Education of biologists deficient


A while ago, I and my former colleague, Dr. Dan Speake, were discussing some serious deficiencies in the training of some of the younger generation of biologists. They had mastered the information contained in textbooks, but many were woefully ignorant of some of the more fascinating aspects of natural history that we and our contemporaries had learned about during decades of prowling the backwoods and talking with old-timers we encountered. We were told about critters of all sorts and their ways.
Take hog bears for example. Few if any budding naturalists ever heard of hog bears. Admittedly, neither Dan nor I have ever seen a hog bear, nor are there any preserved specimens documenting their existence, but the vivid testimony of some rural elders leaves little doubt that there are some of the curious critters inhabiting extensive river swamps rarely visited by humans. Hog bears are secretive, ferocious animals weighing up to 50 pounds and standing about 18 inches at the shoulder. One hog bear can easily put to flight a whole pack of coon hounds we were told.
Other deficiencies include important aspects of entomology. The students accept without question that praying mantises, also called, with justification, “devil’s horses,” are harmless. As most country folks know, many blind people have been rendered so by spit from devil’s horses, which can be projected with unerring accuracy from a distance of three feet.
The most glaring inadequacies deal with snakes. Some students are aware that coachwhip snakes will pursue persons, catch and trip their victims and whip them into submission, but virtually none knew the means by which the victim can avoid fatality in the event of such a confrontation. A naturalist should have been taught that the victim should lie perfectly still during the whipping. When the coachwhip extends the tip of its tail into the victim’s nostril,
and, detecting no breathing using its tail-tip, the snake will assume its victim is dead and will usually crawl away, leaving the victim with only minor injuries.
And none have been taught to avoid breathing when confronting either a rattling rattlesnake or hognose snake, also known as “spreadnatter,” because dust from the rattle of a rattlesnake (rattlesnake dust), or breath exhaled from a disturbed hognose snake, can be deadly if inhaled by a person. And few know that cottonmouths congregate in “beds” and if perchance a swimmer should swim or dive into a bed of cottonmouths, he or she will receive multiple bites, requiring hospitalization and emergency measures to avoid fatality.
One would be led to believe that teachers would have taught their students about the aforementioned, and about the incredible ability of hoop snakes to chase and catch people, and sting them with their venomous tail stingers, injecting a venom unequal in potency to any other known venom.
But biology teachers nowadays are too busy to prowl the backwoods and learn from old-timers about some of the extraordinary phenomena associated with poorly known wild critters. They are too busy writing textbooks and staring at their computer screens to indulge in learning about what some modernists call “gee whiz biology.”
Incidentally, to those readers who have been taught that “blue-tailed lizards” are venomous, they assuredly are not.
The only venomous lizard occurring in the United States is the desert-dwelling Gila monster.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.