What do you think it would be like to be surrounded by corn snakes and boa constrictors in a confined space? Would you be able to handle the thought of six to seven foot long snakes always at your fingertips? For Dr. Eileen Underwood, these circumstances not only serve as parameters for her position as Director of the BGSU Herpetarium, but they are a preference.
After earning his doctorate in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Indiana University in 1979, Underwood served as an associate professor of biological sciences at BGSU for 36 years. A molecular biologist by training, she studied developmental genetics in fruit flies for 25 years before converting the molecular lab to a herpetology lab in 1997.
Underwood discovered that one of her children had severe asthma and allergies, and was told that reptiles were the only type of pet her child could be near. They started with a pair of iguanas, but one bit her 5-year-old son, so she found a new home for the iguanas.
Then they had their first baby corn snake, something the kids could handle. Soon after, Underwood took a sabbatical and traveled to Golden, Colorado for a year and brought some snakes with her. When she returned, she was accompanied by a collection of 35 snakes.
“Once I got one, it was like ‘oh, if I get three more color varieties, I could talk about single mutations, double mutations,’ and I used them in my genetics class. “, she said. “Holding a snake up is more fun than talking about fruit fly eyes,” she laughs.
When she returned to BGSU, Underwood learned that the city had an ordinance against constrictor snakes. According to the American Legal Publishing website, any wild animal that poses a danger to human life or property if it escapes from secure quarters is prohibited, and constrictor snakes are part of the specified list.
Popular constrictors like corn snakes and ball pythons made up the majority of the collection she brought back from Colorado and since she couldn’t keep them at home, she figured out a way to legally keep the snakes in her care: by establishing the BGSU Herpetarium. Since animals are legal on campus in an educational setting, snakes have become useful for her children as well as her research. The BGSU Herpetarium is in Room 111 of the Life Sciences Building.
Now retired, but still on the job, Underwood continues to create a safe space for students and the animals in their care. More than a home for his snake and lizard collections, Dr. Underwood recognizes the BGSU Herp Lab as a home for students, too.
“I tend to see the Herp Lab a bit like I saw a marching band. There are maybe, you know, 20,000 students here, but you have a smaller group,” she said. “You know, we have at most 36 people working here. They all love reptiles, they learn to get along”
One of the many areas of student research in the lab is related to the genetics of corn snakes. Students begin this type of research in first or second year and do not finish until their senior year. It’s complex because corn snakes only lay eggs once a year, and it takes three years before they are sexually mature, so collecting a large sample size takes several years. It was this research that led the Herp Lab to house nearly 800 animals at one time.
“It’s a long-term goal, but it’s just fun,” Underwood said. “It gives students the opportunity to work here, not only do they learn to take care of animals, but they also learn to take care of each other.”
While many animals were acquired through rescue, some were affected under compelling circumstances, such as ODOT, a common boa. Underwood said she is named after she was found by an Ohio Department of Transportation employee on the side of the road.
“It was March 31 and it was 31 degrees. This species rarely goes below 60 (degrees) in the wild,” she said. “They’re for temperatures in the 80s. He’s not going to survive.
Underwood took her home and placed the boa outside his office in a quarantined plastic tub. She was very thin and malnourished. After being in freezing temperatures, Underwood was sure she was going to come back to find a dead snake. ODOT was alive the next day. After giving him enough time to recover from the heat, Underwood began to address ODOT nutrition.
“I offered her a rat, she took it. She ate every week for just under four months before she finally pooped. She was so empty,” she said. “I was sure she would at least have a respiratory infection after being chilled like that, but there were no problems. She is strong.
Today, ODOT is highly regarded as one of the gentlest animals, and is very popular among students and works great for demonstrations.
Many of the Herp Lab animals are there thanks to BGSU students, which is why he’s grown as much as he has in the 20-plus years he’s been on campus. Underwood taught an undergraduate seminar offered each semester in which students researched a particular species of animal, wrote literature, and learned how to maintain it. At the end of the class, they would vote on which animal to add to the lab and if she had access to it, she would add it to the collection.
The pupils also find the names of the animals.
“I have a veto… We’ll never have a big snake named ‘Fluffy’,” she said, referring to the now-dead reticulated python that once stood at the zoo and the Columbus Aquarium.
The BGSU Herpetarium serves more than just BGSU students. Underwood hosts demonstrations that take place from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Thursday mornings in which students from local schools, prospective BGSU students, and other groups are bussed to campus where they transform into scientists observation as they learn and interact with some of the animals.
It uses physiological traits of reptiles such as the shape of their eyes and the texture of their skin to help students identify the habitat to which an animal belongs as well as whether the animal is active during the night (nocturnal) or the day ( diurnal). Underwood and volunteers discuss different animals, then help students touch and hold them during demonstrations.
“We’ve had a lot of people overcome their fear of snakes this way. Initially, they started from the back of the room and wanted nothing to do with us. Then they would see all their friends holding snakes and having fun, and then it was “Can I try?” So it worked,” she said. ” It’s nice. It’s great fun, the animals seem to enjoy it. It gets them out, gives them more movement, more interactions”
Like everywhere else in the world, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the sense of community within the Herp Lab. Before the pandemic, there were times when there were ten to fifteen people in the lab in the five to six compact lab rooms. Underwood said there was a room they called the study where students met to do study groups, and invariably there were three or four of them doing either genetics or organic chemistry, which gave them a group of people to interact with.
“When we could, anyone could come in when, you know, the lab was open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., sometimes 6 or 7 p.m. because it was busy and they like to hang out. But since we can’t have that large group size anymore, they have separate times when they’re allowed in,” she said. “Yes, they can come at other times if they have to, but there aren’t that many people here at any given time.”
Outside of teaching, Dr. Underwood can be found in the Herp Lab with student volunteers who help care for the many animals, including 70 adult snakes and 55 adult lizards. Between meetings, animal care, paperwork, and student enlightenment on the biological sciences that surround lab animals as they come and go, she’s always hard at work.
“I can rarely sit here and accomplish anything unless I’m staying after everyone’s gone,” she said. “People come in and out all the time, but I like it.”
Now retired, Dr. Underwood is preparing for the arrival of his successor. Her tireless work throughout her many years at BGSU has proven to be influential to BGSU students and their experiences. To illustrate the importance of the Herp Lab to BGSU administration, she asks all visitors to use the sign-in sheet found at the entrance to the lab.
“I want to be able to show the administration, ‘You see, that’s how many people have been affected by being here,'” she said. numbers, the more people that come and go, the more willing they are to let us hire someone to run this place.”
Underwood’s love for animals and his approach to teaching students have helped to dispel the myriad of misconceptions that surround reptiles. Through her guidance and warmth, students develop a greater sense of intelligence and warmth towards animals that are commonly seen as threatening. She encourages students to challenge their preconceptions through research and interaction.
As a force in herpetoculture, Underwood proves that being in confined spaces with corn snakes and boa constrictors is more enjoyable than scary.