John Dunbar is an Irish biologist currently based in the UK. He is one of four Science Officers volunteering with the HSI. His introduction to reptiles as a teenager led to him becoming a passionate hobbyist, as well as inspiring him to pursue a career in science.
What is your current position?
I am currently working as the assistant herpetologist in the Herpetarium of the Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit, at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. I assist the senior herpetologist Paul Rowley, in the day to day running of the herpetarium, where we care for 450 venomous snakes. This also includes assisting with venom extractions for use in biomedical research, in particular an initiative seeking to improve antivenom treatments for snakebite in Sub-Saharan Africa.
What first prompted your interest in herpetology?
During the mid-1990s when I had started my first full-time job, a co-worker told me he was looking to rehome his pet Kingsnake. Prior to that day, I have no memory of ever seeing a real living snake or ever considered keeping one as a pet. I agreed to take it and as I began reading up about snakes, I discovered that some giant pythons can grow large enough to swallow animals as large as deer, whole! This fascinated me; it overwhelmed my imagination. Soon after, I was watching the National Geographic channel and saw Dr Jesus Rivas catching anacondas in the swamps of South America for his research. Right there and then, the green anaconda became the snake that captured my imagination more than any other, and that’s still true to this day. I do remember thinking that this would be the perfect job for me, but thought achieving it would only be a dream.
What was your career path?
When I first started collecting snakes, I had not considered the possibility of a career in herpetology. I did not have a particularly good education; I did not fit in well at school and subsequently left soon after my Junior Cert. Without any good qualifications I spent about 12 years in industrial jobs that I had no interest in. While my passion for my reptile hobby grew stronger every day, my satisfaction with my work-life was waning and I realised I desperately needed to change career. In 2007 my wife Teresa and I, had the opportunity to volunteer as research assistants, to Jesus Rivas, on a research expedition studying green anacondas in the swamps of South America. The experience was life changing; on the flight home I decided that I wanted to become a biologist! I began to work towards achieving this goal. I quit my job and began working in Reptile Village Zoo, Ireland’s only reptile zoo, located in Kilkenny. Here I worked as part of the zoo’s public education/outreach programme, as well as helping to care for the zoo’s impressive collection of reptiles, amphibians and arachnids. This experience was invaluable to me as I worked with great people and learned a lot from working up close and personal with some very large and also very rare reptiles in a zoo environment. I later enrolled in the Access 21 outreach programme in science, for one year. This brought my qualification up to the standard of the leaving certificate and secured a place for me at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, where I undertook a four year, degree in Biological & Biomedical Sciences.
My focus throughout my undergraduate years was always on herpetology, but there were no herpetology-specific modules, or projects, running during my time there, so I had to make the most of the opportunities that were available. For my first year dissertation I wrote an essay on the Extinction of the Dinosaurs. I also secured summerwork at the university in the Behavioural Ecology & Bio-control Lab working as Dr Chris Williams’s research assistant. This project was monitoring the impact of entomopathogenic nematodes and fungi on the pest Pine weevil. I worked at this over three summer periods. This was not herpetology related but I learned a lot from Dr Williams, plus it paid well and I acquired valuable transferrable skills. For my third year dissertation I wrote an essay on ‘Reconstructing the Tree of Life using Molecular Sequence Data’ which helped grow my interest into the world of bioinformatics. In the summer of 2012, I was offered an undergraduate research project in the Bioinformatics & Molecular Evolution lab by Dr Davide Pisani in collaboration with David Gower from the Natural History Museum of London. This involved a bioinformatic analysis on snake DNA sequences to investigate interrelationships on the snake tree of life. This was an incredible experience, though I spent most of my time pulling my hair out! I was thrown in at the deep end with a bunch of programme and software manuals that were (for me) like trying to read Japanese. But I managed to get through them and learned my way around an alien system. I survived the summer, thanks to the help of Dr Pisani and the PhD students in the lab, and before long I was building phylogenetic trees.
My final year undergraduate research project was supervised by Dr Conor Meade. The project investigated biogeography and evolutionary relationships of Arctic/Alpine plants from the Caryophyllaceae complex in Ireland and throughout Europe. I chose this project because first, there was no herpetology related projects, but I was interested in how species moved around Europe during and after the Ice Age, plus I wanted to build on my experience in bioinformatics. While I am not particularly interested in plants, the work was PCR based and involved bioinformatic analysis of genetic diversity in a range of populations from Ireland and throughout Europe. I knew these skills were highly transferable, and I could eventually apply them to studies on reptile migrations. I really enjoyed my time there, and it was great to familiarise myself with the lab environment.
In my spare time I was looking after my own growing reptile collection; from breeding my snakes to training my caiman. I was also participating in opportunities made available by the Herpetological Society of Ireland. I participated in their outreach efforts, herpetofauna and pathogen surveys, and undertook training in radio telemetry. Two years into my degree I began my own reptile project in the university, which I worked on whenever I had a moment free. I took every opportunity to give presentations and engage with the media, to promote herpetology, and to raise funds for herpetology projects
For our summer holidays, my wife and I would travel to exotic locations as I wanted to see more reptiles in their natural habitat and build up field experience. In 2010 we visited India for a month with The Gerry Martin Project, and volunteered at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT). We also went snake hunting with the local Irula tribe and attended a snake biology, and venomous snake handling workshop with Gerry Martin in Hunsur. We also visited the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) in the Western Ghats. After my degree we travelled to the Lesser Sunda Islands of Bali, Kanawa, Rinca, Komodo and Flores, where we explored a variety of habitats searching for herpetofauna such as Komodo dragons and pythons. Our most recent trip was in October 2014, to Greece, for the 4th Biology of the Vipers conference and then on to explore the Greek island of Milos, in search of the Milos viper. These were invaluable experiences to me as Ireland is not exactly renowned for its herpetofaunal diversity. While I was travelling to these exotic locations I found I was developing a strong interest in venomous reptiles, and I was quite shocked to learn of the scale at which the rural poor were suffering from snakebite. This prompted me to learn more about venomous species, and to further develop my skillset for dealing with venomous snakes, so when I saw the ‘Assistant Herpetologist’ position advertised at LSTM, I was intrigued. I was aware of the work carried out there and that opportunities like this don’t come by very often. I immediately prepared my application and landed the job of a lifetime!
What excites you most about reptiles?
I am completely fascinated by paleo-herpetology (how reptiles evolved). I wish I had a time machine, so I could travel back to witness the extraordinary diversity of reptiles before the radiation of mammals. I would love to see a titanoboa in the flesh, taking down its prey and swallowing it whole. There’s only one thing I love more than catching wild reptiles, and that’s sitting back and just watching them do what’s important to them. When you rush in and pick up a wild snake or lizard, you completely change their behaviour and miss out on how they behave when you are not there. If you sit quietly when you first spot them and just watch how they explore their own habitat and interact with their environment it is a very rewarding experience.
Do you have any career/education advice for aspiring young herpetologists?
Stay positive and enthusiastic! It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone and participating, and keep putting yourself out there! The opportunities in herpetology are out there, it’s about you being ready when the opportunity presents itself. Always be doing something! Even if it’s not entirely herpetology related, it might lead to something that is. Contact your local herpetological society and inquire about any opportunities available. There are usually field projects running during the spring and throughout the summer. It won’t be long before your CV starts to look very attractive to potential employers. Always try and work with a supervisor who inspires you; make your scientific journey passionate rather than just work. Open your mind and develop into the scientist you want to be.
About the author: John is an Irish herpetologist working at the Herpetarium in the Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit, at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He is also a Science officer with the Herpetological Society of Ireland.