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Lorenzo Seneci

Ladies, gentlemen, and all snakeaholics, welcome to the Snakeman’s Lair. Joining us today will be someone I was particularly keen on having as our guest here- because she has so much wisdom and insight to share. Her undying love for all kinds of herps drove her through many challenges and obstacles, a considerable part of which was sadly rooted in sexism. In these troubled times, she is at the forefront in the quest for gender equality in science- as well as an increasingly renowned herpetologist in her home country of Brazil. Without further ado, I will now “pass the mic” to our guest of today: Dr. Daniella Pereira Fagundes de França.

Welcome Daniella, and thank you for joining us in the Lair today! Let’s start by rewinding the tape of your life to the moment when your passion for herpetology started. How did it happen exactly?

I was an undergraduate Biology student when I took my first course on venomous animals, which instantly made me fall in love for snakes. Until then I had only seen live snakes in zoos and all I knew about them was a few traditional beliefs- most of them wrong- coming from a culture whereby these animals are not much appreciated. The course included practicals with two Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus), a Neotropical rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) and a Brazilian lancehead (Bothrops moojeni). From then on, my interest in them grew ever stronger and I started studying snakes on my own as well. I specialized in Vertebrate Zoology in my third semester alongside an internship I did at the Goiânia Zoo (Goiás), where I had the opportunity to learn more about their behavior and how to handle them.

A semester after starting my internship at the zoo, I joined a project for a conservation organization near Goiânia, where I was living and studying. I and a team of other students carried out a survey of local reptile species- it was then that I had my first encounter with a wild snake. I remember only a few moments I have been that happy in my entire life! It was another Brazilian lancehead, which since then became my absolute favorite snake species. In my last year as an undergraduate I did another internship in a serpentarium specialized in keeping venomous snakes within the Centre for Biologial Studies and Research of Goiás. There my passion rooted itself in experience since I was able to write my final research thesis on the dietary habits of certain viper species in captivity.

Fast forward to the present day: you are currently working at the Zoology Department of Sao Paulo State University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Brazil. What are your main research interests at the moment?

Actually, while I did complete my PhD at UNESP (Universidade Estadual de São Paulo), I eventually moved to the Museum of Zoology at the University of São Paulo (USP) for my research. I am still working there as of today- not only is USP one of the most prestigious universities in Latin America, it also houses the largest collection of Neotropical snakes in the world. Both universities are located in São Paulo, but they are different institutions. Today I am continuing the research I started during my PhD, revolving around the taxonomy and systematics of the Elapomorphini- a tribe of fossorial snakes endemic to South America east of the Andes. For my postgraduate studies I worked on a taxonomic revision of Apostolepis, the most diverse genus of that tribe. Now I am revising the taxonomy of the entire clade (a total of 50 species divided into four genera) for my post-doc. In the end, I aim to construct a phylogeny of the group based on internal and external morphological characters.

Brazil is home to a truly amazing biodiversity, yet only the Amazon and- to a lesser extent- the Pantanal seem to receive recognition abroad. Would you please explain to us what other Brazilian biomes are generally neglected and your personal experience working in those ecosystems?

We have the Atlantic Forest for instance, which is the other entirely forested biome in the country. The Atlantic Forest harbors a great diversity of various clades, many of which are endemic- and is extremely threatened by human development. The Atlantic Forest was the first ecosystem to suffer from exploration and exploitation of resources, starting all the way back from colonial times- and it is still the case today. We got to the point where the forest is almost entirely lost, with only a few scattered fragments remaining as protected areas.

Another neglected biome is the Caatinga. Since it is a semi-arid ecosystem, most people consider it ugly and it was long regarded as a poor, scarcely diverse biome. On the contrary, several research initiatives have been carried out in the Caatinga in recent decades- resulting in the description of hundreds of new species and even entire clades. Two great herpetologists in particular, Paulo Vanzolini (MZUSP) and Miguel Rodrigues (IB-USP), recognized the potential of the Caatinga for research and spent years studying the local herpetofauna. They discovered that some areas in the Caatinga were characterized by forest vegetation at high elevations, relics of a much larger forest from the Quaternary period. Populations of reptiles and amphibians survived isolated in these montane forest refugia while the surrounding habitats were turning ever drier. These populations ended up differentiating from those in the lowlands and became endemic species, only found in what we call the Brejos de Altitude. The Rio São Francisco- one of the longest, most important, and most extensively explored rivers in Brazil- also cuts through the Caatinga and was responsible for the isolation and differentiation of species.

