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The Interview Issue: Talking snakes on a plane with conservation biologist Kirsten Dutcher

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Conservation biologist Kirsten Dutcher has worked in Kenya, Honduras and Costa Rica, as well as parts of the United States.
Molly O'Donnell

Vital Stats:

Age: 38

Hometown: Military brat

Favorite reptile: Komodo Dragon

What kinds of animals do you work with, and what do you do with them? I’m a herpetologist, which includes reptiles and amphibians, two very different classes of animals often perceived similarly by the public. As a conservation biologist, I determine how many of a particular species are left, how well they are reproducing, and how they are adapting to human-caused environmental changes. I began working with Mojave Desert tortoises in 2002, but I’ve worked with sea turtles in Kenya and Honduras, and frogs, toads and lizards in Utah, California and Costa Rica. Ultimately, my goal is species and habitat conservation.

What’s it like to study and save reptiles, given their reputation in popular culture? As far as you know, would snakes ever intentionally board a plane? Amazing and wonderful! There’s something gratifying about speaking out for the underdog, for species that are not charismatic. Despite the frustrations of working with species that are unappreciated by the public, it’s powerful to pay close attention to animals that are misunderstood. Also, no way would snakes willingly board a plane. That’s just ridiculous.

Why is it important to save endangered reptile species? What’s their role in the Mojave? Biologically speaking, saving reptiles means protecting species that diversified to fill many ecological roles, are incredibly important to the ecosystem and have informed modern science in ways as varied as understanding heat and stress tolerance to providing treatments for diseases such as diabetes. As for their role in the Mojave, it varies depending on the species. Some control rodent populations, others insects; some provide food sources for others, disperse seeds or are active predators. All live at the edge of species tolerances for heat and drought. The adaptations of desert organisms are truly remarkable and push the limits of terrestrial species survival.

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in course of doing your job? Sadly, I have had a lot of mishaps. Job hazard, I guess. One time I mistakenly chased a spitting cobra, which led to me turning around when he started chasing me instead. Another time I was bitten by a venomous, though not deadly, snake because I grabbed it left-handed while holding a cup of coffee with my right. Then there’s the time I was kicked off a survey by howler monkeys who were throwing fruit at me. I thought it was funny until their aim improved.

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