Professor Rick Shine
Whether for cultural reasons, or because researchers find it easier to relate to birds and mammals, reptiles have endured decades of taxonomic chauvinism in academic circles.
For 30 years, zoologist Rick Shine has worked to close the gap, discovering that reptiles provide ideal systems for obtaining direct evidence to test theories of evolution and ecology.
Appointed a Federation Fellow in 2005, Professor Shine has attracted almost $4 million in research funding since 2000 for research into topics such as the seasonal impacts of breeding in tropical snakes, evolutionary ecology in snakes and lizards, snake conservation and the impacts of toxic prey such as cane toads.
Although his career began at the Australian National University, where he graduated with first class honours in zoology, his passion for reptiles was well-developed as a school boy. “I was one of those awful small children who wandered around with a blue-tongue lizard in my pocket,” he laughs.
From ANU, he moved to the University of New England to complete a doctorate in zoology. He spent three years at the University of Utah before joining the University of Sydney in 1978.
An enduring area of his research focuses on a site in the wet dry tropics at Fogg Dam, just outside Darwin, which has the largest biomass of snakes in the world. For nearly 15 years Professor Shine has spent time here where his team has marked almost 10,000 individual pythons and even more non-venomous keelback and slatey-grey snakes. The team examines the impact of weather patterns on the abundance of prey, and the flow-on effects on snake reproduction and ecology.
Despite the obvious perils of his vocation, Professor Shine downplays the risks of being bitten. “You buy the biggest pair of boots you can find, get a pair of snake tongs, then handle the animals slowly and treat them gently”, he says.