe, very little is known about it. Hopefully, I can help fill in some of those gaps as I go throughout my, my PhD, I’ve still got a few years left yet, so don’t look at me, I don’t have any answers. But in the US, where the disease has been known about since 2009, and studied more, yes, the the situation seems to be similar to the Kindred fungus we discussed earlier. But on a much smaller localized scale, only a few species seem to be you know, susceptible to infection, and suffer subsequent death, which is interesting. But we do know that infection changes the behavior of infected snakes, which may lead to you know, indirect mortality from infection through increased risk of predation, and other such factors. So, yeah, it’s one of those emerging diseases that, you know, they tend more, there’s been a number of in the past, you know, a couple of decades kitri fungus B sound, white nose syndrome in bats, a Philly mycosis, you know, let’s just keep going on and on and on. And I’m not sure if these diseases have been there, you know, most of the time, and we’ve only just noticed them, or if, you know, they are truly introduced, but I imagine it’s a combination of, you know, two factors, you know, an increased alertness and awareness of fungal diseases means that, you know, when we’re out and about looking at wildlife populations, you know, if something looks a bit iffy, you know, we can then test those animals, they’re infected, or at least look sick, to see what’s going on. And if a new new fungal pathogen is found, they’re getting their job done, we can start to study that. But at least with a 50 mycosis, there’s some evidence to suggest that the infections here in Europe and news in the US are independent of one another, genetically. So it appears that at least you know, two different strains of the fungus. So you may have been sitting dormant in the environment for God knows how long and it’s only just become apparent due to our increased awareness of fungal pathogens or climate change. Or habitat loss, or other stresses on snake populations make them more susceptible to infection compared to 1015 years ago.
Julie Laurin 40:08
Wow, that’s, uh, and I know, you’ve you’ve essentially made me both terrified for the, for the the health of the snakes and the frogs. I mean, we’ve been talking about all these diseases that are just, you know, taking over their population. Is there any good news in terms of the health of amphibians and snakes and reptiles in general? Is there anything that’s that you’ve seen? That’s, that’s kind of optimistic.
Steve Allain 40:37
There is some stuff is optimistic, you know, I think the issue is, when it comes to conservation, things tend to be quite depressing very quickly. And I’m not sure you know, if you will any of the listeners have seen the new David Attenborough film a life on our planet. But, you know, the whole story of that film pretty much sums up what is mine can work in conservation. You know, it gets quite depressing for a long time. But then there is some optimism, when it comes to Katerina Vivian’s in, you know, in the neotropics, in South America, there is evidence to suggest that some species that declined in the 80s have, you know, gained some resistance and bouncing back, which is great. Despite the fact that the threat of kindled fungus is still there, which, you know, is, you know, something which we all hoped would happen, you know, when it comes to, you know, these thousands and millions of frogs, you know, disappearing, you know, you’d hope that at least one of them, or at least a couple of them had some level of immunity that could then spread throughout the population and even proliferate afterwards, it appears that that’s happening. You know, there are a whole host of different successful reintroduction programs of different amphibian reptile species around the world going on, you know, by teams of, you know, very dedicated and hardworking volunteers and professionals. And, you know, this moon in time, as far as I’m aware, there are more people working in reptile and amphibian conservation any other time, in the past. Seen, there were lots of great young minds in trying to trying to crack you know, these problems and find solutions for a whole host of different issues, you know, some that we haven’t even even covered yet. As well as the disease stuff, and habitat loss, and, you know, trying to figure out how to translocate populations to save them from climate change, or, you know, how to cryopreserved species for longevity, should you need to, you know, create clones, or, you know, artificially inseminated species to save you from extinction, etc. So, yeah, it’s, it’s one of those things that, yes, conservation, in terms of reptiles and amphibians is depressing, you know, particularly look at the disease side of things, because, you know, there isn’t much we can do at the moment. And we recently discovered these, these pathogens, but on the grand scheme of things, you know, I’m very optimistic because, you know, there are so many people trying to, you know, trying to find solutions, and, you know, they’re all working together as well, which is a great thing. And it is, there’s not, you know, this, this Great Rift, where people are, you know, fighting to find a solution, you know, people are collaborating like they never did before, you know, and that to me, is, you know, a sure sign of progress if I ever saw one.
