Winter 2018 - Articles

Living Alongside the Reptile

By December 3, 2018 No Comments
Living Alongside the Reptile Alumni Snapshot

The scientist who successfully gave mouth-to-mouth CPR to a turtle in Mobile Bay is trying to tell us that snake we found is probably #NotACottonmouth.

Former Auburn University Research Assistant David Steen ’11 uses Twitter hashtags to help his followers identify snakes and other creatures. But it’s not just for fun and retweets; he’s attempting to curve a stigma commonly associated with reptiles.

“Snakes are one of the most feared animals around us and largely their reputation is undeserved. Theyre not aggressive creatures, theyre just animals like any other,” Steen said. “People just dont know about natural history and the wildlife around them. They feel it makes sense to shoot first and ask questions later when it comes to snakes, but ironically many, if not most, venomous snake bites occur when people try to mess with snakes. If we have more of an ethic that veers toward coexistence, it would cut down on the number of snake bites, which is what we all want.”

@AlongsideWild has nearly 30,000 followers on Twitter and is taking Steen’s research much further than the tweet deck.

“Its hard to get exact numbers, but I think Ive identified about five-thousand snakes and animals on Twitter for people,” Steen said.

He also has a book nearing completion titled “Secrets of Snakes and the Science of Their Myths.”

“This book is the culmination of my science communication and outreach work over the last 10 years.”

Raised just outside of New York City, Steen grew up in the woods combing through streams for salamanders, turtles and more. He finished his undergraduate degree at the University of New Hampshire and his master’s degree at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse. Before starting at Auburn, Steen worked at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in Newton, Georgia, where he studied amphibians and reptiles’ relations to the habitat.

“I was in Southwestern Georgia and I knew I wanted to work in the region. When it comes to ecology, particularly amphibians and reptiles, Auburn had a reputation for being the place to be.”

He received his Ph.D. from Auburn in 2011 and returned in 2014 as a research fellow, becoming an assistant professor in 2015. Steen said if people don’t care, his research is just another journal article buried in the archives. That’s where he’s determined to make an impact.

“Most Americans cant name a living scientist, so its not enough to just be there and be available. You need to get out there and interact with people if you want your message and your work to get out of the ivory tower.”

Leaving Auburn in 2017, Steen now works for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center in Jekyll Island, Georgia. He also established a non-profit charity called Alongside Wildlife Foundation, building off of his science communication and outreach work.

“We launched earlier this year and weve already given out six-thousand dollars to wildlife conservation projects around the world.”

The sea turtle center is also a hospital, and Steen is no stranger to saving the everyday turtle in danger. Although he helps sick turtles regularly, when asked if he had saved any more turtles, he laughed. “Not with my mouth.”