Nancy and Craig Wood Odyssey Associate Professor of Biology
Ph.D., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Research interest: The evolution and ecology of a number of reptile species, focusing on coralsnake mimicry, coralsnake and copperhead venom, and queen snakes in Arkansas
In the Harper lab, we concentrate on understanding aspects of the evolution and ecology of a number of reptile species. In particular, we have focused on coralsnake mimicry (mimicry is the resemblance of one species by another unrelated species that benefits the mimic in some way), coralsnake and copperhead venom, and the puzzle presented by the presence of queen snakes in Arkansas.
When it comes to coralsnake mimicry we are looking at a number of questions. For starters, we want to know which snakes benefit from looking like the deadly coralsnakes of North, Central, and South America. Most people assume that any resemblance is good enough to call a harmless species a mimic, but that isn't true, so we do field studies to determine whether particular species really are benefitting from looking like coralsnakes. We also want to know how closely a mimic needs to resemble a coralsnake in order to be protected from predators, and how closely the mimics actually resemble the coralsnakes found in their area.
Our research on coralsnake and copperhead venom focuses on understanding what makes up the venom of these snakes and how those components vary between individuals, populations, and entire species. Understanding those differences can tell us a lot about the evolution and function of the various components of the venom and could potentially lead to better treatments for snake bites.
Finally, our interest in the queen snake is due to the distribution of this species. Queen snakes mainly occur east of the Mississippi River, but also occur in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The Arkansas populations are hundreds of miles from the rest of the queen snakes. We want to know how they got to where they are and whether their isolation has caused them to change from the rest of the queen snakes to be considered a separate species. If that turns out to be true then we need to focus on conserving the populations of what would an Arkansas-only species.