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BHSU professor assists in efforts to save the rarest snake on the planet

Dr. Brian Smith, professor of biology at Black Hills State University, has played a critical role in making incredible progress in saving the rarest snake on the planet, the Antiguan. Smith has been involved in the project since 1999.

Dr. Brian Smith, professor of biology at Black Hills State University, has played a critical role in making incredible progress in saving the rarest snake on the planet, the Antiguan racer (scientific name: Alsophis antiguae).

Smith, who has been involved in the project since 1999, says, “Working with students in Antigua has been a highlight of my professional career. Being part of an international collaboration to rescue this snake from the brink of extinction has been immensely gratifying.”

The population of the Antiguan racer in Antigua, Lesser Antilles of the West Indies, has dramatically climbed from just 50 in the mid-90s to over 500 today.

Smith is an expert in reptiles and amphibians and has worked extensively in tropical biology, including fieldwork in the Philippine Islands, the Amazonian lowlands of Peru, the Pacific island of Guam, and tropical lowland areas in Costa Rica and Guatemala. His research interests include tropical biology, conservation biology, and herpetology. At BHSU, he teaches conservation biology, ecology and vertebrate zoology.

Smith and the other collaborators have received international attention from the media and academic organizations for their continued effort and success with this program including a recent article in WildlifeExtra.com and previous segments in National Geographic Channel and in the National Geographic magazine.

This international collaboration has provided exceptional research opportunities for BHSU students. Through the years, several BHSU students have participated in research on Antigua with other students from around the Caribbean. Smith says field research work is invaluable for the students as they consider the next step in their future.

Dr. Holly Downing, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also noted the positive and lasting effects of these types of field and laboratory research opportunities.

“Students who become involved in undergraduate research get personal mentoring by a faculty member, learn about research methods, and gain deep knowledge about a specific area of their discipline,” Downing says. “Through these experiences, students build confidence in their own knowledge and abilities. They are also more likely to consider and be successful in graduate school.”

BHSU, which places an emphasis on providing research opportunities for undergraduate students, has seen a dramatic rise in the last ten years in the number of students who go on to graduate school. Last year one in three BHSU students enrolled in graduate or professional schools. Accepted into prestigious graduate school programs, the students often report that their research experience while earning their undergraduate degree at BHSU far exceeds that of other students.

Although working in an island environment sounds enchanting and idyllic, the research includes long hours in hot and humid conditions. Working out of the village of Seatons on the main island of Antigua, Smith and the students worked as many as eight days in the field and before returning to the village to replenish supplies and meet with other scientists.

Ryan Baum, who earned a biology degree from BHSU in biology, collaborated with Smith on research in Antigua. As a result of his field research experience and paper presentation, Baum was offered a graduate assistantship at Idaho State University. Baum is now a GIS specialist at URS Corporation in Boise, Idaho.

Other students who have been involved in this research project include: Paul Colbert, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Iowa State University; Nicole Bartscher, Nate Stephens, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Arkansas State University; Sarah Larson-Ness, and Jodi Massie, who earned a master’s degree in integrative genomics and now works for the U.S. Forest Service in Spearfish; and Laurelin R. Cottingham, who is employed at a genetics facility in Raleigh, North Carolina.

BHSU is one of six local and international organizations that make up the Offshore Islands Conservation Project. Research by British and Antiguan scientists in 1995 uncovered only 50 Antiguan racers still surviving, all confined to the 20-acre Great Bird Island, off the coast of Antigua. Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Project has increased the snake population 10-fold. The mongoose, an Asian species introduced by humans, wiped out the snakes from mainland Antigua while another alien species, Eurasian black rats, attacked the last of the species on Great Bird Island. The defenseless snakes were also killed by people. Hence, the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project was launched as an emergency bid to save the critically endangered species from imminent extinction. Smith continues to serve as a consultant on this project.

The Antiguan Racer Conservation Project (now the Offshore Islands Conservation Project) was founded in 1995 and is co-managed by six national and international organizations. The project operates as part of the Offshore Islands Conservation Programme, which works to restore and conserve Antigua’s offshore island ecosystems for the benefit of biodiversity and local people. The project’s current sponsors are the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Syngenta and US Fish and Wildlife Service (Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund and Neotropical Migratory Birds Conservation Act).

For more information on the project see: http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/antiguan-racer.html#cr

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