2010 Zoology graduate Matthew Metcalf is unafraid of trudging through the south Florida swamps with friends as they partake in their favorite hobby of “herping,”—herpetology which is the study of snakes, the snake version of bird watching.
“During the summer months we search for Burmese pythons,” says Metcalf. “We catch them, or report them to the right people. It’s exciting when you come across [a snake].”
Metcalf and his crew of “herpers” put on their safety suit – tall boots, long pants, long sleeve shirt with T-shirts underneath, a bug mask, hat and gloves – more out of fear of the deer flies than the snakes themselves. They explore places at night like the Everglades, sweating in the hot Florida climate and being feasted upon by the mosquitoes that cloud the swamp. Metcalf’s ‘holy grail’ for such expeditions is the Eastern Indigo Snake.
The Eastern Indigo snake can grow up to eight feet, the longest native species of the United States and one of the rarest. Because of this, Metcalf is drawn to them passionately, describing them as “extremely docile.”
“I would pick up the wild ones when I catch them for my project; I would dive on top of them.” Metcalf says he has never been bitten because the Eastern Indigo snakes do not view humans as a threat. “It’s really crazy because they’re so voracious when they eat – they’re active predators, but they’re focused on eating other snakes.”
Metcalf first came in contact with the Eastern Indigo snake in Auburn through a reintroduction program for the species which, also included the hatching of Eastern Indigo snake eggs.
“I’ve always loved animals,” Metcalf says. “I really wanted to be a veterinarian. My uncle was vet, my cousin was one. I thought if I work with animals, I’m a veterinarian.”
“The herpetology class really solidified it for me,” says Metcalf.
Metcalf took several internships, including one at Alabama A&M University that specialized in herpetology, where he worked with copperheads and timber rattlesnakes.
It was there he decided to focus on invasive species of reptiles which took him to south Florida.
Now a herpetologist himself, Metcalf is currently in Fort Meyers, Fla. pursuing a Master’s Degree in Ecological Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University.
There, he has teamed up with advisers Dr. John Herman and Dr. Win Everham who are studying Eastern Indigo snakes.
“They’re so laid back. It’s not trying to bite anybody or strangle. They’re just really amazing animals,” Metcalf explains.
The species is the subject of Metcalf’s master’s thesis comparing and contrasting the behavioral patterns of the Eastern Indigo with invasive Burmese Pythons that inhabit south Florida. Metcalf wants to provide more information for the Eastern Indigo Snake in order to turn his studies into potential conservation plans for the federally protected species.
In his research, Metcalf and the team he works with travel out to the field to find snakes by chance or “opportunistically.” He uses clues from known behavioral patterns to find possible areas where snakes would be present.
“When you look for diamond backs, you lift stuff up more. You look around. You don’t want to step forward – you might step on a rattle snake.” Metcalf says. “I’d stare for five to 10 minutes at the ground and the [snake’s] design will pop out. They blend in really well, so they kind of hide.”
When Metcalf spots the slithering reptile, he captures, safely tags and tracks their behavior. The special transmitter inserted into the snake sends off a frequency which can pinpoint the snake’s exact location. Metcalf only picks up the snakes if there is something wrong with the animal, or if a transmitter is needed to be put in.
Different types of snakes require alternative forms of handling. For poisonous snakes, Metcalf handles the reptiles with either a long hook or a ‘snake tube,’ a plastic straw that researchers coerce snakes into in order to be picked up safely.
“Snakes are always depicted as the villain or bad; you’re taught earlier on that every snake is bad. They’re not out to get you, they won’t chase you,” Metcalf explains. “[I want] to educate the public.”
Metcalf’s goal is to stay in the research field and is looking at federal agencies that specialize in invasive fauna. He is currently teaching classes in the Biology lab at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“Anything herpetology related, I will be happy with,” he says.