Snake CharmerASU professor Andy Holycross isn't afraid of snakes. Or lizards or sala-manders or anything else that slithers around on the ground. He's mesmerized by them. In fact, he's written the book on reptiles and amphibians.
By Adelheid Fischer
Tempe When it comes to reptiles and amphibians, only Texas rivals Arizona for the nation's top spot in terms of diversity. But if you're looking for a positive ID or just wanting to read more about Arizona's famous collection of snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, salamanders and tortoises, you'd have better luck surfing eBay for a book than scanning the shelves of your local bookstore, says Andy Holycross. Most guidebooks are out of print, and even if you do come across one, he adds, its content is usually outdated.
Holycross is working to change that. He holds dual appointments as a biology professor at Mesa Community College and as a research professor at Arizona State University. When he's not in the classroom, out in the field or in a laboratory, Holycross is at the computer in his ASU office. For the past several years, he's been writing field guides about the animals that have captivated him since he caught a garter snake as a child — he kept it as a pet and named it Sir Hiss.
His most recent publications include A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona and A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Maricopa County, both of which were published by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The books were coauthored with Thomas Brennan, a high school biology teacher and amateur herpetologist who volunteers in Holycross' lab.
According to Holycross, it wasn't easy beating the brush for critters that excel at the arts of camouflage and retreat. Consider the story of the Mexican garter snake that was photographed for the cover of the book: "I stood waist deep in water with my camera for more than an hour as Tom held the snake by the tail," Holycross recalls. "She wouldn't hold still. Just as my knees started to lock up, she froze. At that moment, the clouds parted and a beam of sunlight lit up the side of her face. I could barely hold the camera I was so excited."
Making the job even more difficult is the fact that many Arizona reptiles and amphibians are disappearing from their natural habitat. The aquatic Mexican garter snake, for example, is now endangered, in part because of the non-native crayfish that have invaded the snakes' stream habitats.
Ironically, many of the species are declining as the public's interest in them is growing. Arizona has become a mecca for amateur herpetologists, who, much like bird-watchers, are interested in spotting amphibians and reptiles in their natural environment. To help satisfy the need for more information, Holycross is writing a monograph on the snakes of Arizona.
"You can bet that when people from Iowa come here on vacation and see a western diamondback rattlesnake under a saguaro, that's what they're going to be talking about at Christmas that year," he says. "It's part of the draw of Arizona."