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Biology Research Follows The Scent

Matthew Rowe

Even after more than 30 years of studying predator-prey interactions, SHSU biology professor Matthew Rowe still gets excited when he talks about his research into Snake Scent Anointing.

The SSA project started serendipitously when Rowe and several colleagues were working on a project studying the interactions of rock squirrels with western diamondback rattlesnakes.

Following the interaction between a rock squirrel and the snake, the scientists were amazed to witness the squirrel retrieve a small stick over which the snake had crawled. The squirrel began to chew frenetically on the twig and then systematically smear the mixture of bark chips and saliva into her flanks and tail.

The same behavior happened about a week later when a female squirrel chewed and anointed itself with the dirt upon which a diamondback had rested. A series of experiments demonstrated that the shed skins of rattlesnakes were particularly provocative at eliciting SSA.

“We knew we were on to something interesting, fascinating,” Rowe said.

The behavior, he explained, has a purpose: It acts as camouflage, covering up the squirrel’s scent so a rattlesnake looking for dinner will leave the squirrel—and its pups—alone.

While SHSU students have not directly assisted Rowe in this particular research project, he said he believes his experiences enrich his teaching.

“I can take my own experiences directly into the classroom and into the laboratory,” he said. “I believe my enthusiasm for science shines through because of my successes—and failures—at having been a scientist.”

He said he hopes by sharing his experiences “I can infect my students with an appreciation for science in general, and for biology and biodiversity in particular” so that they might become scientists, too. He maintains the best teaching he can do occurs when he mentors students in the lab and in the field. That’s where SHSU excels, he believes.

“Students at Sam who want to get involved in a meaningful research experience have over a dozen talented and enthusiastic biology faculty with whom to work,” he said. “And there are equally talented and engaged faculty in all the departments across campus.

“The educational opportunities for students at Sam go far beyond the classroom. The colleagues with whom I interact are not simply excellent teachers. They are dedicated and exceptional mentors as well.”


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