Snakes, Science and Survival

Kate Jackson and class with snake

Standing on quiet ground, in a peaceful desert, who would even have a clue that below ground an animal had been trapped for weeks and was weakening.

A female rattlesnake’s nose was scraped and bleeding from trying to dig her way out for many weeks. The opening of the burrow she had hibernated in had been trampled shut by cattle during winter rains in the Sonoran Desert and then the sun had baked it dry, impenetrable.

But the people standing above did know something was wrong.

Researchers, including renowned herpetologist Kate Jackson, an assistant professor of biology at Whitman College, were upset that an admirable reptile that researchers had named “Katie” was almost certainly dead. They’d been tracking her for months after installing a radio transmitter into her side, and had learned things about rattlesnake life from her as she traveled long distances, sometimes a mile in a couple of nights to find food, and did battle with a badger that seriously injured her while she was protecting her three babies.

But while many other rattlesnakes had already ended their hibernation weeks earlier and left their burrows, she was still down there. They noticed the trampled entrance, but didn’t know if there were other entrances in this network of tunnels. Eventually, they determined she must have been trapped, and must be dead. They started digging with a shovel to retrieve the expensive still-operable radio transmitter. Jackson started to remove loose dirt by hand when suddenly there was the sound of a rattle, and she jumped out of harm’s way, barely. The snake, thin and ravenous, was showing its head and tongue at the hole’s entrance. “I’d never been so happy to hear a rattle in my whole life,” said Jackson, who recently wrote a children’s book filled with scientific information, “Katie of the Sonoran Desert,” about the western diamondback rattlesnake, other desert wildlife and herpetology, published by Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press.

Jackson has had plenty adventures of her own, but many in a very different location and climate.

A camping trip for Jackson – who has presented her research at the Smithsonian, been interviewed on National Public Radio and authored a best-selling book, “Mean and Lowly Things,” about snakes, science and the Congo – often involves hiking in flooded forests in the Congo’s rainy season in waist- to chest-deep waters. And she has experienced returning to her camp to find it has disappeared – tent, research equipment and all, under a carpet of millions of biting ants. She and colleagues had to make a run for it and hide out in the woods for an hour until the wave of insects left.

For the weeks she lives in the Congo she’s in wet clothes because they never dry completely under the heavy tropical tree cover. Also facing her there, malaria: She’s had it. And there’s the risk of catching tropical diseases found in the saliva of the shrews that get caught in her snake traps and often bite her as she attempts to free them.

But the research scientist and snake-lover – who is searching for new species and finding them – loves it there. She is attracted to Central Africa in much the same way a main character of the Joseph Conrad novel “Heart of Darkness” was.

“He talks about the huge river winding like a snake and so mysterious opening its mouth (into) the sea – that’s the Congo River, and there’s a huge tropical forest that fills all of Central Africa,” she said.

She also likes being a trailblazer. Since it’s such a “great nuisance” to camp there, she is doing ground-breaking research in areas where herpetologists had never ventured.

There still isn’t a published resource book of the snakes of Central of Africa – the world’s least-known snakes – so for the last couple of years a group of Whitman students have helped her do the research that will result in a comprehensive resource. One of Jackson’s greatest thrills about this student group is they have become so knowledgeable, “they’ve become herpetologists,” and so she has colleagues for in-depth scholarly conversations about the subject she loves. Sometimes, in her life, it hasn’t been easy to find such people.

As a teenager she got a job overseeing a small reptile collection in her hometown of Toronto, where her staff was a couple of ex-convicts on work release. The budget was limited, so animals were always escaping because of ill-fitting cage lids. She was glad that on one particular day it was she, not a tourist, who found the lost California King Snake that was wrapped around the toilet roll in the ladies bathroom.

Kate Jackson with snake

Jackson went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Toronto and then a Ph.D. at Harvard University. The global purpose in her work is echoed in the title of her book, “Mean and Lowly Things,” which comes from Aristotle. “To understand the world, we must understand mean and lowly things,” the philosopher wrote.

“People are drawn to charismatic megafauna – the gorillas, the elephants,” Jackson said. “They’ll give money to save gorillas, but they won’t give money for snakes.

“They don’t understand the interrelationship of living things in the ecosystem. They don’t consider where the megafauna would be without snakes and toads.”

Without them, “the ecosystem would collapse,” she said.

– Virginia Grantier