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Interview with Dr. Ruchira Somaweera

Journalist: Allison Yan

Allison: Hey there! Welcome to SciSection on CFMU 93.3! My name is Allison and for this week’s Scientist of the Week, I have with me, from Perth, Australia, Dr. Ruchira Somaweera: a herpetologist, evolutionary biologist, National Geographic explorer, research scientist for Australia’s CSIRO, and much more! So thank you for joining me Ru!

Ru: Thank you Allison! It’s a pleasure!

Allison: Well we’re really happy to have you! Just to start off, I wanted to ask - well, you grew up in Sri Lanka, an environment abundant with reptiles - so how would you describe the transition of your childhood interests over to your career as a herpetologist?

Ru: So yeah, Sri Lanka, being a tropical island in the equatorial belt, is full of life. It’s one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots in the world, meaning there’s actually a lot of things to play with. So I had so many animals to get inspired by and to play with and even to study, growing up. So this love for animals began since I could walk. And that passion, that love, became a career, a curiosity, and then kind of a lifestyle. So certainly growing up in a place where there's plenty of things to see and get inspired by was a huge trigger. I also wanted to work on the underdogs. In general, people love cute and cuddly stuff; anything with mammals, all that stuff. But when it comes to reptiles it's always ‘Oh it’s scary, it's ugly, it’s scaly, it's slimy.’ So I was fascinated by that view that ‘Oh my god we have so little idea about these things, but there's so much more to learn.’ So that became kinda my focus. So having all those animals around plus [the fact that] less that was known about them: they both played an equal role in where I am now, studying them as a scientist.

Allison: Wow that’s great! That's actually really cool because growing up in a major city, I don't have that experience to really go out to my backyard and see all that life so it's really cool to hear about that.

Ru: Yeah, yeah and so the other cool thing is reptiles are so adaptable. There's so many reptiles living in cities and in small spaces. It's not like looking for a lion or an elephant. So there's plenty in your backyard too, so a lot of people can pick this up at an early stage and actually get inspired

Allison: Wow ok! And then can you tell us a little about what the research process is like in your field?

Ru: Yeah, so I'm a field ecologist, meaning I do work in the field: actually hands-on stuff on animals. I have quite a diverse research program going on, quite a lot of different things. Largely on crocodiles, but also on sea snakes and some lizards and generally about reptile diversity. So because of that variety we use quite a lot of different methods and tools in science to understand these things. So starting from sky, there's a lot of chopper work involved because I work in very remote parts of the Australian Outback. It's actually remote, like you can drive for days without meeting other humans. And there's no road access to some of these places, so we use choppers, [and] there's a lot of drone usage. My lab at CSIRO is building up a big drone capacity on all sorts of different drones from AIDA to photogrammetry to multispec; studying different aspects from above. And then on land, we do very hands-on stuff: actually going out and catching animals, measuring them, tagging them, seeing what they're doing. We do more cameras, all these remote sensing, remote monitoring equipment. And then with regards to sea snakes, there's quite a lot of diving and snorkeling. So because of the wide variety of things I study the methods are also quite varied, and we use everything from the sky to on land to underwater.

Allison: Wow so you kinda do a little bit of everything right?

Ru: Yeah! Yeah, I mean, that itself is also quite interesting because if you are doing the same, repeating thing your entire life, chances are you'll get bored. But I love that variety, and learning new skills by doing so.

Allison: Wow that's so cool. The idea of working, studying biology in the field has always been something really interesting to me, like I kinda want to look into that in the future.

Ru: Certainly do! It has its moments and challenges, obviously, compared to your career being in front of a desktop or in the lab. There's more safety net in that. If you're doing field work there's a lot of things that can affect that from weather to your health. But personally for me, I’m fully out there catching stuff; that's my thing

Allison: Wow sounds super rewarding! And then in addition to your research you also do photography. So what would you say is your favorite photo to have taken and can you tell us more about the story behind it or why it's your favorite?

Ru: Yeah, photography for me is a tool for science communication. I use photographs not to show that ‘Oh my god I have seen all this cool stuff and I've been this and that.’ But always to tell a story. ‘Ok guys, did you know that there's an animal like this? Did you know that this particular animal does this?’ So if I had to pick a photo, I think, I'm more interested in a photo having an impact on the animal rather than an impact on me. Meaning that it's not about credit, it's not about winning a competition; it's about changing attitudes in people, so they actually understand that animal or treat them better. So [with] that background, a photo that I took a couple years ago in Bali. Bali, Indonesia has this culture called Kopi Luwak. So it's civet cat coffee. For people who don't know what a civet cat is, it's a medium sized mammal. Think of a cat and a raccoon, something between that. So these guys, they eat coffee beans, and they poop out the seeds, and then the seeds are then washed and grinded into this very lucrative coffee industry. So people think that just because the civet cat eats it and poops it out, you gain medicinal power. Which is absolutely not true. There's science, actual science showing it's not true. What people don't realize is the dark side [of] how these animals are kept. So these are in cages, in battery cages, tied up inside cages, force fed with these beans. Not everywhere but in some places. And the only thing they are eating is coffee beans, like breakfast lunch and dinner. So I took a photo from my phone, not even a fancy camera, nothing. Nowadays, phones take amazing photos, and I took a photo of this small civet cat tied up inside a small cage. And I put it on Instagram and Facebook saying, ‘Look, you guys you don't see the other side. This is what these animals go through for a cup of this nonsense coffee.’ And that post got shared like forty something thousand times, and I got so many messages from people saying ‘This is something that we never knew. I'm never going to have this again.’ I got messages from cafes saying ‘We did not know the ethical side of this, so we are not stocking it anymore.’ So for me, a photo like that would actually change [the] life of a few animals, which is more meaningful than me saying ‘Oh my god I won a competition.’ So for that reason, if I had to pick a photo it's that photograph of a sad civet cat tied up inside a small cage.