That said, I personally think that the most neglected and yet most important biome in the whole of Brazil is another one. The Cerrado suffers from the same drawbacks as the Caatinga- only 30% of it is covered in forest, meaning it was overlooked due to its “ugly” appearance (I find it the most beautiful, but whatever…). It is an invaluable biome not only because of its biodiversity, but also because its rivers supply the most important water reservoirs in the country. Without the water from the Cerrado, several Brazilian rivers would dry out. Despite being a mosaic of as many as ten different vegetation types- from prairies to forests flanking rivers of all kinds of size- the Cerrado is known for its most typical landscapes, characterized by contorted trees with cracked trunks and particularly large leaves. For this reason it was long considered a poor ecosystem, but it is not at all- in fact, it is mindblowingly rich in all kinds of organisms, many of which are endemic. If anything, it was stripped of its diversity by agricultural activity, which is still the main threat for this biome. Today, the Cerrado is among the richest biodiversity hotspots worldwide and desperately needs legal action to implement its conservation. Despite this, protected areas are currently being shrinked and reduced in number to favor the interest of the soy plantation industry- which also makes use of pesticides that are banned in most of the planet.

What are the main threats that Brazilian biodiversity is currently facing, and what can be done to mitigate their impact?

As I said for the Cerrado, predatory agricultural exploration is one of the main causes of biodiversity loss in Brazil. In general, habitat destruction is responsible for the extirpation of several species and the complete extinction of others. Some of them might well have gone extinct without having ever been described. For example, this was likely the case for a species I first observed in 2014 during my PhD (published in 2018). I found the first specimen while visiting a herpetological collection in Goiânia and the second in the Museum of Zoology at USP. After that, I visited collections far and wide throughout South America and never found a single specimen. While other species of the same genus were found in the dozens, it appeared there were only two known specimens of this one. Sure, it is a fossorial animal (i.e. spending most of its time underground), but it is still strange to find so few individuals because the area where they were observed was flooded by a hydroelectric dam- when this happens, fossorial animals usually come out in the open and are found in large amounts, as was the case for the other Apostolepis species in the same area. It is still too soon to say, but I presume Apostolepis adhara (as we named this undescribed species) is a rare inhabitant of the Cerrado, perhaps endemic to the region where it was found- and likely critically endangered if not already extinct.

On top of agriculture and dams, construction of roads, residential areas, and mining are also major threats to biodiversity. To cut a long story short: greed! All of it is covered up by politicians, who often are elected in exchange for rolling back environmental protection laws.

What can we do to change this? First of all, vote for the right politicians- meaning, those who are concerned with education and conservation, who are capable of governing for the people instead of for the interests of a lobby. After that, we should make sure our representatives keep the primises they make during campaigns. This is an immediate urgency! In the long term, education is also key- only through it can we change the predatory mentality of some and help the poor people of Brazil realize that the country belongs to them too, not only to the wealthy and privileged- we are all part of nature, and if we destroy it, we will ultimately destroy ourselves.

Since it houses such a rich and diverse herpetofauna, Brazil should be at the forefront of herpetological research on a global level. How would you describe the quality of scientific research in Brazil concerning your field of expertise?

There is much room for improvement! Indeed, we have tremendous potential, amazing institutions, brilliant minds, super-productive researchers, experts in our herpetofauna and how to study it- but we have no funding. We have active projects in all branches of herpetology, but the returns are scarce. We are a rich country, but the money is in the hands of a few who care about neither research nor the environment. The average Brazilian is not interested in science because our education system is severely flawed- even when it comes to basic scientific knowledge. People believe that science is only useful when it is about finding cures for diseases, but they don’t realize that it is literally in all aspects of life. For this reason, investments in the scientific sector always were way smaller than they should have been, which is getting even worse with the current government (composed, among others, of people who blatantly deny climate change). This has led to a consistent brain drain, with people switching to other occupations and/or moving to other countries. We have many unemployed PhDs and countless unpublished works because there was simply no money left to conclude them. The situation is dire.

Speaking of which- last year, you and other female Brazilian herpetologists launched the project “Herpetologia Segundo as Herpetologas” (H2H in short) to advocate for a more inclusive environment in the field of herpetology- which is still plagued by widespread sexism. How does H2H operate to help female herpetologists pursue their scientific careers?

