Biology 224L: Herpetology

Snakes, lizards, and frogs on a plane! With the recent addition of herpetology to the biology department, students now know why Samuel L. Jackson was yelling.

Through his course, designed for non-majors, assistant professor Manuel Leal aims to introduce students to the breadth and scope of herpetology, the study of amphibians and non-avian reptiles, or "herps." Students will spend time in the lab in order to acquire a basic knowledge of different species, and perhaps dissect a few. However,

Leal is quick to say that he is not interested in the simple memorization of facts; rather, he concerns himself with the "bigger picture" of organisms and how they interact. "By the end of the semester," he explains, "students should be able to identify main differences between families and the overall evolutionary trajectory of their unique lineages." Other course themes include morphology, physiology, behavior, and ecology.

Included in the course are field trips to several locations, including the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, a research station in the Smoky Mountains, and nearby Duke Forest, where students will observe organisms in their natural habitats. One of the advantages of a herpetology course in North Carolina, a state with abundant populations of herps, is that students can learn about what is around them. While the course does not focus specifically on habitats themselves, students will explore differences between various ecological habitats, from ponds to lowlands. Leal says the exploration of herps and their native environments will allow students to make connections to pertinent overarching issues in biology, most notably global warming. "Amphibians experienced some of the first changes from global warming," he notes, including declines or extinctions in some tropical lineages due to more stressful conditions and habitat disturbances.

But why herps, beyond their obvious Blockbuster appeal when released 30,000 feet above the ground? To Leal, it is "not that [herps] are more interesting than any other group, but that they have unto themselves very unique characteristics," including regeneration, rapid color change, infrared sensitivity, and protrusible tongues. He points out the tendency to take snakes' characteristics and use them to denote negative traits in humans: cold-blooded, heartless, sneaky. Ultimately, however, it is herps' wide variation that attracted Leal, luring him away from his earlier studies of birds. Calling on the inspiration of his first herpetology teachers, he muses, "Birds are glorified lizards with feathers.""


Manuel Leal joined the Duke faculty in 2006 as an assistant professor in the biology department. He earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, and his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. He continued his postdoctoral studies at Vanderbilt University. His research interests include animal communication and the behavioral and evolutionary ecology of lizards.




Students' textbook is The Firefly Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians, but they also read a variety of primary literature.


Exams, labs, independent research projects, an oral presentation, and two "species account" papers, in which students choose a species to profile, covering its habitat, physiology, and behavior.

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