According to researchers at Kent State University, ophidiophobia, otherwise known as the fear of snakes, is one of the seven most common phobias in the United States. Some scientists, however, seek to learn more about these commonly misunderstood animals. Jessica Tingle ’12, a biological sciences major, travelled over 8,000 miles away to study a little-known snake living deep in the Petriky Forest.
As part of the School for International Training study abroad program, Tingle travelled to Madagascar and conducted independent research on the Madagascar leaf-nosed snake (Langaha madagascariensis). Tingle spent half a semester living in the forests observing the reptiles.
“I chose this project because I’ve been interested in reptiles since I was four-years-old,” said Tingle. “In middle school, I saw a picture of this particular species in a magazine and I always thought it was cool.”
When she saw the study abroad opportunity hosted by SIT, Tingle seized it.
The Madagascar leaf-nosed snake has not been extensively studied in the wild. As such, not much is known about these snakes outside of captivity.
“My main goal of this project is to help understand the behavior and ecology of a little-known snake,” said Tingle.
As part of her research, Tingle had a campsite in the middle of a forest clearing. Every day she would wake up before sunrise and spend the day walking through the forest looking for snakes. Any time Tingle found one, she would take notes and follow it for as long as she could. Observation was the key to her research. Because she could not touch the animal and conduct tests, Tingle meticulously wrote down all of her observations before the snake disappeared. She was ultimately able to study six individual snakes, all males, during her time in the forest.
Tingle made several interesting observations. Firstly, she noted that the snakes exhibit a large amount of “sexual dimorphism.” That is to say that males and females look very different. This is a significant observation because it is common among snakes for males and females to look extremely similar. Tingle has a hypothesis about the cause for these drastic differences.
“The reason for this sexual dimorphism might be that males and females live in different types of microhabitats. Each has a different form of camouflage depending on where they live,” said Tingle.
She hopes to return to Madagascar and study this hypothesis in more detail.
She also noted that males and females have strange nasal appendages. Male snakes have a spear-shaped “nose” whereas female snakes have leaf-shaped one. Tingle hopes that further behavioral observations will help her figure out why the snakes have developed these bizarre nasal appendages.
Tingle hopes to apply her research towards conservation. The snakes’ habitats are disappearing and the need for preservation grows. However, because little is understood about these snakes in the wild, it is difficult for scientists to help them.
“You can’t conserve them effectively if you don’t know their life history,” said Tingle.
She also elaborated that her research can also be applied to educating the public, especially students, about science.
"Because I’m studying specific organisms, in this case reptiles, it's easier to go to a school and show kids how interesting science can be,” said Tingle.
With the help of Prof. Harry Greene, ecology and evolutionary biology, and Prof. Kraig Adler, neurobiology and behavior, Tingle plans to write a report and submit it for official publication.
“[Greene and Adler] helped me a lot in terms of being a scientist. They are supportive in my desire to pursue research and graduate school,” said Tingle.
Tingle shared some advice for prospective researchers.
“Find a mentor and be very proactive she said. Keep your eyes open for opportu