Assistant research professor
College of Sciences and Mathematics
David Steen, a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences and a researcher with the Auburn University Museum of Natural History's Alabama Natural Heritage Program, is competing in the 2016 Python Challenge in the Florida Everglades. This competition tasks participants with finding and capturing as many invasive Burmese Pythons as possible between Jan. 16 and Feb. 14.
Most of Steen's research involves amphibians and reptiles in the southeastern U.S., a region he said is rife with imperiled animals that are found nowhere else in the world. A leader on the Eastern Indigo Snake reintroduction project, Steen is helping to reestablish the nonvenomous snake, North America's largest indigenous snake, in its native habitat in south Alabama. He is conducting research on the Argentine Black and White Tegu, a large, non-native, predatory lizard reaching four feet in length and more than 10 pounds, to determine whether the invasive species can thrive in a temperate climate like Auburn. He is also exploring the habitat and distribution of Flattened Musk Turtles, a species that is only found in Alabama.
In addition to hunting pythons in the Everglades, Steen, who is a conservation biologist and wildlife ecologist, has snorkeled through streams in southern Georgia looking for Alligator Snapping Turtles, released Indigo Snakes into the wilds of Conecuh National Forest in Alabama and waded through swamps in Florida looking for large, aquatic salamanders. Indeed, his research has allowed him to explore natural habitats throughout the east coast of the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and he has also worked in Azerbaijan, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Brazil.
Steen is extremely active conducting outreach on social media, and Slate magazine recently named him the Best Biologist on Twitter. Using his Twitter account, Steen regularly provides snake identification assistance for his approximately 9,500 followers. In 2009, he started a popular blog that has more than three million total views and an average of 3,000 viewers per day, which strives "to encourage an appreciation for wildlife that tend to have a bad reputation."
Steen received his doctorate in biology from Auburn in 2011. Prior to joining the faculty at Auburn, he was a post-doctoral research associate at Virginia Tech. In his spare time, he enjoys camping, fishing and weightlifting. For more information, visit his website.
1. Why did you become a conservation biologist?
I became a conservation biologist because I was concerned about the decline of wildlife and the loss of wild landscapes. I want to conduct the research that figures out how we can use this planet while accommodating for the needs of wildlife at the same time. The most rewarding aspect of my work is solving problems that people are wrestling with, particularly when that problem is how to best conserve a species. Every time we lose a species, whether we are talking about a species going extinct globally or whether it simply disappeared from the woods near your house, we lose a part of our natural and cultural heritage. We should be proud of our wildlife; they are part of our identity.
2. What is a typical day in the life of a conservation biologist like?
This depends a lot on the time of year. During the field season, most of the day could be spent entirely outside checking traps, monitoring animals, walking to sites, etc. Usually there is also a lab component where datasheets get organized or entered in the computer, animals get measured, weighed and processed. When the field season is over, my job generally becomes a desk job where I organize data, conduct statistical analyses and write manuscripts and grant proposals.
3. You said you had been bitten by almost every nonvenomous snake in the Southeast. Which bite stands out the most in your memory, and why?
A few years ago I was up to my waist in muddy water, helping lead some students through the murky depths of Chickasawhatchee Swamp in southwestern Georgia. It wasn't long before a student straggling behind the group excitedly shouted that he had found a cottonmouth. With my adrenaline pumping, I trudged through the water to where he was enthusiastically pointing to a snake coiled around an old stump and saw that the snake was not actually a cottonmouth but a large plain-bellied water snake. I wanted to catch the nonvenomous water snake to show the students, but being an ornery species it did not take well to the harassment and tagged me several times before I had it within my grasp. With my blood dripping down my hands and into the water around me, I turned around and presented the 4-foot-long snake to the group with a huge smile. As I looked at their horrified expressions, it dawned on me that I hadn't made clear to them that the initial identification was a mistake. I hurriedly informed that I had not, in fact, been bitten multiple times by a cottonmouth, but instead by a harmless water snake. They were visibly relieved.
Getting bit by a nonvenomous snake is not really a big deal and is often just part of a typical day—about as exciting as sharpening a pencil.
4. Many people have a fear of snakes and reptiles in general. What do you say to those who believe, "a good snake is a dead snake?"?
I say, "Yes, I've heard that a lot. But if we can be serious for a moment, snakes are just animals like any other animal. Their bad reputation is something we've put on them. Snakes also play important roles in the environment as predators and prey, help reduce pests and disease, and they're just cool to have around!"
5. Why do you use social media to promote science?
Surveys have shown that many people can't name a living scientist. I want to make myself available to the public so that they can have their wildlife questions answered and also realize that scientists are just regular people. I also want to help encourage an appreciation for wildlife conservation and natural history.