August 23, 2011

The Scientist: Professor Greene Makes Career of Childhood Love

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“I felt like a little boy enchanted and fearless seeing a green anaconda, 15-30 feet long passing near my legs.  I felt her rubbery skin as she slid through my hands and then clutched on tightly to her tail till she jerked strongly and moved away,” said Prof. Harry Greene, ecology and evolutionary biology.Greene encountered his first lizard as a seven year old on a farm in Texas. Encouraged by his parents who gifted him a book on snakes and a chance meeting with a professor studying Lizards at the age of 13, he had found his calling.He has been a herpetologist for the last 30 years and his research has taken him to exotic places in Brazil, Vietnam, Mexico and Costa Rica.Greene’s research focuses on evolution of behavior and community ecology.An interesting aspect of Greene’s research is implanting small radios in snakes subcutaneously with a battery life of 2 years.  Using this technique his team was able to gather 12 years of data on Block-tailed Rattlesnakes in Arizona.  The results are still being published.  It was observed for the first time, that these snakes protect their neonates for about 10 days after birth till they shed their first skin and only then go out to eat.Study of community ecology concerns with the geographical-climatic variations and prey-predator interactions.  For instance, California has 30 species of snakes, while Costa Rica, which is equivalent to Cornell in terms of size has 60 species.  Greene explained, “More warm weather, more water, less seasonality, complex plant, insect and animal community are more favourable for a large number of species to survive.” There also exists a predictable similarity between different ecological communities based on their environment.  Greene is concerned about the unbridled environmental degradation resulting in destruction of natural habitat which is deleterious to the 3,000 known species of snakes in the world.  This destruction of biodiversity is like burning down one third of the art museums in the world.“We do not know yet what each of these species will provide us.  It could be a cure for cancer, HIV or more,” Greene said.  This is a corollary from the Darwin’s theory of each species being unique.A paradigm shift has taken place by exploiting technology and attendant innovations in the way snakes are studied.  Greene believes that nano-technology will usher in a revolution.  Nano-technology by miniaturizing radars can help us study smaller beings.  For example, nano-sensors can study the skin of the small 3-15 inches long black headed snake which is unaffected by centipede’s venom that is dangerous to all other species.Greene enjoys all aspects of his work. He said, “This profession has given me the opportunity to do my favorite things that are travel, study snakes, meet exciting people and teach undergrads. Teaching undergrads in particular fills me up with optimism and helps me stay younger!”

Original Author: Poornima Gadamsetty