by Michelle Simmons
April 1, 2010
Scott Boback, assistant professor of biology and snake wrangler, knows his boa constrictors, having kept them as research subjects for nearly a decade. “I tell my students, snakes can and will bite at any time,” he says. “These are not pets; they’re research animals.”
No one would ever call a snake cute or cuddly, especially a boa constrictor that can reach 12 feet in length. But the dwarf island boas in Scott Boback’s research colony in the basement of Dana Hall come close. Ranging from only one-foot to six-feet long, they can charm even the most snake phobic. As a result, boas from the Snake Cayes off the coast of Belize are threatened with extinction—victims of a lucrative exotic-pet trade.
“The individual populations are so small, that [they] can be made up of 50 to 100 animals—even less on some of these islands that have really been devastated by the pet trade,” says Boback. The assistant professor of biology notes that estimates are as low as 10 on some islands.
“Snakes are a valuable part of the environment,” he says. On the Belizean mainland, the boas consume lizards, birds and, most important, rodents that might harbor disease. On the islands, they subsist solely on migratory birds, keeping the avian population from exploding and using up scarce resources. Any change in habitat significantly hampers the boas’ chances for survival.
Boback is studying this evolutionary divergence, and his research reveals significant differences not only between mainland and island boas but among the island boas themselves—from color to head shape and eye size.
“I find it fascinating that your size dictates all of these other features of your being,” he explains. “Animals that are bigger can make more babies [and] make them larger, faster. The rate at which you mature, the total number of offspring you can have, your survivorship—all of these things are related to size.”
Working with about 56 boas from the mainland and the islands—wild caught and their offspring—Boback is trying to answer the classic nature vs. nurture question, one that continues to confound evolutionary scientists and has important implications beyond Belize. His research tries to determine just how much and how quickly an organism is able to adapt to a changing environment.
For delicate ecosystems such as Snake Cayes, that answer is especially urgent, as the boas are threatened not only by the pet trade but also by the overdevelopment of vacation homes and resorts.
Boback first grew interested in boas when he encountered an article about them in a pet-trade magazine. In the 1990s, he and his wife, also a biologist, bred and owned pet snakes. “I started getting into snakes as a hobby,” he says. “Then, through my master’s program, we had snakes of all different varieties. I probably had 20-odd different species. I was crazy.”
The boas of Belize offered the ideal research topic for his Ph.D. dissertation, and the islands proved a natural laboratory. So in 2002, accompanied by a crew from the National Geographic Channel, he spent seven weeks slogging through forests and marshes on the mainland and paddling from island to island.
Boback returned to the United States with 16 females (in 2003, he brought back six males) and was featured in “The Boas of Belize,” an episode of National Geographic’s Snake Wranglers. “It’s sort of documenting my plight to get these snakes and do my project,” he says. “They shot phenomenal footage of snakes and me climbing up trees and going through the dumps of Belize trying to find snakes.” The show—which included a shot of one of his boas regurgitating an iguana—has made Boback something of a celebrity among fellow herpetologists.
In 2004, Boback worked with a conservation group to measure boa populations on islands off the Honduras coast. His team estimated that in the 1980s and ’90s, anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 were captured and exported. “There were scientific papers from people who had been to the islands and done surveys and didn’t find a single snake,” he says.
His team was relieved to find boas there and see that the population was slowly rebounding. “They seemed to be somewhat OK, but they had been affected. At what stage [they were] in the recovery we weren’t sure.” He continues to work with officials there, with an emphasis on educating island residents about conservation.
Since coming to Dickinson in 2007 with snakes in tow, Boback has focused on his colony. “We’re investigating [their] physiology performance,” he explains. “We’ve established these differences in body size; there’s a lot of morphology that’s different. One of the next steps is what this means in terms of their performance. In other words, how does an island boa make it out there?”
Last fall, with the help of biology students Katelyn McCann ’11, Amanda Hayes ’10 and Allison Hall ’10, Boback began measuring individual boa constriction strength and response. Biology majors Kevin Wood ’11 and Patrick McNeal ’11 help care for the snakes, hoping to earn access to research. They’re also prepping the snakes for another breeding cycle this spring to generate offspring for new projects.
“These are now my pets, although they’re not treated as pets,” says Boback, noting that he is bitten regularly. “I have a very strong emotional connection to my snakes, but it’s different. I was given the opportunity to take some of these animals out of the wild, and I have a responsibility to maintain them in the best possible way.”