Anatomy of a Pitviper: How These Iconic Animals Inspire Art, Fear, Respect, and Knowledge

Taylor, Emily N.

Department of Biological Sciences California Polytechnic State University

San Luis Obispo, California, USA

This is the third conference devoted entirely to celebrating the biology of pitvipers, a subfamily of reptiles that represents only 7% of snake species but has inspired a much larger proportion of research, as well as public interest both past and present. I will show several prominent examples of historic, artistic renditions of pitvipers that show how they have simultaneously inspired fear and respect in people, a pattern that pushes them to the forefront of people’s minds, sometimes in negative ways and sometimes in positive ways. I propose that our community of scientists is disproportionately interested in pitvipers because they represent excellent model organisms for studies from a multitude of sub-disciplines due to their ease of study in the lab and field, their abundance, and their unique adaptations. Simultaneously, however, I propose that many scientists, myself included, are drawn to pitvipers because we implicitly are attracted to their beauty, to their unique biology, and to their danger. Specifically, many pitviper biologists employ cutting edge technologies while maintaining a solid grounding in natural history such that our studies are ecologically relevant to the organisms we study, a valuable practice that is disappearing in many fields. I will go over several examples of recent and current research on pitvipers—from the snout to the vent—to show how this approach provides data for both basic and applied research that is making big waves in biology today, beyond the scope of just pitviper biology itself. I will then look to the future to ask what questions we will ask next, and how we will we ask them. Who is the pitviper biologist of the present, and who is the pitviper biologist of the future? What methods will they use to build upon the traditions of our group? I am honored and thrilled to kick off our meeting with this homage to pitviper research past, present, and future.

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