Wrapped up in work

Professor doesn't slither away from job in the field

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2007

 

  Dr. Gad Perry holds a handful of baby corn snakes that just hatched at his home. The Tech professor studies conservation ecology and how to reduce the encroachment of non-native species in America and across the globe. Jodi Miller Lubbock Avalanche-Jo

Dr. Gad Perry holds a handful of baby corn snakes that just hatched at his home. The Tech professor studies conservation ecology and how to reduce the encroachment of non-native species in America and across the globe.

Jodi Miller Lubbock Avalanche-Jo

LUBBOCK, Texas His affair with little-loved animals began in the Israeli countryside. Gad Perry, then 6, turned up a rock to find a nest of skinny, worm-like creatures called blind snakes.

The assistant professor of conservation biology at Texas Tech has been tromping around ever since, and now studies reptiles and amphibians in places as remote as the jungles of Guam and the rugged shores of Costa Rica.

"He loves being in the field," said his wife, Kate LeVering.

Even in his office, Perry, who was born in Israel, appears ready for big adventure in cargo shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and sandals.

Fittingly, he gets an unexpected call: A woman from a wildlife animal shelter wants him to identify a strange-looking turtle someone dropped off. According to the pink sticky note attached to the turtle's cage, the former pet had become a burden.

Perry zips to the shelter in his silver sedan.

"My first guess would be it's Mediterranean," the professor advises, as he rotates the creature from its belly to its back, and, concerned, rubs his finger over a section of the turtle's shell that has been chewed by a dog, or so the note informed.

He leaves the shelter, but not before promising to positively identify the origins of the turtle, with the aid of some books, and bestowing advice to a shelter employee who wonders what to feed her box turtles.

This is an occasional diversion for Perry identifying strange creatures that end up at the shelter. He spends most of his time collecting information about mysterious species "a lot of species we still know almost nothing about," Perry says - and contemplating ways to restore eco-systems in peril.

Lately, he has paid much attention to horned lizards in Texas, an endangered frog on the British Virgin Islands and a tiny stowaway that has caused major devastation on the island of Guam.

Long and slender brown treesnakes arrived in Guam during World War II. They curled inside military equipment the U.S. transported to the island from the South Pacific, where the snake is native.

The snakes, which can grow to 6 feet long, have turned the ecology of the island upside down, pushing its birds and bats to extinction, and killing other vertebrates in astounding numbers, Perry said.

The snakes have no natural predators in Guam and the animals of the island have little to no defenses against the ground- and tree-dwelling reptile - "they just (don't) have a clue," Perry said.

Recently, two brown treesnakes were found on the Texas Gulf Coast, Perry said.

"The fact that they can arrive is pretty scary," he said.

The snakes are just one of many species wreaking havoc in lands to which they are not native, Perry said.

Asian beetles, hitching rides on wood pallets, have decimated trees in Northeast America. Around Lubbock, non-native cheat grass, which is highly flammable, has spread across the Plains and feral pigs are destroying crops.

Studies show 40 percent of species listed as threatened are in peril, at least in part, because of non-native species, Perry said.

Perry and his colleagues are racing to find ways to stop such threats.

They are testing physical barriers, for instance, to halt the jaunt of brown treesnakes.

The public, Perry believes, could help by being more responsible refraining from buying non-native plants or letting non-native pets go free.

Tighter transportation policies also would help.

"Conservation is an extremely frustrating science by definition," Perry said. "Most of what you deal with is in crisis."

Take comfort, those who know Perry say. In this professor, the world has an ally.

Said his colleague, Mark Wallace, "He's really truly invested in what he does for a living."



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