Julie Laurin 43:23
Yeah, there’s a quite the movement right now to for science, communication. It’s such a hot, hot topic right now, is scientists are kind of learning the skills, and also becoming interested in communicating about science with the public. Now, I have done my research on you. And I do know that you are quite entrepreneurial, as well, in the sense that you kind of, it seems that you’re doing this as a personal venture as well to kind of educate the public to teach kids, you have a Patreon account, you have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, you have your own shop, you do all sorts of podcasts, is this something that is a, you know, essentially a personal venture?
Steve Allain 44:05
It is, yes. So I, you know, this to me, is, you know, a personal injury is a hobby, you know, to try and to get people involved and infused about the natural world, whether it be phibian, mammals, birds, insects, whatever, you know, I focus primarily on reptiles and amphibians, because, you know, that is where my passion lies. But, you know, I try to get people involved and infused wherever I can, you know, everybody’s different you know, I you know, at the moment you know, I’m still feeding the the curiosity and the passion and my inner six year old of, you know, learning about Tyrannosaurs Rex and you know, everything else. You know, I haven’t, haven’t lost that or let go of that. And so, here in England, at least, you know, a lot of six and seven year old kids are pretty clued up when it comes to the natural world, you know, that they know so much more than you know, many adults do. It’s surprising You know, it seriously is but somewhere along Along the, you know, the journey to becoming an adult, they lose that spark. And so what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to keep that spark ignited, you know, by throwing extra kindling and, you know, locks onto the fire, to make sure that these people, you know, kind of follow those passions, because they will be the conservationists of the future. And to me, you know, that that’s the most important thing. So, yes, everything that I do, you know, it’s voluntary, you know, I’m trying to get people involved, because, you know, no matter how hard other scientists work, we can’t do things alone, we need, you know, the support, and the cooperation of the general public, we need them to understand what’s going on, we need to understand them how they can help. And we need to understand how their daily life is impacting the species that we’re trying to protect and preserve. And hopefully, you know, we can work together as a massive unit to, you know, to create this, you know, this super network of people that are working all around the globe to help protect and preserve every aspect of the natural world, whether it be frogs, or bats, or, you know, shrimps or whales or whatever. And, you know, that is my ultimate goal is trying to get people connected with the natural world, so that they will actually fight for it when the time comes.
Julie Laurin 46:21
Yeah, it’s interesting what you’re saying, because you think you never grew up, and I actually can really, really relate to that. And one of the things I found, now I do a microscopic live stream on Twitch, and one of the things that I found is that grownups are the ones who are watching it people under sorry, people over 40. And what I find interesting about that, is that there is a yearning to connect with their youth with that sense of exploration. Now, I consider you, you know, getting to know you for the past hour or so, as kind of like, as a Peter Pan, perhaps of academia, do you find? Is there a struggle with keeping that enthusiasm in a middle ear that tends to be a bit stuffy? Sometimes?
Steve Allain 47:05
It can be difficult? Yes, I think, you know, the issue has been a challenge for us all. And, you know, certainly, you know, in terms of, you know, academic challenges, but also personal ones as well. And, you know, there are times when, you know, I fought about, you know, just, you know, holding up my hands and saying, you know, maybe this isn’t the right thing, and then, you know, two seconds later on, you know, I completely disagree with myself and keep on going. There is the issue, you know, of growing up, but I think, you know, I’m always finding new ways to satisfy my inner curiosity. You know, I read a lot, you know, at the moment, I’m reading a book on dinosaurs, because why not? And, you know, I, you know, it’s one of those things that there’s so much to learn about life, whether it be, you know, our own biology, our physiology, how we’re related to other species, how those species interplay with other species, you know, previous life on Earth, the future of life on Earth, you know, there are so many, you know, so many different ways, you can look at things just from the angle alone, without even going into astronomy, or chemistry, or physics or whatever, that, you know, whenever I, you know, I feel a little bit, you know, disconnected from the world, you know, I just take a step back, look at the, you know, the bigger picture and think, Okay, how can I get back to where I want to be, as opposed to being where I am now? And yeah, just tend to, to listen to this and show music, read a book, and then yeah, find my way back where I want to be.
