Laboratories on campus house menagerie of animals for research

Mark Hammontree

By Mark Hammontree and Ellen Coogan

An alligator, an entire colony of pythons and worms that have been genetically modified so that they glow, packed in labs smaller than some dorm rooms— it’s not science fiction, it’s day-to-day life  on the University of Alabama campus. And according to one lab supervisor, it’s inevitable that the creepy crawlers will get out of their cages from time to time.

“You know, there are just two guarantees when you’re working with snakes,” Stephen Secor, an associate professor of biology, said. “One is that you’ll eventually get bit, and two, they’re going to get out at some point. Neither is a big deal though, at all.”

Room 419 of the Biology Building, right next door to Secor’s office, is home to several different species of animals including several types of snakes, lizards, spiders and other reptiles. These animals are part of Secor’s lab and are used in various research projects by the biologist and his students.

“We work mostly with reptiles, but we’ve also got amphibians, and we’ve done some work with fishes,” Secor said. “We have four rooms in this building where we can house animals, and one room at the Animal Care Facility in Nott Hall, which is typically where we’ve kept the pythons, the python colony. I have one alligator, dozens of lizards, snapping turtles, toads, frogs, just a menagerie of creatures.”

While many students might be surprised to learn there is even a single python living in Nott Hall, Secor said there are currently around 12 or 15 of the large snakes being housed on campus, which is actually an all-time low.

The different animals are used for several student-conducted research projects, an opportunity that is not available at many other institutions, Secor said.

“These students get an opportunity to work with the animals [they] would never get to work with anywhere else,” Secor said. “They see things that they’d never get to see. They get to learn behavior of these animals, they get to develop their own projects, and nobody else is doing this kind of work. The students are getting to do their own work, themselves.”

A concern when working with snakes, spiders, bearded lizards, etc., is the possibility of a bite or other serious injury could occur, but Secor said there have never been any major injuries. The animals, none of which are venomous, are actually harmless if you handle them appropriately.

“Sure, students will get nipped by a water snake every once in a while, but it’s not a big deal,” Secor said.

Snakes and reptiles are not the only animals that can be found on campus, however. In the Caldwell Lab, also known as “the Worm Shack,” Caenorhabditis elegans (C.elegans), transparent, microscopic nematode roundworms, are used for neurological research.

These worms have been genetically modified to glow.

“We use GFP as a sort of molecular lightbulb that enables us to illuminate neurons of the course of worm aging and examine genetic and environmental factors that cause them to die, as would be the case in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” Guy Caldwell, biology professor, said.

Even glowworms aren’t all – there is even a collection of dead bees on campus, in the lab of Jeffrey Lozier, assistant biology professor, who collects bees in the field to extract DNA for genetic analysis to assess population sizes and migration rates.

“Well, all of my bees are dead, and are kept on pins in boxes or in the freezer for DNA preservation. I collect bees from out in the field, which I use to better understand their ecology and evolution using molecular tools in the lab. In general this entails fun things like hiking in mountain meadows with a net,” Lozier said.

Despite their reputation, working with bees is not very dangerous.

“When we do work in the field, we are far more concerned with snakes than we are with bees. In general we wear no protective gear for bumble bee work, as they really could care less about you. When we collect them in nets and put them in vials there are tricks to avoid getting stung,” Lozier said.

Like the occasional nip in Secor’s lab, accidents do happen. The rare sting is inevitable, but that it is seldom cause for major concern, he said.

“Every once in a while you get tagged, but I’ve personally handled many thousands of live bumble bees, and only been stung twice. You can also sting yourself on a dead bee if you’re not careful, so you also have to watch out even when working in the lab. For that reason, no one can work in the lab who has any record of insect allergies, and I encourage students who aren’t sure about their allergy status to visit the doctor to get checked,” Lozier said.

The array of animals on the University campus provide an opportunity for hands-on projects that few other institutions are able to offer.

“I just like having the animals around,” Secor said. “And the students like having these opportunities. They have to put in time to care for the animals, but they get to do their own research, which is an awesome experience.”