Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: Why are there so few herpetologists in the UK?

As a herpetologist working in the UK, it has always struck me just how few of us there are. This stretches through the realms of professionals such as ecologists or academics to students with a focus on amphibian or reptile research/conservation. This thought came to me whilst attending the ARC-BHS Joint Scientific Meeting last weekend, and I’ve been dwelling on it ever since. There are a number of factors that I think influence this, which I shall explore in this piece, before asking for the opinion of someone who has no prior formal training in the field, but who is currently pursing a masters degree, hoping to specialise in amphibians and reptiles.

Despite a number of universities having the means and the courses to teach zoology (or another similar subject), very few of these delve deep into the darkest corners of herpetology. A number of them also skip right past ichthyology (another cornerstone of vertebrate zoology). This lack of focus on two crucial areas of vertebrate zoology, in my mind, leads to a bottleneck effect – where only the passionate and engaged continue to pursue a career in herpetology. If you’re not made aware of something that you may find cool or interesting, how can you continue to follow that avenue of interest and see where it leads? Of course, there are a few universities in the UK that have the relevant specialisms, such as Kent or Bangor, but these are the exception and not the rule.

This glossing over leads to most people focussing on the ‘sexy’ species, such as birds and mammals. That’s great – but when almost 100 universities have their students all graduate at the same time after 3 years, that’s a lot of competition for a handful of jobs. They’d be better off exploring the more overlooked species, such as fish, frogs, plants, or insects, which also need attention. I know very few people who left university to become botanists or entomologists, but this isn’t to say that some people won’t enter those positions later on in their career. Over 40% of the world’s amphibian species are threatened with extinction, and we’ve seen catastrophic declines in insects over the past few decades. Surely this demonstrates an urgent need for more people to be working in these areas? So where are they?

I can remember during my undergraduate days that there were only three or four lectures pertaining to reptiles and amphibians throughout the full three years. We had whole modules on mammalogy, which I believe primed people to expect there to be jobs waiting for them on the other side. However, this was not the case, and I suspect it’s the same up and down the country. University is supposed to be a time of learning and discovery; without that exposure to amphibians and their plight, how are students that have never experienced this, going to be aware of the problems and try to fix them? Unfortunately, we only have a handful of amphibians and reptiles in the UK. However, we still have huge knowledge gaps in the behaviour, ecology and conservation of these species. It is embarrassing how much we don’t know about the more widespread species, as most focus has been placed on the rarer ones, such as sand lizards and adders.

There is also the erroneous belief that you need a relevant degree to work in herpetology. This isn’t always the case, but it can help when it comes to finding a job. Back in the former half of the previous century, some of the most prominent British herpetologists were anatomists or physicians (e.g. Malcolm Smith). There are still a number of ways that people without a biological degree can enter a career in herpetology. Having that degree isn’t always a pre-requisite, and there is nothing stopping you from specialising in amphibian conservation (for example) coming from another discipline. We need arts graduates, social scientists and law graduates to help us fight the good fight, too. Many universities provide barriers that prevent people converting to conservation, despite the fact that their previous experience or degree pathways may bring skills and expertise that is currently lacking in the biological sciences. Many conservation masters courses stipulate that you have completed a biology-related undergraduate degree. Not everyone went into university knowing what they wanted to do with life – so this is highly exclusionary. However, some universities are taking a more open-minded approach to this, admitting masters students who have previously specialised in other disciplines, as my friend Vanessa will testify. I have asked her for her take on this. Take it away, Vanessa!
For years, I’ve had this gut feeling that to be amongst nature, learning about it, and protecting it, is what my life should be for. My late teens and early twenties were overshadowed by anxiety and years of clinical depression. One constant was my need to be in nature, to get lost in it, and to find comfort in it, even in the darkest stretches of depression. Around a year ago, I was living in a house with a ‘frog theme’: the house name-plate was adorned with a frog painting, and the outdoor hose tap, and door key-hook were little brass frog statues. Seeing these, a feeling resurfaced in me which I had lost in the midst of depression and growing up. I had been entranced by frogs as a young child, sitting at the side of our little garden pond, catching these mysterious, supple animals in my hands for hours, examining them closely, and, of course, my Dad collecting the frogspawn for me and putting it in a tank so we could watch it transform. Meanwhile, a year ago, I had had enough of committing my time to office jobs I felt lukewarm about. So I resolved to apply to a master’s in conservation. Thankfully, the course I applied to at the University of Kent’s DICE (their school of conservation) had an inclusive and open-minded application policy – you simply had to demonstrate enthusiasm and academic ability. I was lucky to have got an English degree under my belt, and had done plenty of reading over the years on all things biology.

Unfortunately, many universities still have the elitist idea that to be admitted to such a masters, you either have to have a biology-related undergraduate degree, or several years of professional experience.  A master’s in conservation can be an invaluable entry-point for many people into a career in conservation, and potentially, herpetology. But competing for an entry-level job in conservation or herpetology without a related university degree, may otherwise mean doing years of volunteering, which, crucially, is unpaid. This often isn’t possible for young people without plenty of financial resources – these people need to earn money for their time and effort. This gives an advantage to middle-class young people who can easily volunteer, as they have financial resources to fall back on. So why is it that so few UK universities admit people with a range of qualifications, from diverse disciplines, to their conservation courses? Surely, training people who have a broad range of backgrounds, talents, and skillsets would prove a huge benefit to conservation organisations. Perhaps the UK would have more herpetologists, and more expertise on our native herp species, if there weren’t quite so many hurdles to obtaining conservation qualifications here.

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