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This week on the SciShow Talk Show Haley Hanson joins us from Ecology Project International to talk about how they bring high school students into the field to help with research and learn about ecology and conservation. Then Jessi from Animal Wonders brings in Serpentina, a rubber boa.

Ecology Project International:
Animal Wonders:
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Hello and welcome to SciShow Talk Show, that day on SciShow where we talk to interesting people about interesting stuff that's being done here in Missoula, Montana and in the world. And today, we have Haley Hanson from Ecology Project international, which is a very cool organization that works with students, and also with researchers, at getting good research done all across the world, which is fantastic.

 Ecology Project International

Haley: Thanks, Hank. Thanks for having me.

Hank: So tell me a little bit about what Ecology Project International does.

Haley: Right, so, the basis of Ecology Project International, and I'll likely call it EPI for short -

Hank: Yeah, yeah, I almost did that too, already.

Haley: It's awful. So, our goal is to increase environmental literacy through partnering students, typically high school students, with wildlife biologists that are in the field, doing ongoing research, collecting data, and so we'll find a group of students that's interested in traveling and then we'll partner them with the wildlife biologist there in the field during ongoing long-term research projects, teach the students how to collect the data, and then they get to work between 9 and 12 days depending on where they go, and collect data, and also create their own research project that they can then bring back home

Hank: Awesome, so I imagine the challenges here as you sort of figure - like, first you've got the challenge of finding students to, I assume, pay you so you can have budget and stuff, but also, like, finding the researchers who are not terrified of high school students.

Haley: Right, right, and you know those first couple years, we've been around for we're coming up on 15 years, and those first couple of years it was a bit of a challenge to find researchers that were interested in having students come to the field, you know a lot of them indicated that they were nervous about having students come, botch the research, or even, you know, go back and tell family members where they might be able to find sea turtle eggs for harvesting. You know, and 15 years later we have found that the researchers are actually loving to have us come, we're being approached all the time by new research organizations and conservation organizations that want us to bring our students where they are working. It really broadens the body of knowledge for the researchers that we're working with

Hank: It increases the amount of science that can be done.

Haley: Right, that's a lot of bodies on a beach.

Hank: Right, so you started with sea turtles?

Haley: We did, we started in Costa Rica in 2000, working with local students there. And, the research that we conduct in Costa Rica is on leatherback sea turtles, which are a critically endangered species. They're also the largest reptile. And, so, what we're doing there - we work at a number of different beaches, mainly at Pacuare Nature Reserve, which is touted as the fourth most important nesting beach to leatherback sea turtles. It's on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and so they're nesting season is from about March until August and they come up and nest at night. And so, the research that we're doing is finding these nesting mothers as they're coming up to lay their eggs and then we will sometimes collect and transfer the eggs into a more safe location - there's a couple of reserves that can kind of give them a little more of a safe haven -

Hank: So, you just get right up in there?

Haley: We get right up in there. And so we kind of -

Hank: Like, as they're being laid - you don't, like, take them back up?

Haley: Nope, nope. And so when we do come upon a nesting sea turtle, then everybody kind of sits and waits back and we indicate, you know, at what stage of her nesting we encountered her. And then once she starts to lay her eggs, then we really get in there and we measure carapace, length and width - we don't do any kind of weights, you can imagine, because they're huge. And we look for tags - it's super exciting when we find one that doesn't have a tag because that means that it's likely the first time that this female has come up to nest so that's always fabulous news. And then when she starts to lay her eggs, we'll get right up under that cloaca and we have one student collecting the eggs and calling out the numbers of eggs that are coming out.

They typically lay two different types of eggs: one that's big, maybe about the size of a racket ball, and then many others that are this kind of odd-shaped, and they're infertile. And so, that's one of the cool things that's kind of not perfectly known in the science world, as to what the exact use of these little infertile eggs are. But they're kind of intermixed in there.

And so, if she's laid in a place where we determine probably isn't a great place for this nest to be, then we'll transport them and the students learn how to dig an exact replica of the nest and so we'll take a measurement and then they run back up to the reserve and dig the exact nest and put them in there exactly the way they were laid originally. And we mark it and 60 days later we get to go back and excavate the nest after they have supposedly hatched. If they haven't hatched then we're able to go through - we open up every egg that hasn't hatched. Sometimes that is a pretty disgusting process.

Hank: Yeah, that doesn't sound like fun.

Haley: And so we mark it - what stage of embryonic development that they ended up dying. But then there are sometimes ones when we'll excavate a nest and most of the turtles have hatched, but we'll find one or two at the bottom that have hatched but didn't hatch in time to come up. And in the mass excavation, and so we're able to just kind of revive them and help them get back into the ocean.

Hank: That's the nicest outcome of the ones available. It's pretty amazing. You have accomplished a lot of different things at the same time. You get to make research less expensive, you get to help students from America to practice science on the ground, you get to subsidize local populations to, you know, maybe get more invested in the ecology of their area, and also help, like, teach them about science. Like, there's a lot going on all at the same time here.

Haley: Absolutely.

Hank: It's pretty cool.

Haley: Yep. And engaging the local populations is definitely our main focus. You know, we end up working in these incredible locations like the Sea of Cortez. And we work with local students there that are in high school and tell us that they've never put their face under the water in the Sea of Cortez. And so we take them out on this snorkel census and they're able to see for the first time all of this incredible wildlife and marine life that's happening right off the coast of their own town. Which to most people around the world, this is a destination and it's giving them a chance to really realize what an incredible place and ecosystem that they're living in.

Hank: Sounds awesome. So is there, in addition to the scientific goals, I assume there's some sort of conservation goals.

