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"Snakes are awesome!"

- By Vivienne Rowland

The “awesome creatures” that are snakes were some of the praises sung during an inaugural lecture by Professor Graham Alexander on Tuesday, 11 November 2014.

During the inaugural lecture, titled: Snakes – ultimate predators: extreme ecology, morphology and physiology, Alexander explained what it is to be an ambushing-foraging snake. He used his research to demonstrate just how special these animals are, and their importance to the ecosystem.

Alexander, from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences in the Faculty of Science, said that he was not always a fan of the cold blooded reptiles, but grew to love them. “I have been passionate about snakes since I was eight years old. Before then, I had a phobia about them,” said Alexander, whose first job as a young boy was at the Fitzsimons Snake Park in Durban.

To illustrate how snakes have had an impact on the ecology of an area, he talked about the brown tree snake poulation in Guam, which increased rapidly after being transported there in an airplane's undercarriage decades ago. 

"Currently, there are twenty snakes to each person on the island. Efforts to curb the increase in the brown tree snake population have been futile. In this way, the snakes have had a massive effect on the ecology of the area, in that that the snakes have preyed whole species of birds into extinction," said Alexander.  

He said that ambushing-foraging snakes - snakes that lie in wait for their prey - are different from other snake species. "Foraging mode has had a large impact on the morphology, anatomy, ecology and physiology of snakes."  

The lecture was attended by friends, colleagues, students and Alexander’s family members, as well as Professor Andrew Crouch, Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and Vice-Principal of the University; Professor Helder Marques, Dean of the School of Science; Professor Frances Duncan, Head of the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences; and Dr Brian Maritz, a postdoctoral fellow in the School.

Alexander is also the co-author and co-editor of the first ever Reptile Atlas for all reptiles found in the southern tip of Africa, a 485-pager titled: Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.  It contains the conservation status of the 421 recognised species and subspecies of reptiles found in these three countries. Read more.