Allison: Wow, that's super impactful.

Ru: Absolutely.

Allison: That’s really cool. And then, so as an explorer you get to travel the world. Like you've mentioned, you work in the Australian Outback, and like you said you just talked about Bali. What is your favorite place to have visited or to have worked at?

Ru: That’s a hard one. I haven't travelled extensively. For me, it's not about ticking boxes of ‘Yeah, I've been to this, this, this place.’ It's about understanding the place much better. So I have visited the same place over and over for quite a few places. The first place would have to be a tie between the Outback where I did my PhD, my postdoc, and [where] I am currently working and Komodo island in Indonesia, which is amazing. It's just unreal. I have been visiting there for the last 4 years, working with the local authorities, working with the local rangers, learning from them, and also teaching them science tools. And Sri Lanka where I grew up and where my roots are. So between Sri Lanka, Komodo, and the Australian Outback. I’m in love with all three.

Allison: Wow, so it's a little bit more about learning about those 3 places in depth and really getting to understand them.

Ru: Absolutely, you can visit a place and take your social media photos, but you don't really get to actually know the people, the culture, the place, that well. So I personally love getting to work with the locals, learning from them, and sharing what I know with them. Capacity building both ways: myself plus the local authorities and the local cooperators. So yeah, personally I actually love that over ticking a whole list of places. And it also comes from money too, obvious reasons.

Allison: Yeah, that's a really nice take on travel because I feel like a lot of times, especially today, when we think of travel we think of a quick two week vacation somewhere and then you post about it.

Ru: Yeah exactly.

Allison: But being able to stay for an extended time, you really get to know everything about that area. It's super interesting.

Ru: Absolutely, I mean nowadays, a lot of our actions are about showing the world what we do. It's all about taking a selfie for social media. For some people; I'm not generalizing. But you get to love a place when you actually get to know the people there.

Allison: Wow that’s awesome! And then to bridge over a little bit, in popular culture, films, etcetera, like you said, reptiles tend to be portrayed as something scary; they're menacing. But that's not always really true. So how do you dispel those myths and demystify reptiles?

Ru: From popular media you mean?

Allison: Yeah.

Ru: Yeah, so I'm a huge fan of mainstream Hollywood movies. I absolutely love them. But while it's entertaining, Hollywood movies have actually painted a bad reputation for certain groups of animals. From sharks starting from Jaws, every vampire movie out there about bats. And then reptiles are no exception; from Snakes on a Plane, to the Anaconda, to Lake Placid on crocodiles. These things portray these animals as these killer machines out there to get you. But the reality is far from that. In fact, with National Geographic Asia, I hosted this TV series where we talk about biology and snakes in blockbuster movies. And we tell, ‘Ok guys, anacondas are big, but they are not that big.’ They are not out there to just come and get you. So the biggest thing to take out of these movies is that there’s no animal, there's no reptile out there, or no snake for that matter out there, that would see you and be like, ‘Oh yeah, that human looks yummy. I'm gonna eat him or I'm going to bite him.’ That just simply doesn't happen. So no reptile, no snake, is dangerous if you leave it alone. So while this is entertaining, the reality of their behaviour is so different from what you see in movies. There's nothing out there [that] when you look at it, it's like ‘Oh my god, I wanna eat that human.’ So what you have to take is this is light entertainment. What you see in those movies as behaviours of animals are absolutely not true, most times. And for many, many reptiles the first reaction is to flee. To avoid you and try to get away. Then if they are cornered or there's no other option, then they'll fight back for self defense. There's no difference to what a human would do if it's the last option. So while there are big snakes, there are venomous snakes, if you keep your distance, have that mutual respect, leave it alone, nothing is going to come and bite you or eat you just spontaneously.

Allison: Wow yeah like even before this interview, watching all those movies growing up and just kinda being surrounded by that idea, I have been kinda scared of reptiles. But even in the preparation for this interview, I was reading some of your stuff, and I was like ‘Oh maybe not. Maybe they're not as terrifying as part of my mind perceives them.’

