Changing Planet

Explorer of the Week: Todd Pierson

Biologist Todd Pierson wants to live in a world with great amphibian and reptile diversity, and he’s going to do his best to make that happen. He’s currently studying Appalachian salamanders, but has encountered all kinds of interesting reptiles in the field—including a 60-pound alligator snapping turtle.

What project are you working on now? 

Right now, I’m really focused on Appalachian salamanders of the family Plethodontidae. This is the world’s most diverse and speciose family of salamanders, and the southern Appalachians are a global hot spot for these lungless salamanders. Currently, I’m working on using a technique called ‘environmental DNA’ or ‘eDNA’ to detect the presence of these salamanders from a water sample. I also really enjoy photographing this visually impressive group and have been slowly amassing a large collection of photographs.

What initially sparked your interest in biology? 

I grew up spending a good deal of time outdoors fishing with my father and hiking with my family, and at the same time, I began keeping frogs as pets. The confluence of these two hobbies came soon enough, and I was fortunate to find a good community of like-minded friends when I began searching for and photographing amphibians and reptiles in the wild.

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled?

I’ve really enjoyed my time in the highlands of Guatemala. This region’s plethodontid salamander diversity is second only perhaps to the southern Appalachians, and its coffee and corn tortillas are unrivaled anywhere.

Do you have a favorite species of reptile or amphibian? 

As I mentioned earlier, I’m partial to the salamanders of the family Plethodontidae. In particular, the brook salamanders of the genus Eurycea are some of my favorites. This group is widely variable and inhabits some of my favorite habitats of the region. Some species are remarkably common, but I still enjoy the opportunity to see and photograph them whenever possible.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?

I’m not always successful in my searches, so finding the creature I’m searching for is always a bit of an enjoyable surprise! Sometimes, though, the bycatch is just as good. One memorable encounter was my first (and to this day, only) alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). While on a University of Georgia field trip, I wandered off from our group and walked up on the 60-pound turtle soaking up the sun in a shallow cypress swamp.

Photograph courtesy Todd Pierson
Photograph courtesy Todd Pierson

Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found? 

I have a pretty poor innate sense of direction and am perpetually lost. Fortunately, friends and GPS devices are usually there to set things straight. A particularly humorous occasion was when I got turned around in a tidal swamp in Guyana and gave up hope just as a storm came in. I crouched over my camera in the buttress roots of a nearby tree to wait out the storm, only to realize afterwards that my camp was a mere 15 meters behind me. I told you—I lack a reliable internal compass!

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled?

I’ve really enjoyed my time in the highlands of Guatemala. This region’s plethodontid salamander diversity is second only perhaps to the southern Appalachians, and its coffee and corn tortillas are unrivaled anywhere.

Have you had any scary experiences in the field?

Not particularly. I’ve had the usual whoa-there’s-a-snake-by-my-boot encounters, stomach-turning reactions to local microbiota, and the like, but my life has never seemed at risk. I wouldn’t mind keeping it that way!

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why? 

I’d switch with Robert Ballard. Deep-sea exploration is just about the most otherworldly adventure I could ever imagine. Given the chance, I’d take the plunge.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say? 

I’d tell him to watch less television and start studying Chinese.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?

I recently heard for the first time that I was “born too late to explore the Earth and too early to explore the cosmos.” Despite the fact that we are simultaneously still exploring the Earth and expanding into the rest of the universe, I can empathize with the sentiment. Nothing dominates my daydreams as much as the potential for extraterrestrial life, and we’d be fortunate to be able to explore this ‘final frontier’ someday.

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