Exploring reptiles and amphibians with Dr. Nick Geist

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Later this spring Dr. Nick Geist, professor of biology from Sonoma State University, will be teaching a class here at Pepperwood all about our reptiles and amphibians (click here to check it out). We took this opportunity to get to know a little more about Dr. Geist and his research and restoration efforts with Western Pond Turtles.
– Sandi Funke, Education Director

Tell us a little about your background? What got you interested in biology in general and reptiles specifically?
I’ve been a biology/herpetology/paleontology nerd since I was about 8 years old. I spent a lot of time outdoors in the hills and on the beaches of my home town Santa Barbara. I loved catching lizards and snakes, exploring the local creeks, and beach combing. I’ve always been drawn to reptiles—snakes especially—just find them to be the most beautiful and elegant of all vertebrates.

One of your biggest research focuses is on Western Pond Turtles. What attracted you to studying them?
Initially, I started studying them as a model organism to answer questions about temperature dependent sex determination. This grew into a much broader project that includes conservation, behavior, physiology, etc.

Tell us a little bit about the North Bay Western Pond Turtle Project. What are the latest findings for these appealing animals? What is the prognosis for their recovery?
We’ve been able to document interesting patterns of nest site fidelity—that many females come back each year to nest very close to their previous nests—not random behavior at all. They also leave the pond at pretty much the same day each year. The last few years were very hot, and this ended up producing nearly all female hatchlings. I’d like to think that the prognosis is pretty good overall. There are some areas where I doubt pond turtles will ever be able to recover, such as heavily populated California urban areas, but they are doing OK in the more rural parts of the state.

You have also studied crocodiles and dinosaurs. Tell us a little bit about that research.
I got my Ph.D. on the paleobiology of dinosaurs. Specifically, I compared the cranial anatomy of dinosaurs with crocodilians and birds to try to figure out if they were warm- or cold-blooded animals. My results tend to suggest that dinosaurs were more croc-like than bird-like and probably cold-blooded killers.

What would you tell a young person interested in pursuing a career in biology?
Depends on the field they want to pursue. Just follow your heart. If you don’t absolutely LOVE what you’re doing, then something is wrong…

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