Sometimes science is really cool, ground-breaking and earth-shattering. More often than not, however, science is much more mundane. That’s not to say that it’s not important or useful. In the real world, though, so much of the science that gets done just fills in small gaps in our knowledge of the world. As a result, some of this science doesn’t make it to the cover of Time or Newsweek or even the National Enquirer. On the other hand, it is usually these little, tiny little stories that help create those giant ‘A-ha!’ moments in science. Basic research on different aspects of the world is what lays the groundwork for some brilliant thinker who can put together various pieces of a puzzle.
All of this background (or philosophizing) leads me to today’s story. Over the weekend, I had my students running around in the woods, looking at animals. At one point, one student turned over a rock and screamed, “I found a bunch of worms!” Ok, earthworms aren’t all that exciting, but I began to walk over. On my way, there was a follow-up scream, “Wait! They’re snakes!!!” Indeed, she was right. She had stumbled upon a small group of snakes hanging out with some ants (eating the sexuals? hmmm…I’ll come back to that another time). Anyway, these snakes truly did resemble large earthworms in shape and in color (at least from the back). They were larger than a typical earthworm, but very small for a snake. In fact, I have the distinct feeling that other people have felt the same way about the snakes because the common name for this species is the Eastern Worm Snake. They look like worms…they eat worms…they live in the same places as worms. The list goes on. You can see in the picture I took just how small these little buggers are.
Now I actually didn’t know much about the Eastern Worm Snake. The field guide I have told me a little bit, but I went to the scientific literature to find out more and discovered that there really isn’t an extensive literature on this species. Not much work has been done. One of the papers that I found on their habitat use is both fantastic and dull at the same time. (And for the author, if he’s checking in, I mean that in the best possible way). This paper describes microhabitat characteristics of the snake.
After capturing snakes over a period of two years in Virginia, this paper was able to say that snakes were found in a wide range of different soil types. Yep. That’s it. Wide range. Neat. So…uhm…where should I look for snakes? Well, I could look in soils of varying pH’s or varying temperatures or even varying moisture levels. Here concludes the dull part of the paper. And, here’s what I mean about the importance of this kind of basic science. This paper, while not earth-shattering on its own, opens up all sorts of questions (and all sorts of doors) for thinking about the ability of this little snake to live in different kinds of places. These results bring up questions about the dispersal abilities of the snakes (because they’re unlikely to be restricted in distribution by soil characters). The ability of the snakes to survive in a wide range of areas may also help to explain larger patterns within their current distribution in the country (and also relate to patterns of speciation within related species- do they have different tolerances?). There’s a lot that can be asked (and answered) because this basic research is around. So, while this paper is not such a thrill-ride on its own, who knows where someone else will take it?