By Manvi Pant
When Emma A Browning was a five-year-old growing up on a cattle ranch in Texas, her elder sister – who was in high school at the time and later became a biologist – taught her a startling fact. “She told me that frogs and toads use their eyeballs to help swallow food. I thought that was the grossest coolest thing I had ever heard,” says Emma, explaining what triggered her curiosity in biological sciences.
Today, Emma, 27, is a herpetologist who has set out to raise awareness about how rapidly changing climatic conditions are posing a serious threat to ectotherms (amphibians and reptiles), which are some of the longest living species on this planet. A researcher at the University of Georgia, she is studying the suitability of releasing confiscated turtles from illegal pet trade back into the wild.
Nature had an influence on Emma from an early age. She grew up exploring large tracts of lands where her father kept their cattle in the sunny little Texan town of Channing, with a population of just 363. Observing her growing interest in little creatures, her teachers often allowed her to bring tadpoles in class to see them turn into frogs.
A detailed exploration gave her a good understanding of how competitive the field of herpetology was, and so to stay in the game, she enrolled herself in several conservation and management projects right after school. “I was particularly interested in amphibians and reptiles, so I assisted with the re-introduction of gopher tortoises and the reticulated flatwoods salamander.
This involved restoring their habitat by using chainsaws and prescribed burns to help the ecosystem return to its natural state. I also helped with rearing larval flatwoods salamanders to release them back into the wild,” she narrates.
From her experience, she suggests all those aiming to have a career in biological sciences and related sub-fields such as herpetology or zoology should start early. “If you are in high school and planning to go to university, try to volunteer at your local zoo or local wildlife management area. Getting experience now will help.”
Ectotherms derive heat from the environment to maintain their body temperature. Despite adapting to numerous temperature constraints, these species have been experiencing habitat loss and are on the verge of decline for the past 20 years.
“Tortoises and freshwater turtles play an important role in the ecosystem. They are scavengers, so they keep water sources and their habitat clean by eating dead animals. They also create shelter for other wildlife. For example, the gopher tortoise digs a burrow that houses over 350 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and arachnids. They are also considered to be bio-engineers as they maintain the ecosystem by eating plants and dispersing the seeds through defecation,” informs Emma.
Unfortunately, these creatures are doing very poorly due to human activities, suffering from habitat loss, and being collected for wildlife and food trade. Climate change is affecting them too. As part of her project, Emma translocates them into a protected site to see how they move.
“We have put transmitters on them which allows us to gauge their movement patterns and understand how they are behaving. Are they adapting well? At the moment, I have around 40 turtles with transmitters on, and so, I have to go into the woods and track them to collect the data on their movement,” says Emma, who chronicles her animal encounters on her Instagram handle @herpetologistemma where she has almost 16,000 followers.
She is actively involved in reptile conservation, and often posts pictures with rattlesnakes, water snakes or eastern glass lizards to educate her followers on different varieties of reptiles. In the past, she has given presentations and educational outreaches for kids at outdoor festivals and at her local Audubon society to educate them about the species of snakes they can possibly find on their property, and what they can do to mitigate that.
No doubt, snakes have a bad reputation but how is Emma so comfortable with them? The truth is, snakes used to scare her at one point. “Yes, but I would never scream and run away. If someone handed me one, I would just squeal. To help myself get out of this fear, I started working with venomous rattlesnakes. Now, I have a healthy respect and admiration for them.”
A fair amount of misunderstanding and ignorance surrounds reptiles, which sometimes also leads to their indiscriminate killing. Emma allays fears and shares their value: “Snakes are not mindless, aggressive animals as most of us see them. Like all beings, they deserve to live with dignity. The more people educate themselves about them, the more passionate and respectful they would be, instead of fearful. Snakes benefit us in so many ways. Some of them – like rat snakes – eat rodents and rodents carry diseases that can infect humans. This keeps a check on tick-borne illnesses. Then, there are venomous snakes, like the copperhead, whose venom is used to treat heart diseases and certain type of cancers.”
Emma’s passion for understanding amphibians and reptiles is visible in her lifestyle. As part of her research project, she spends four to five days every week out in the woods, walking miles and scaling some really steep slopes just to track turtles, save them from extinction, and enable them to live with dignity. If you wish to support her project, visit the University of Georgia’s crowdfunding page.
First published in eShe’s November 2020 issue