A research letter written by Hendrix assistant biology professor Dr. George R. Harper was published in a February issue of Nature magazine, a prestigious honor for science scholars. Harper wrote the paper with Dr. David W. Pfennig from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Department of Biology.
Harper, an evolutionary biologist, studied mimicry whereby non-poisonous snakes take on the colorful characteristics of poisonous snakes in attempt to avoid predators that typically don’t harm poisonous snakes. His research focused on non-venomous scarlet king snakes that closely resemble highly venomous eastern coral snakes – both possess brightly colored rings of red, yellow and black encircling the body. Predators avoid such tri-colored ring patterns, possibly without previous experience, but Harper found the non-poisonous mimics were more likely to be attractive to predators because they reside outside an area where the poisonous snakes they mimic reside.
Harper’s results provide an evolutionary explanation for why the mimics he studied often occur in areas outside of where the poisonous snakes they mimic are located.
A snake enthusiast – Harper’s pet snake Ed, a costal plains milk snake, resides in his Hendrix College office – Harper said his research has already caught the attention of several of his undergraduate students who plan to continue the research.