Sara Viernum talks about her job as a Herpetologist. You can find Sara at www.wanderingherpetologist.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
Currently, I am a Wildlife Biologist and resident Herpetologist for an environmental consulting firm located in San Antonio, Texas. For anyone unfamiliar with herpetology it’s the study of amphibians and reptiles.
How would you describe what you do?
I serve as the go-to for any and all wildlife questions and concerns, especially ones related to reptiles and amphibians. I also perform field surveys where we scout out and delineate wetlands on-site and keep an eye out for any state or federally listed species. I serve as the resident herpetologist for the office and the company. This means that I answer any and all reptile and amphibian questions anyone in the company may have. I also chase around all the reptiles and amphibians on-site for identification (and my personal satisfaction).
What does your work entail?
Lots and lots of field work, meaning I work outdoors in all sorts of environments. Right now my field surveys are in South Texas and usually consist of walking around a designated area looking for wetlands, streams, and threatened and endangered species that may be impacted by any construction on the site. When I’m not in the field I’m writing reports about the results of our field surveys. Soon I will be helping to remove and safely relocate rattlesnakes from one of our construction sites in West Texas. I have become known as the “snake expert” for the company.
What’s a typical work week like?
I work M-F and normally have two to five days of field work resulting in 40-50 hours of work per week. My days start anywhere from 6am to 8am and run until 5pm to 8pm. Some days are long field days with 12-14 hours on-site and driving while others are short 8 hour field or office days. It all depends on what field work we have scheduled for that week.
How did you get started?
As an undergraduate in Kentucky I decided to major in Wildlife Biology. As I learned more about all the different species in our area I found reptiles and amphibians (herps) to be the most fascinating. I started doing odd jobs for my herpetology professor like entering data and preserving snakes. I also started helping out the graduate students with their field research, especially my roommate and good friend Valorie. She was performing a copperhead study and we spent many nights road cruising for the venomous snakes. I also spent a lot of time hiking around looking for any species of reptiles and amphibians I could find (also known as herping). The summer I graduated I went to Colorado to help our other herpetology professor with his study on Arizona tiger salamanders. It was a great experience working with a new species in a completely different ecosystem. After that I started my graduate degree in Biology with a focus in Herpetology and for two field seasons studied the natural history and habitat selection of green salamanders, a stated listed species, in Alabama.
What do you like about what you do?
Getting to work in different ecosystems with all different organisms especially herps. Each area has a unique set of herps so it’s always exciting. I’m constantly learning new things and observing new species. For example when I lived in Oregon I got to see giant salamanders and a rubber boa in the wild while working on herpetology related projects. Here in Texas I’ve already seen five snakes, two lizards, and three frogs that were new species for me.
What do you dislike?
Sometimes the field work can be grueling especially when it’s 100+ degrees in South Texas and the only shade is about 4’ and has thorns, lots of thorns. Report writing can get a bit tedious sometimes too. Also, getting musked (a very stinky substance snakes secrete as a predator deterrent) on the hands by a snake before lunch can be a bit nauseating.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I currently make an hourly wage with overtime though I have been salaried in the past with other companies. I also have full health benefits, a 401K retirement plan, life insurance, vacation, and paid sick days.
How much money do Herpetologists make?
Like most biologists, herpetologists usually make around $35,000 – $40,000 starting out with a Master’s degree. With a little experience that quickly increases to $45,000+. Most herpetologists aren’t rich but the personal experiences more than make up for that. I knew as soon as I decided to be a herpetologist that I was not going to be rich and famous. But finding a rare snake or a new species (for me) of salamander is more rewarding than any amount of money. We do make enough to live comfortably and even take an occasional vacation though.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a Herpetologist?
My first job out of graduate school was a Natural Resources Specialist with a small environmental consulting firm in Louisiana. I was only making $32,000 because I made the mistake of accepting the first offer they gave me. Note to all you future professionals – regardless of your career path always, always negotiate for a higher salary. The job was more of a wildlife biologist position than a herpetological one but I still fit in herps whenever I could.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
You need a minimum of a Bachelor of Science degree. The more degrees you have after that the more opportunities for employee you have. If you decide to be a field herpetologist you also need a lot of field experience. This can be gained through school, volunteer work with your professor and community organizations, and seasonal (summer) field jobs.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Not getting envenomated by a venomous snake. I work in an environment where western diamondback rattlesnakes are fairly numerous. During my first field survey in South Texas a young rattler slithered across my path. He gave me a little polite rattle to let me know he was there. After he crawled under a mesquite I informed my coworkers about him, snapped a few photos, and left him to continue on his way.
I avoid potential dangerous encounters with venomous snakes by never handling them without special tools (ie snake hooks and tongs). I never pick up a venomous snake by hand. It’s dangerous and I’m usually working in a remote area far from immediate medical attention. I also remain observant whenever I’m in the field. I always keep an eye (and ear) out for snakes.
What is most rewarding?
Every time I find a herp in the field it’s rewarding. Even if it’s a species I’ve seen a hundred times before it’s still exciting. Turning over a log or a rock and finding a herp under it is like unwrapping a birthday gift. You never know what may be under that log but it’s probably going to be something great. Also helping a turtle or snake cross the road and not get run over is quite rewarding too.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Learn everything you can about the species in your area. Become familiar and comfortable handling non-venomous herps. And get used to the idea that you will get bitten, scratched, and urinated and defecated on by almost every type of herp. I have been bitten by snakes, lizards, and turtles. I even had a dusky salamander try to bite me once and a four foot alligator snap at me. I’ve had snake teeth stuck in my finger and knuckle. I’ve been urinated on by every type of herp especially turtles. I’ve been defecated on by most species too including getting musked on by more snakes than I can count.
I also suggest helping out and volunteering for any projects dealing with herps. This could include working with a professor, helping out a graduate student, or volunteering with a local agency like US Fish and Wildlife. Volunteer work is a great way to gain experience and make professional contacts. I’ve volunteered with city governments, state parks, state fish and wildlife, universities, etc. to help them conduct herp related surveys.
How much time off do you get/take?
Since I work for a large company I get the standard 2 weeks of vacation and all the major holidays off. After a certain number of years that time increases to 3 weeks. If you are in an academic setting you get more time off because of the breaks between semesters and extended holidays.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
A big misconception is that all herpetologists keep and handle venomous snakes at home. Personally I don’t keep venomous snakes as pets but I usually have a non-venomous snake or two crawling around my place. Another one is that we all wrestle alligators and crocodiles like Steve Irwin. Also your friends and family assume you know exactly what’s wrong with their sick iguana or pet tortoise. And get used to having to explain the difference between a salamander and a lizard and venomous and poisonous.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My dream is to eventually work for a conservation organization helping to save the amazing animals I study. To be the official state herpetologist for a fish and wildlife agency would be nice too. My career goals are to continue to advance as a field herpetologist and gain experience with as many herp species as I can.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Herpetology is not a glamorous job, especially if you’re a field herpetologist. It’s hard work and takes a lot of formal education to start. A lot of people don’t understand or respect the animals we study meaning we constantly have to listen to them describe how many snakes they’ve killed. You will come across a lot of herps killed out of misplaced fears. It’s also difficult to find a job as a herpetologist. Most of us have to settle for a field job and just be a herpetologist on the side. But it’s also an exciting field with fascinating creatures. There is always something new to learn and some new species to observe. I love being a herpetologist and wouldn’t change it for the world.