Haley: Absolutely. You know, most of the places that we work have been indicated as biodiversity hot spots like Costa Rica. The leatherback sea turtle is a critically endangered animal and, you know, we're seeing just really incredible results from our students being in the field. For example in Costa Rica, when we first started working at Pacuare Nature Reserve, they estimated that about 98% of the nests that were laid were being created by either human or animals or being destroyed for one reason or another, and this last year, 15 years later, that number decreased to 2%. 

Hank: That is great, that is so fantastic. That is really cool work. Well, I have a treat for you. I don't even know what it's going to be yet, but Jessi from Animal Wonders is going to share with us a treat.

 Serpentina the Rubber Boa

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Hank: Jessi, you brought us a really weird snake.

Jessi: She is kind of weird looking. Her name is Serpentina, Tina for short.

Hank: Hi, Tina.

Jessi: You can hold her if you'd like.

Hank: Okay.

Jessi: She is a rubber boa and these guys are just - I love these snakes. Actually, put your fingers kind of apart a little bit.

Hank: Okay, that way she can - 

Jessi: And we'll do like a -

Hank: Okay, harder to drop this way. Wow, you are weird and very cold. I'm sorry you're so cold.

Jessi: Yeah, cold so that - because it's chillier in here, she's gonna be that temperature. Have you ever seen a rubber boa?

Hank: No, I don't think so.

Jessi: Have you ever seen a rubber boa?

Haley: I have.

Jessi: In the wild?

Haley: I have seen one in the wild.

Jessi: Congratulations! They're really hard to find because they're nocturnal and they like to burrow. And they're pretty short, they're not huge, they're very secretive. I really find rubber boas fascinating because they're so secretive and also they look weird.

Hank: They look weird. You have, like, strange little this - nubby tail. It's like you've got two heads.

Jessi: Yeah, I love how you said that. They're nicknamed the "two- headed snake." 

Hank: Is that so when someone's trying to eat its head, it accidentally eats its tail?

Jessi: Yeah, well not necessarily accidentally. They try and make animals go after their tails. They actually have fused vertebrae in their tails so that it's extra hard and if they're threatened by something, they will roll up into a ball and stick their head on the inside of their ball body and then they'll stick their tail up and do fake strikes with their tail. It's awesome. 

Hank: I'm gonna get you. I'm going get you with my stubby tail. 

Jessi: Well, they're pretty small so that's not going to work with every predator. Some predators are going to be like, "Eh, I'm just going to eat you in one bite." So then they have a backup system so if something does try to eat them, they will open their cloaca, their vent, and they will musk stinky poop pee stuff and then they'll squirm around and slither around all over themselves so they cover their body in that. And not only does it stink really bad, it also tastes terrible. So whatever tries to eat it - they'll spit it out.

Hank: Yeah, I can believe that. 

Jessi: Yeah, don't want to eat poop and pee. 

Hank: No, I'm not into that. It's squeezing me. She's giving my fingers little squeezes.

Jessi: So she's a rubber boa so she's part of the boa family-

Hank: constrictor-

Jessi: Yup, and so she constricts things.

Hank: What are you big enough to constrict?

Jessi: She doesn't eat things that are going to run away from her. These guys don't strike. They just - they don't strike. So they're not going to be an ambush predator and wait and wait and wait and go ahead and strike. Most snakes do that. These guys eat babies. So they'll go burrow down into like a vole or a shrew nest and head down underneath and they will just eat the babies. Slither up to them and just eat them.

Hank: Are you saying that this snake's diet is entirely babies?

Jessi: Babies.

Hank: Really? Just, 100% babies.

Jessi: Babies.

Hank: Has no other source of food?

Jessi: Well, if the thing isn't moving around, if maybe if it's sick, very small and sick, it would go after it. Something that's not going to run away, they're very docile.

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Jessi: I love her face, her eyes are tiny compared to other snakes. I think she has a really sweet, she's almost smiling. 

Hank: She does have a little smile.

Haley: She must be thinking about eating babies. 

Jessi: Mmmm, babies. 

Hank: The only thing that makes me happy. Nocturnal animals usually have larger eyes.

Jessi: They can, while they usually have a heightened sense of some sort. So either they have larger ears or larger nose or larger eyes, usually that's what they're going for.

Hank: So maybe the eyes just aren't a big deal.

Jessi: Well, she burrows so she's going to be down in the ground and she's not going to be using them for a lot of things. She's mostly going to use her sense of smell, her tongue, and she's going to seek out babies. 

Hank: It's okay, it's the circle of life. 

Jessi: She's a baby herself.

Hank: Is she? 

Jessi: Yeah, well, babies can beat up on babies. 

Hank: How old is she?

Jessi: She's three. 

Hank: That's not a baby. 

Jessi: Well, she can live to be thirty.

Hank: Right, I guess that's pretty young. 

Jessi: Kind of a baby. She's a child.

Hank: I don't know. I feel like snakes don't have a very long period of being not adults. 

Jessi: That's true, that's true. It takes about two years for them to mature, so she's just over maturity. I was trying to stick up for her. 

Hank: Good try. Tina, thank you for coming to visit us here on SciShow talk show. Jessi, thank you for bringing Tina in.

Jessi: Thank you for having us. 

Hank: And tell us where we can learn more about EPI.

Haley: Absolutely. Go to our website, and we've got lots of room for lots of students so we'd love to have everybody join us. 

Hank: And if you want to see more of what Jessi is up to, you can go to We're producing a new show with her and it's awesome and I love it. Thank you for doing that.

Jessi: Thank you. 

Hank: Thanks for joining us here on SciShow Talk Show this wonderful day. It's been a very fun time. If you want to subscribe so you can keep learning more with us at SciShow, you can go to, there's a subscribe button there.