Underwood’s snakes: Herpetology lab’s professor spreads love of scaly creatures

Taylor Mcfarland and Taylor Mcfarland

How do you think it would feel to be surrounded by corn snakes and boa constrictors in a confined space? Would you be able to handle the idea of six to seven-foot-long snakes always being within close range? For Dr. Eileen Underwood, these circumstances do not only serve as the parameters for her position as the director of the BGSU Herpetarium, but they are a preference.

Having obtained her Ph.D., in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology from Indiana University in 1979, Underwood has served as an associate professor in biological sciences at BGSU for 36 years. As a trained molecular biologist, she studied developmental genetics among fruit flies for 25 years before converting the molecular lab into the herpetology lab in 1997.

Underwood discovered one of her children had severe asthma and allergies, and was advised reptiles were the only kind of pets her child could be near. They started with a pair of iguanas, but one bit her 5-year-old son, so she found the iguanas a new home.

Next, they got their first baby corn snake, something the children could handle. Soon after, Underwood took sabbatical and traveled to Golden, Colorado for a year and brought a few snakes with her. When she returned, she was accompanied by a collection of 35 snakes.

“Once I had one, it was like, ‘oh, if I get three other color varieties, I could talk about single mutations, double mutations’, and I used them in my genetics class,” she said. “It’s more fun to hold up a snake than it is to talk about fruit fly eyes,” she laughs.

When she returned to BGSU, Underwood learned the city had a no constrictor snakes ordinance. According to the American Legal Publishing website, any wild animal that poses a danger to human life or property if it escaped from secure quarters is prohibited, and constrictor snakes fall under the specified list.

Popular constrictors like corn snakes and ball pythons made up the majority of the collection that she brought back from Colorado and since she was unable to keep them in her home, she devised a way to legally keep the snakes in her care: by establishing the BGSU Herpetarium. Since the animals are legal on campus in an educational setting, the snakes became useful for her children as well as her research. The BGSU Herpetarium can be found in room 111 of the Life Science building.

Now retired, but still working, Underwood continues to foster a safe space for students and the animals that they care for. More than a home for her snake and lizard collections, Dr. Underwood recognizes the BGSU Herp Lab as a home for students too.

“I tend to view the Herp Lab kind of like I’ve viewed marching band. There may be, you know, 20,000 students here, but you’ve got a smaller group,” she said. “You know, we have at most 36 people working in here. They all like reptiles, they learn to get along”

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One of the many areas that students research in the lab is related to the genetics within corn snakes. Students start this kind of research as a freshman or sophomore and don’t finish until their senior year. It is complex because corn snakes only lay eggs once a year, and it takes three years before they are sexually mature, therefore garnering a large sample size takes multiple years. It was this research that led to the Herp Lab hosting nearly 800 animals at one point.

“It’s a long-term goal, but it’s just fun,” Underwood said. “It gives students the opportunity to work here, they not only learn how to take care of the animals, they also learn how to take care of each other.”

While many animals have been acquired through rescue, some have been attained through compelling circumstances, like ODOT, a common boa. Underwood said she is named after the fact that she was found by an Ohio Department of Transportation worker on the side of the road.

“It was March 31, and 31 degrees out. This species rarely goes below 60 (degrees) in the wild,” she said. “They’re for temperatures in the 80s. It’s not going to survive.”

Underwood brought her home and set the boa outside of her office in a plastic tub to quarantine. She was very thin and malnourished. After being in freezing temperatures, Underwood was sure she was going to return to find a dead snake. ODOT was alive the next day. After giving her ample time to recover in heat, Underwood began to address ODOT’s nutrition.

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“I offered her a rat, she took it. She ate every week for just shy of four months before she finally pooped. She was that empty,” she said. “I was sure she would at least have a respiratory infection after being chilled like that, but there weren’t any problems. She’s strong.”

Today, ODOT is highly regarded as one of the sweetest animals, and is very popular among students and works really well for demonstrations.

Many of the animals in the Herp Lab are there as a result of BGSU students, which is why it has grown as much as it has in the over 20 years it has been on campus. Underwood would teach an undergraduate seminar that was offered every semester in which students research a particular species of animal, do literature and learn how to maintain it. At the end of the class, they’d vote on what animal to add to the lab and if she had access to it, she’d add it to the collection.

Students also come up with the names of the animals.

“I have veto power … We will never have a big snake named ‘Fluffy,’” she said in reference to the now-dead reticulated python formerly housed at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

The BGSU Herpetarium serves more than just BGSU students. Underwood hosts demonstrations that take place 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Thursday mornings in which students from local schools, prospective BGSU students and other groups, are bussed to campus where they transform into observational scientists as they learn and interact with some of the animals.

She uses physiological traits of the reptiles like the shape of their eyes and the texture of their skin to help students identify the habitat in which an animal belongs as well as whether the animal is active during the night (nocturnal) or day (diurnal). Underwood and volunteers discuss different animals then aid the students in touching and holding them during the demonstrations.

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“We’ve had a lot of people get over their fear of snakes this way. Initially, they’d start out the back of the room and wanted nothing to do with us. Then they’d see all of their friends holding snakes and having fun, then it was ‘Can I try?’ So, it worked,” she said. “It’s enjoyable. It’s a lot of fun, the animals seem to enjoy it. It gets them out, gets them more movement, more interactions”

Like everywhere else in the world, COVID-19 has significantly impacted the sense of community within the Herp Lab. Prior to the pandemic, there were times when there would be ten to fifteen people in the lab within the five to six compact rooms of the lab. Underwood said there used to have a room they’d call the study where students would gather to perform study groups, and invariably there would be three or four taking either genetics or organic chemistry, which gave them a group of people to interact with.

“When we could, anybody could come in whenever, you know, the lab used to be open from 9 til 5, sometimes 6 or 7 because there was a large number of people and they like to hang out. But since we can’t have that large group size anymore, they have distinct times when they’re allowed in,” she said. “Yes, they can come in other times if they have to, but there’s nowhere near as many people in here at any given time.”

Outside of teaching, Dr. Underwood can be found in the Herp Lab with student volunteers who assist with care of the many animals, which includes 70 adult snakes and 55 adult lizards. Between meetings, animal care, administrative paperwork and enlightening students on the biological sciences that surround the animals in the lab as they come and go, she is always on the job.

“I rarely get to sit here and get anything accomplished unless I stay after everyone’s left,” she said. “People are in and out all the time, but I enjoy that.”

Now retired, Dr. Underwood prepares for the arrival of her successor. Her tireless work throughout the numerous years she has spent at BGSU has proven to be influential to BGSU students and their experiences. To illustrate the importance of the Herp Lab to BGSU administration, she asks all visitors to use the sign-in sheet that resides at the entrance of the lab.

“I want to be able to show the administration, ‘See this is the number of people who’ve been impacted by being in here,’” she said. “The more numbers, the more people who come and go, the more likely they are willing to let us hire somebody to run this place.”

Underwood’s love for animals and her approach in teaching students has helped to alleviate the myriad of misconceptions that encircle reptiles. Through her guidance and warmth, students foster greater sense of intelligence and warmth towards animals that are commonly believed to be threatening. She encourages students to challenge their preconceived notions through research and interaction.

As a force of herpetoculture, Underwood proves that being in confined spaces with corn snakes and boa constrictors is more pleasurable than frightening.