Saturday, November 25, 2006

NIU's ‘snake lady' Gets National TV Exposure

Northern Illinois University doctoral candidate Kristin Stanford shows off some of the endangered water snakes she is working with in Ohio. Provided ph
They bite her and they smell, but Kristin Stanford is the biggest cheerleader for the Lake Erie Water Snake. The Northern Illinois University doctoral candidate said she became the “Island Snake Lady” by chance.
When she was working on her master's degree in biology, she spent a summer working with small mammals in Chile and the next summer with garter snakes.
The next year, NIU biology professor Rich King offered her an opportunity to work in Ohio on a project with the water snakes. The project would be another student's dissertation and she would be a field assistant. “He said it would be a good summer job and I'd get involved with some research,” she said.
The students were to put transmitters in the endangered snakes, which are indigenous to an island in Lake Eerie. They would later use a radio to find out the snakes' patterns. But when the other student dropped out of school, King asked her to take over the project.
When I came out to Ohio (in 2002) it was funny because a lot of residents knew the snake project was going to start,” Stanford said. “They knew it was a student named ‘Terry,' and she was going to be the ‘Snake Lady.'
Stanford, who is now the recovery plan coordinator for the endangered Lake Erie Water Snake, hadn't even seen a Lake Erie Water Snake, but area residents were calling her the “Island Snake Lady” when she arrived. “Now I am the expert on them,” the 30-year-old Mount Prospect native said with a laugh. “Anyone with water snake questions contacts me.
The snake is restricted to the island in the western basin of Lake Erie. The area where they live is less than 30 kilometers in diameter, she said. “I had never been to the Lake Erie Islands,” she said. “I didn't even know about them until I came here to work.” And her work is dirty - so dirty it will be featured on Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs.”
The show features host Mike Rowe taking on the duties of viewers who submit information about their dirty jobs. Episodes have featured Rowe working with exterminators and roadkill collectors, and on various construction jobs. Stanford said she e-mailed the show after her fiancé Matt Thomas and she watched a show that featured Rowe cleaning up on an Ostrich farm. “He said, ‘your job is dirtier than that,'” she said and laughed. She e-mailed one night and the show's producers called her the next day wanting to know more.
(The snakes) are definitely not the most charismatic,” she said. “They are fairly aggressive and smelly, hence “Dirty Jobs” is coming out and doing a story about it.” The snakes eat bottom dwelling fish and aquatic amphibians. They live along the shore and go into the water to feed. They are about 4 feet long and weight a couple of pounds each.
I was warned that they were a little more aggressive than garter snakes,” she said. “I was like, OK. It's going to bite me. As long as it's not venomous I can deal with it.” And for the past four year she has because she wants to keep them from becoming extinct. That species of snake is listed as endangered in Ohio.
Part of that ... is that the Lake Erie Islands is a tourist attraction and development equals habitat destruction,” Stanford said. “People would see them and typically want to kill them. They were destroying the snake population.
In August, the camera crew filmed Stanford and Rowe for about 12 hours collecting snakes, which are taken back to a lab to be weighed, measured and tagged with tracking chips. They sometimes have the snakes regurgitate to learn about their diets. And if that's not gross enough, when the snakes are collected they spray their captors. “When you grab them they are musking,” she said. “It means they are pooping and barfing. It's their defensive behavior. When we pick them up there's a combination of poop, urates - their version of urine - and musk on one end and you're being bit on the other end.
She said the segment, which will be featured on Tuesday's 8 p.m. show on the Discovery Channel is about 15 minutes long. “I'm, like, ‘oh my gosh, what 15 minutes are they going to pick?'” she said. “I hope they don't pick something I said that was really stupid.

Dirty Jobs

“Dirty Jobs,” featuring Northern Illinois University research associate and doctoral candidate Kristin Stanford's work with the Lake Erie Water Snake, airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on the Discovery Channel.

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