College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Childhood Interest in Reptiles Progresses into Doctoral Degree

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Since a child, Dr Cormac Price has been fascinated by reptiles and amphibians even though he was born and raised in Ireland which has no snakes – ‘just one native lizard, one introduced range-restricted legless lizard species, one frog, one toad, one newt, and occasionally rarely seen visiting sea turtles in Irish waters!’ he quipped.

Price kept reptiles as pets when he was a youngster and it was that fascination which put him firmly on the path for a career in the field and eventually resulted in a PhD in Ecological Sciences. His thesis focused on the ecology of two species of freshwater turtle in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Discussing the background to his research, Price said: ‘I was finishing contract work in Nepal in 2015 and looking for research opportunities in reptile and amphibian conservation when I was put in touch with UKZN’s Professor Colleen Downs who told me she was keen to involve a PhD student in investigations into aspects of the ecology of two freshwater terrapins in KZN.  So I took up the offer and moved to South Africa in January 2016 to begin the work.

‘South Africa has a rich variety of reptile species with freshwater turtles being possibly the most neglected in research,’ said Price, whose research focused on the marsh terrapin (Pelomedusa galeata) and the serrated hinged terrapin (Pelusios sinuatus).

Price said South Africa was an extremely water-stressed country, and with increasing population and land-use change, the demand for clean water would increase. ‘Clean water comes from clean habitats and clean habitats have a higher diversity and healthier populations of semi-aquatic (terrapins) as well as aquatic species.’

He explained that owing to their morphology, freshwater turtles – which have a long life-span – do not move over vast distances. ‘Examining how they are coping in wetlands and monitoring their behaviour as well as population ratios (genders and sizes) can be good indicators as to how the wetland is performing,’ he said.

Price originally intended to focus on the terrapins’ movements and spatial ecology, but when northern KZN (his study site) suffered severe drought in 2016 he found it difficult to find healthy animals in good enough condition to attach transmitters to. ‘So we added different elements to the project including morphology and chemical ecology. Terrapins produce secretions and we wanted to investigate the composition of those secretions.’

Price’s research highlighted the important role terrapin species play in South African wetlands. ‘One of the main areas of significance was how adaptable our methods were and how they could be replicated throughout Africa on many, many different species of freshwater turtle, some of which are threatened by extinction,’ he said.

During his PhD, Price began working with local snake conservationist Mr Nick Evans and now plans to continue with postdoctoral research in association with Evans, focusing on the urban ecology of the black mamba and the Mozambique spitting cobra in Durban.

‘Nick and I hope this research will help reduce snake/human conflict in urban areas, initially in Durban,’ said Price. ‘We aim to share our knowledge and findings with the international community to help reduce snake bite incidents globally and protect these highly valuable species in their habitats.’

Price was full of praise for his PhD supervisor: ‘Prof Downs has always encouraged me and steered me in the right direction in terms of my work focus. She has had a calming and positive effect on me when the work pressure was just too much or I didn’t know what the next step should be. Her supervision and encouragement have been invaluable.’

He also paid tribute to his parents, Brendan and Mary Price, who are passionate animal conservationists in their own right. ‘My parents more than anyone else are the reason I am where I am,’ he said.

Price had some advice for those interested in pursuing postgraduate research: ‘In my early teens I was diagnosed with dyslexia, which was shattering as I assumed the world of research was no longer available to me. I quickly learnt that I was completely wrong. Research is predominately about effort, not “natural talent” or being “gifted”.  It’s also about surrounding yourself with supportive and knowledgeable colleagues and friends. It’s a team effort as we all have different strengths and weaknesses.  Never be afraid to ask questions if there’s something you don’t understand.’

Price still enjoys keeping pet reptiles and remains a committed Leinster and Ireland rugby fan. ‘Being resident in South Africa won’t change that,’ he quipped.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied