Ladies, gentlemen, and all snakeaholics, once again a warm welcome to the Snakeman’s Lair. My apologies for not posting earlier this week- work has been a handful- but now here we are with another great guest: herpetologist Dr. Mark Scherz!
I had the privilege to have Mark as my supervisor during an internship at his institution in Munich three years ago, which was an invaluable learning experience- mostly thanks to him, I dare to say. Originally from Basel, Switzerland, Mark has completed his studies between Germany and Scotland, specializing in evolutionary biology and herpetology along the way. Mark’s research was long centered around the amphibians of reptiles of Madagascar, where he has been working alongside local and foreign colleagues since 2005. Since 2013, he is a member of the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group for Madagascar and has recently contributed to the World Congress of Herpetology 2020 as a speaker. At the moment, he holds a postdoctoral position- with around 50 publications to his name so far. Now that the formalities have been taken care of, I will happily leave the floor to Mark himself!
Hi Mark, thank you for joining us in the Lair today! First of all, congratulations- you have recently defended your PhD thesis on the evolution of herpetofauna in Madagascar. How would you describe your postgraduate years as a developing herpetologist?
It wasn’t until my Master’s degree that I really got to formally work in herpetology, but over the last six years I have really been able to spread my wings and do a wide variety of really interesting research on the amphibians and reptiles of Madagascar. It has been very stressful, and extremely busy, but I have loved it.
Taxonomy is a fundamental element in all branches of biology, yet it is often not given due consideration and even regarded as “obsolete”. Since you have described and classified over 50 species so far, could you tell us more about how taxonomy and systematics work and why they are so important?
Taxonomy and systematics essentially work by consensus among experts (even hobbyist experts). We study the animals, establish what we consider to be biologically significant units (‘species’), and then provide formal diagnoses and descriptions of these. Because taxonomy is a deductive science that proposes hypotheses more often than it tests them, and because it somewhat ‘old-fashioned’, it is very hard to get funding for taxonomic work. With the huge recent strides in bioinformatics and DNA sequencing, taxonomy is far from obsolete; in fact, it is more relevant today than ever before! Nor is it truly an ‘endangered’ science, as many proclaim it to be; there are more taxonomists working today than ever before, and they are producing quantitatively and qualitatively better work.
The bulk of your research work so far is focused on Madagascan herps. Why is Madagascar with its reptiles and amphibians so fascinating to you, and where do you see yourself after your PhD?
I fell in love with Madagascar and its wildlife at a very young age, and it was always the area of the world in which I was most interested. It happened that I also developed a passion for reptiles and amphibians at a young age, and the two clicked. Madagascar’s herpetofauna has incredible levels of diversity and endemism, making it an evolutionary biologist or herpetologist’s paradise.
I have just started a PostDoc at the University of Konstanz, where I’ll be working on acquiring new skills in a different group of organisms (fish) that I can apply in my research.
You currently work at the Zoologische Staatssammlung of Munich, one of the largest natural history collections in Europe. Why is it so crucial for a biologist to be able to rely on such institutions where specimens representing countless taxa are kept and studied?
Institutes like the ZSM are critical for maintaining a historical perspective of life on earth. Taxonomy is a science that is extremely strongly rooted in the past; we frequently look at specimens collected 200 years ago in order to figure out what we have collected in the last few years. We need safe places to store those specimens, and that is where these institutes come in.
During my internship at the Zoologische Staatssammlung three years ago, you were my supervisor (and I learned so much from those two months under your mentorship). What is your take on mentoring younger students as a PhD candidate?
It can be a very significant time commitment, but it is very rewarding! I would encourage any PhD student to get this kind of experience if they have the chance.
Aside from the strictly academic part, you also invest time and effort into into conveying your passion and expertise to a broader audience as a host for the herpetological podcast SquaMates. What convinced you to embark in this project?
Time management skills are a very important part of academia. My particular set of time management skills leads me to take on projects for which I do not have time, with the vague hope that I will somehow make it work. For the first few months, we were able to make SquaMates work, but recently we have been struggling with time (compounded by an eight-hour time difference between me and my co-hosts, Gabriel Ugueto and Ethan Kocak, and our extremely busy work lives). Still, when we find the time, we are still recording the episodes, and we have been thrilled by all the positive feedback that the show has received! We will keep making it as long as is within our power!
Now you are a professional herpetologist through and through- what would be your advice to someone who plans to follow the same career path?
A lot of this career is about determination and passion. If you love reptiles and amphibians, you will, hopefully, be able to make it work. There are a surprisingly large number of opportunities open across the world at any one time. A lot of your ability to succeed is going to be luck- and privilege-based, but perseverance in the face of failure is frequently, if not always, rewarded.
Thank you so much for sharing insights from your work with us, Mark! We all wish you nothing but the best for your career and personal life in the future.
As for us, the Snakeman’s Lair will be back next week with yet more stories straight from the field of conservation. Until next time, snakeaholics!