This page describes ongoing student/ faculty research associated with my book project Snakes of Western and Central Africa.To understand the background and rationale behind the activities described on this page, read about the book and find out why I enlisted the help of Whitman students.

Writing a book about snakes means studying real ones. The world's most extensive collection of (preserved) Central African snakes is housed in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium.

With support from a Perry Award, three Whitman students, Willie Kunkel '09, Kevin Moore '09 and Katie Moyer '09, spent a month working with me in the snake collection in Tervuren. Our goals were to obtain data for the book by examining over 200 species of rare African snakes, and at the same time to gather the data the students would need to carry out their senior theses.


BELGIUM, July 2008!

Royal Museum of Central Africa

Royal Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium


museum jars scale counting
Detailed examination and description of snakes involves scale counting. But there's much more to "scale-counting" than counting scales, and the instructions (right) make it look simple compared to the real thing (left).
Kevin with camera Willie counting scales
Kevin Moore '09 became an expert with our camera set-up that fed digital images straight into a computer. He photographed every snake from four different angles. Here's Willie Kunkel '09 counting the dorsal scale rows on the skin of an African Rock python (Python sebae).
Katie's label Katie at RMCA
All three students became so knowledgable about Central African snakes that the Curator of Reptiles started listening to them. When Katie Moyer '09 found an Egg-eating snake (Dasypeltis sp.) that she was sure had been misidentified, the museum printed a new label for the jar with Katie's correct identification --and Katie's name (see red arrow) on it.


last day

July 29, 2008: End of the last day at the museum.

Amazingly, we finished the last snakes, the pythons, on the afternoon of the very last day. (Above) Katie, Kevin and Willie proudly holding the impressive pile of data sheets they had filled out in the course of a month. In fact that pile is actually even more impressive than it looks, since, being good Whitties, they had photocopied them all double-sided! By that time everyone was too tired to work out all the statistics precisely: Number of characters recorded on each data sheet = >30, total number of species examined = about 200, total number of individual snakes = maybe 600?, number of photographs taken = >1,000, total number of ventral scales counted = none of us could ever face adding all those up.

...most astonishing, even after all that, all three students still claimed to believe snakes to be cool!


Katie, Kevin and Wille used some of those data for their senior thesis projects, and lots of progress had been made toward Snakes of Western and Central Africa.

But it didn't end there. Work on the book continued...

Whitman College 2008-2009 academic year

Evan Connor
Map sample
Evan Connner '09 taught himself enough of ArcMAP to make a huge databse of GPS coordinates from which the distribution maps for each species in the book will be made. Each dot represents the location where an individual of a particular species was collected, in some cases more than 100 years ago.


Afronatrix photo Afronatrix drawing
Willie, working in Photoshop from all those photographs taken by Kevin at the Royal Museum of Central Africa, created line drawings, clearly and elegantly showing the different arrangements of the scales of the head in different species, to illustrate the book.


Andrew Hill
Kevin at microscope
Katie at Whitman
Andrew Hill '09, a French literature major, joined the group to help with translation of French publications we were working from and teamed up with Kevin to facilitate communication between Kevin, who was editing that huge stack of data sheets, and collaborator, Dr. J.-P. Chippaux, in Paris. Katie won an Abshire Scholarship to scour the sparse and often very old primary literature for information on the natural history of all those species whose scales she had counted, looking for interesting nuggets of information that would help to bring the snakes to life for the reader.


Katie, Kevin, Willie, Andrew H., and Evan all graduated in May 2009 (Read about theses of the class of 2009), but they have made their mark on Snakes of Western and Central Africa, a project that still promises to keep me, Jean-Philippe Chippaux and current Whitman students busy for some time to come.


PARIS: July 2010!

Claire Snyder '12 and Khoa Nguyen '12 spent July 2010 at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. Read about their adventures at the "Science and Story" blog.


Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris

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