Ru: Yeah, and it's very easy because reptiles, in general, don't have human characteristics. Like when we see a great ape, like a chimpanzee, or even some of the non dangerous ones like a dolphin and a koala, we kind of relate like ‘Oh it's cute, it has emotion, it could be cuddly.’ Reptiles don't show that. They always have that straight face.

Ru: So I use these three words: mysterious, mesmerizing, and misunderstood.

Ru: So reptiles are all those three. Like we are fascinated when we see a snake. We are like ‘Oh wow, there's a snake.’ But they are mysterious and misunderstood; we are like ‘Oh it's going to kill us.’ So it's very easy for us to see a movie of a crocodile going and eating everything, maybe a person who jumps in water, and think ‘Ok that's what crocodiles do.’ It's hardly the truth. Obviously there are incidents where you get attacked if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. But to judge a group of animals based on what you see on TV? No, no, absolutely not.

Allison: Wow ok. And then so that's one way, but another way you are involved in science communication is your new podcast that you actually just recently started, Zootopica, where you bring zoology to a more general audience including nonscientists. So can you tell us more about that podcast and what's in store for future episodes?

Ru: Yeah, so I say I'm a huge believer of the public's involvement in conservation of animals. But just by having rules, just by having wildlife managers and rangers, there's no way we can effectively and sustainably protect them or nature for that matter. So the public has to get involved. And for the public to get involved, they need to get educated. Because it’s not everyone's cup of tea to go and look for information, that information should be available in a format that a general person can digest. And there, I see a huge disconnect between the scientist community and the general public. There's a lot of brilliant top scientists out there who do some amazing work, but when it comes to taking that message to the general public, the language, the terminology, the references, the examples, everything that is used to convey that message does not resonate with a general person. So my idea behind Zootopica, which is topics in zoology, is a start. It's a very casual and a simple start of hopefully a long journey of a podcast to discuss topics in zoology. Tell what the most recent science says about the topic, but to use examples from day to day life and from popular culture so people can relate to it. So the first couple of episodes were about the beginning of life on earth. And the next episode we are filming tomorrow is about love in the animal world. And we have got some amazing questions where people have been sending questions. And we discuss it, telling ‘Ok what does actual science say?’ Because if you Google (Wikipedia is a very useful resource), it's not factually true or reliable all the time. Because actually anyone can have a Wikipedia page; it's not peer reviewed. So our idea is to show, ‘This is what actual scientific evidence says, and some of these are urban myths or so and so.’ But to take it in a format that people can understand. So that's where Zootopica is. I would love if the listeners would go on Youtube - it's a video podcast - and give us some feedback because it's a very early start. And we want to go a long way.

Allison: Oh ya for sure! Ya I was listening to that first episode and it was just so interesting. Like all the different things - the questions and the topics - were just super engaging to listen to. So definitely, for anybody on SciSection who would be interested, they should go check that out.

Ru: Thank you very much.

Allison: And then to finish us off really, really quickly, I wanted to ask what can we do to help with the conservation of these reptile species?

Ru: Sure, so reptiles are threatened by so many different factors from large scale ones, including invasive species, to habitat change, to urbanization, to climate change, all those. As an individual, these are not problems we can solve. These are not problems we can solve; these are policy related and large scale problems. My advice or my opinion is that the best thing you can do to help conserve reptiles or anything is to have a mindset change. To tolerate things and to learn to coexist with things. And that comes to education. So rather than going with the flow like ‘I have heard that when a rattlesnake bites you die in two minutes.’ Which is absolutely not true. But rather, be curious to learn what's true and then appreciate. Have that mutual respect to animals. And as I said before too, no animal is dangerous if you leave it alone. So learn about things, appreciate them, tolerate them, and learn to coexist with them. Because there are so many animals that share our space. Like your own backyard will be a zoo if you actually look closely. And all that it takes is to actually appreciate that and to tolerate that. Because a lot of times, like when you see a snake in the backyard for example, people panic and call all sorts. That's a good scenario; in the worst case scenario, they will first kill it, and then think ‘Oh what kind of snake it is?’ Although that's the first time that you saw that snake, that snake probably was living there their entire life because snakes, like us, have their whole home, so they are hanging around in the same place. They are not nomadic as we think. So it's been there the whole time; it's just the first time that you saw it. So rather than panicking and going with what you have heard, try to take a step back and to tolerate and cooperate with it. Obviously there are dangerous animals, obviously accidents can happen, but there's an education based solution for a lot of these problems. And that comes to education. So seek that knowledge and just tolerate, cooperate with other things.

Allison: Wow ok, so be curious and coexist?

Ru: Absolutely.

Allison: Well that wraps up this episode! So thank you so much for talking me today Ru; its been really interesting! And make sure to to be on the lookout for more of the latest interview from SciSection and also go check out Ru’s podcast Zootopica on YouTube.


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