Julie Laurin 48:41
You mentioned books, and being a an avid book reader, I visited your blog, and I really, really love it. And what I enjoy about you, Steve, is that you, you do book reviews, which is fantastic. You also reviewed David Attenborough’s latest film as well. What are, let’s say your top three favorite books, whether it be science or history, whatever, what are your top three?
Steve Allain 49:05
This is a, this is a tough one. I think
Julie Laurin 49:10
Steve Allain 49:11
my top three books. So one of them would be a life in cold blood by Richard carriage. So it’s a book about Richard’s early life growing up here in England, you know, spending the 70s in the 60s. You know, chasing reptiles and amphibians is a young boy around southern England. And despite the fact that I’m a few decades younger than him, you know, I still had, you know, similar experiences growing up and so, you know, I can connect with that on so many levels and hopefully people that you know, that you know, are in the same shoulder as I you know, for the for that same connection. The second book, I think, is just you know, mind blowing, is the unexpected Truth about animals by Lucy cook. And you know, this explores a whole host of different species of which we have, you know, incorrect preconceived notions about and you know, sets those straight, whether that, you know whether they stem from incorrect information collected by, by early European explorers to the new world or you know, whether that’s just free myths and legends have been new passed down for the ages. And then my third book would be the secret network of nature by Peter vollen, which is part of a trilogy of books, which looks at how different species are in a deck connected to one another in an ecosystem and how they all interplay and you know, reading that book, you know, as an ecologist didn’t really, you know, teach me anything new, but it did reinforce what I know what I’ve seen what I’ve learned, and everything else. And obviously, if you’re not from that kind of background, then you know, you’re going to be able to appreciate nature in a whole different light. And I think that’s the most important thing with some of these books. Is that yes. Everything by scientists, but they’re written in a very accessible format, which helps connect people with the natural world, and, you know, do some of the hard work that I’m trying to do without even trying, you know, you read these books. And, you know, you can easily storm through them in a day, you know, maybe less, I’m not sure how far, you know, everybody reads. But, but yeah, did the highly enjoyable. And there is that kind of book where you get to the end, and you wish there was more, but unfortunately,
Julie Laurin 51:42
there isn’t. Is that one of your aspirations?
Steve Allain 51:46
to write a book?
Julie Laurin 51:48
Yeah, to write a book.
Steve Allain 51:51
I do like writing. And yeah, you know, I’d love to write a book at some point, they’ve got some great stories to share the moment but I think, the current moment in time, you know, that there’s a great number of, you know, science communicators out there, that, you know, the, the landscape is a bit hostile for, you know, a potential newcomers. So, you know, I’m happy to gain some more experience and waiting till the right opportunity comes as opposed to, you know, jumping right in the deep end and trying to compete with everybody else, when they’re doing a far greater job than I can do at this moment in time.
Julie Laurin 52:27
All right. So I guess my last question would be, you’re currently completing your PhD, your doctorate? What’s your dream job? Or your dream career? is it doing research? Is it being a professor is being a science communicator? What What’s your dream job?
Steve Allain 52:45
So, at this moment, in time, it’s hard to say what opportunities will come away because of Brexit and COVID, and everything else, but what I’d like to do, you know, is carry on working and research, you know, there’s nothing I love more than being out in the pouring rain, you know, counting frogs and toads, or spending hot summer days out chasing snakes and lizards, uh, you know, I love being outside, you know, I love collecting broad data, and then trying to figure out what it will means in you know, in the grand scheme of things later on. So that’s where I want to remain within that as part of an academic institution or an NGO, or, you know, in some sort of other organization. I’m not sure yet, but you know, we’re different. We just have to wait to see what the future brings. I’ve got two years until I finished yet. So there’s, you know, there’s bound to be opportunities come my way. So yeah, I’m looking forward to it. And you know, I can’t wait to, to carry on doing what I love.
Julie Laurin 53:40
Well see if I’m gonna quote you something from Peter Pan, which is all you need is trust and a little bit of pixie dust. So, on that note, thank you so much for joining me this evening. It’s been just a wonderful experience speaking with you, you have a wealth of knowledge. And I mean, we didn’t even touch on some of the topics I wanted to talk about, which were turtles, geckos, and lizards, and salamanders and all that stuff. So maybe, you know, what? I was gonna say, Yeah, I would love to have you on the show again, because we can definitely delve into those topics. So thanks for coming on the program. You’re very welcome.