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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635 Attention: Editor
November 15, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — When NIU research associate Kristin Stanford is successful at her job, biting and barfing often ensue.
Her work is so downright dirty and smelly that it will be featured in the Nov. 28 season premiere of Discovery Channel’s popular program, “Dirty Jobs,” with host Mike Rowe. The program will be rebroadcast several times that week.
Stanford is known to the locals in Ohio’s Put-in-Bay Harbor as “the Island Snake Lady.” Although working toward her Ph.D. in biology at NIU, she spends most of her time at Put-in-Bay, where she serves as recovery plan coordinator for the endangered Lake Erie Water Snake.
The region encompassing the islands and mainland of Lake Erie between the Ohio and Ontario borders is a paradise for boaters and fishermen. It’s also the only place worldwide where the snakes can be found. Out of necessity, Stanford, a native of Mt. Prospect, has become an expert at catching the creatures, which might be likened to the punk rockers of the Great Lakes’ reptilian world.
“These water snakes are probably the smelliest, dirtiest snakes out there,” Stanford says. “When you pick them up, their defensive response is to thrash around and spray you with feces and musk. On the other end, they bite and bite and bite. It’s not exactly a friendly snake.”
Stanford estimates that she has been bitten thousands of times by the dull gray snakes, which grow as large as 3 ½ feet in length but are not poisonous.
“After you take a few bites each spring, you get used to it,” she says. Once the snakes are brought back to the laboratory, they are measured, weighed and tagged with tracking chips. The scientists also induce captured snakes to regurgitate in order to examine their diet.
“I don’t mind getting bit. It’s kind of gross when they poop all over you. But the barfing is definitely the worst part,” Stanford says. “It’s really smelly.”
Stanford has worked in Put-in-Bay for seven years under the tutelage of NIU Biology Professor Rich King, who himself is known as the godfather of the Lake Erie Water Snake.
He and his students have been monitoring the population of the water snakes for 25 years, and King’s research contributed to a decision in 1999 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the snake as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Recovery efforts have been working in recent years. By King’s estimates, the snake population has grown from as few as 1,000 in the early 1980s to 7,000 today.
“The goal is to get the animal off the threatened species list,” King says. “It’s an interesting situation because the snakes, which aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy animals, live in a relatively small area that also happens to be a vacation hot spot where a lot of development is occurring. So there’s a conflict between the snakes and humans, but it looks like this story will have a positive ending.”
Stanford’s job would accurately be described as half scientist, half outreach coordinator. In addition to monitoring the population of the snakes, she works to improve their nasty image. And she’s getting help from an unlikely suspect—an invasive, bottom-dwelling fish known as the goby. The exotic species threatens the habitat of native fish, including walleye and smallmouth bass, which are prized by locals and tourists alike.
As it turns out, the water snakes have a voracious appetite for the pesky goby—a fact the scientists learned from studying the snakes’ diet.
“We promote the beneficial effects of the snake to fishermen,” Stanford says.
“If you don’t get the local people involved and willing to make some sacrifices, nothing is going to protect that water snake. You don’t want to find out what happens to the balance of an ecosystem after a native species is gone.”
The “Dirty Jobs” program provides a unique platform to educate the public about the Lake Erie Water Snake. And it also fulfills a lifelong dream for Stanford. When in high school, the aspiring biologist would tell friends they would see her someday on Discovery Channel. Earlier this year, Stanford’s fiancée urged her to email the show with a description of her work.
The show’s producers bit the next day.
After months of planning, Mike Rowe and his “Dirty Jobs” crew visited Put-In-Bay in August. And, yes, Rowe learned to catch snakes and “puke a goby.” Stanford isn’t sure if he enjoyed the experience, but she has no desire to trade in her line of work for something less foul.
“I love having a job where you can do both research and outreach,” she says. “And I get to be the Snake Lady. How cool is that?”