By Kate Wheeling and Hannah Robbins

Over spring break, fourteen herpetology students trade their textbooks and lab rooms for field guides and Florida swamps.

The sun beats down on the 5,193 acres of sandy, Florida scrub that makes up the Archbold Biological Station—a welcome sight for the group of biology students and professors here all the way from Boston University, where snow still covers the frozen ground. The group will spend five days criss-crossing south-central Florida as part of a new course offered at BU this spring: herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles.

The Learning Center at the Archbold Biological Station where the students stayed in Venus, FL.
Photo by Hannah Robbins.

“This has been like, 15 years in the making,” says Chris Schneider, associate professor of biology at BU. “We’re glad to finally have the opportunity to do it.” Schneider, whose research focuses on reptiles, has been in talks with fellow biology professor and amphibian expert Karen Warkentin about co-teaching a herpetology course since the pair met in 2001. This year they finally teamed up to design the course, which combines lectures, laboratory work and at least two field trips so the students can get first hand experience with the animals in a natural setting. It’s invaluable experience for the budding scientists.

“This class is a dream come true,” says biology student Jonathan Suh. A life-long herp enthusiast, Suh had always dreamed of visiting the Everglades, but until now he had only ever been to the Florida airport. “It’s a really great opportunity to take a field course like this at BU, because you know, we’re on an urban campus.”

Schneider and Warkentin knew from the start that the course would require more than just the traditional lab component.They wanted to get the students out into the field, and somewhere with a little more diversity than Boston’s overabundance of asphalt and harsh winters would allow. Enter Florida, one of the most biologically diverse regions in the United States.

The students have spent months back in Boston studying reptiles and amphibians, or ‘herps,’ as they fondly refer to them. “Before coming on the trip we assigned different students different groups of animals to read up and become our in-group experts,” says Warkentin. For the students, it’s a chance to show off everything they learned in class. They’ve pored over text books and guidebooks, watched countless videos and documentaries, and scrutinized long-dead specimens in jars filled with yellowed liquid and under microscopes in order to become those experts. Now they’ll spend their spring break in Florida, putting that knowledge to the test.

The Boston University Herpetology class stands next to a turtle crossing sign at the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida, where they spent spring break.
Photo by Hannah Robbins.

Special thanks to Mark Zastrow and David Shultz