One of the main goals of H2H is to empower Brazilian female herpetologists by showing the merits of their work and bringing them under the spotlight the way it always worked for male herpetologists. We are trying to reclaim space for these women who, in general, did not feel comfortable participating in discussions about herpetology, doing science communication, and publicly talking about their work. Our first action was creating pages on social media (Facebook and Instagram) whereby female herpetologists can feel free to do all of that without being judged and/or put down. We are showing their work not only to the herpetological community, but also to the general public. We also try to inspire young girls to become herpetologists and create a network of mutual support where they all have power.

At the Brazilian Congress of Herpetology in 2019, we and other female herpetologists helped organize a discussion panel about gender equality in herpetology. The result was a document published in the hournal Herpetologia Brasileira where we bring forward several recommendations and guidelines to make herpetology in Brazil more inclusive for women.

As a woman in herpetology yourself, what obstacles did you have to overcome to get to the position you are in now in terms of discrimination and prejudice?

I was told I was “too pretty” and “delicate” to work in the field, for example- and I also got targeted for rejecting more “powerful” male herpetologists. This was mostly going on in my undergraduate years already. I never gave in. Today, the major obstacle for me is the same one women in every area of science still suffer from- maternity. The job market still excludes mothers, and science- where quality is measured in terms of productivity- does so to grotesque levels. Mothers put much more effort than most fathers into getting to the same professional position and are still not acknowledged in the same way. South-American culture (and others across the world) views taking care of children as a duty of the mother only, which overloads women with work. In general, we mothers are treated the same way as men and women with no children, but we do so much more work- most of which is not even recognized.

Compared to when you took your first steps in the scientific/academic world, to what extent do you see progress in the way women can enter and establish themselves in research, and what can still be improved?

Oh man, I’ve seen great progress already! Still far from ideal, don’t get me wrong- but great progress nonetheless. At the start of my career, nobody was even talking about sexism in science- and that was not even 15 years ago. Women were not united and thought they had to compete against each other. When we realized that together we were stronger and could make our voices heard, everything changed! The rise of the Internet and social media helped a lot in this sense. People from all over the world started discussing topics that used to be restricted to small groups of specialists. Issues like feminism and sexism in science were brought to the attention of the whole world. The stories of thousands of women who suffered from sexism in universities, in the field, and wherever science was conducted began to show that the problem was real and had to be faced- and most of all, that we needed to support each other as sisters to achieve our goals. Today we have initiatives and projects of all kinds globally to support women in science. I think the very fact that we are communicating on a worldwide scale, publishing articles on the issue and exposing the problem, is in itself a huge step forward. We already secured some rights, but there still remains a long way to go to achieve full gender equality.

If you were to give one piece of advice to girls who aspire to become herpetologists, what would that be?

Since I am not particularly inspired today, I will quote a passage from a piece I wrote last year on the Inernational Day for Girls and Women in Science:

“When you grow up, my little scientists, you will be a biologist eager to study snakes, but they will say that you can’t (…). But I know, little scientist, that you won’t listen to any of them. The rebel personality that was born and grew with you won’t let you give up. They will call you “witch”, “brute”, “tomboy”… they will call you a whore! But you just won’t give up. Every word will fuel your soul and your drive to learn, discover, understand. There will be hard days, little scientist- days when they will make you feel bad… days when they will make you cry. Those days, you will consider giving up because the world keeps hurting you and telling you that you can’t be what you were born to be! On those days, remember Marie, Bertha, Rosalind, Maryam- remember every scientist who gave her life to prove that yes, they can make us cry and scream, they can chain and beat us, they can even starve us, but we won’t change our mind! They will try to keep you down, to paralyze you. Don’t let them! Fight, get back on your feet, cry- but stay inspired- you will make it! You will be the great scientist you always wanted to be, and also the great woman the world feared so much- the woman who will save it in the end. My little scientist, I now give you the courage and strength of all the “witches” in the world! I give you the world itself- take it, it’s yours!”.

As per tradition, we conclude our interview by looking at the future: what are your main goals and aspirations for the coming years, both personally and for women in science in general?

I just want grants to do my job. I want employment in my country so that I can give back everything I learned to society. I want to have the opportunity to be part of a research and teaching institution as a professor and as a scientist, where I can contribute to herpetology here in Brazil and worldwide and at the same time inspire students to show everyone the importance of our work. Most of all, I want to be judged for my work as a researcher, not for being a woman, without having to see my work derogated because of it. I want to keep fighting so that future female scientists won’t have to go through the absurd challenges I and other researchers before me had to face just for being women.

Thank you so much for such a passionate interview, Daniella! We wish you and your colleagues at H2H all the best for your work as scientists and activists alike. As for us, the Snakeman’s Lair will return soon with another amazing guest. Stay tuned!

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