ExplorersBio

Todd Pierson

Biologist/Conservationist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grant

Picture of the Bolitoglossa diaphora in a cloud forest of Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Photograph by Todd Pierson

Photo: Todd Pierson overlooking the ruins of Yaxha in the lowlands of Guatemala

Photograph by Carlos Vasquez

Birthplace: New York, New York

Current City: Athens, Georgia

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I went through many of the typical stages of an American boy—firefighter, inventor, veterinarian—but as I reached high school, my interest in natural history and conservation steadily grew. In particular, I became fascinated with amphibians and reptiles. Since then, it's been a single-minded pursuit, and although my particular interests within herpetology have ranged from ecology to evolution to conservation, I have never deviated from the general track.

How did you get started in your field of work?

Like many of my like-minded herpetologists, I can fondly remember my childhood days of catching water snakes and frogs around my hometown. When I turned 16 and got my coveted driver's license, the opportunities seemed endless. I began to explore various regions of the Midwest in my spare time, and my world grew larger and larger. My first international experience began in the lowland rain forests of Guyana in 2008 with a group of friends, and I sought undergraduate opportunities that would lead to more international experience. The UGA Foundation Fellowship provided just that, and through this program I have done fieldwork in England, Italy, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and most recently, China.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to biology and conservation?

I consider myself really fortunate in that while I've had frequent shifts in my specific interests, I've always been motivated by an innate and inexplicable attraction to amphibians and reptiles. There are an incredible number of valid, practical reasons—from pharmaceutical potential to ecosystem function—to care about the conservation of these animals, but nothing motivates me and those around me more than the sense of happiness they bring to our lives. I want to live in a world with great amphibian and reptile diversity, and I'm going to do my best to provide the next generation with that opportunity.

What's a normal day like for you?

I'm currently an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, so when I'm not in classes, I spend most of my time in the field. Georgia boasts an impressive diversity of both amphibians and reptiles, and I enjoy searching for and photographing them across the state. I'm much happier with a healthy covering of mud and mosquito bites than I am indoors, and I do as much as I can to make sure that my average day can provide for this.

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

More so than any scientist, I have always admired the science popularists and writers. These men and women—Sagan, Goodall, Dawkins, and the like—expand the impact of their science past their peers and into the general public. They are the ones that most inspire interest in their fields, and their impact on me has been tremendous.

In particular, one of my personal heroes is Edward Abbey. Though by no means a scientist himself, Abbey did more than perhaps any other to draw attention to the beauty of the American West and the conservation threats it faces. Much more human and relatable than Thoreau, Abbey shares many of the same ideals, and his writing has guided and motivated many of my life decisions.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

While I've had the great pleasure of doing fieldwork in many places—from the Arabian deserts to the Guatemalan cloud forests—my favorite experiences are all closer to home. I'm most happy in salamander-rich forests of the southern Appalachians, and few experiences can compare to campfires and night hikes with good friends. It sounds cliché, but one doesn't need to travel to exotic places to experience the best that nature has to offer.

My most challenging experiences have come during fieldwork in China. My wobbly Spanish is sufficiently functional in Latin America, but my complete lack of ability to communicate in Chinese makes overcoming cultural and language barriers much more difficult. In every place that I've traveled, the challenges of bureaucratic and political difficulties far outweigh any physical discomforts or danger in the field.

What are your other passions?

Photography goes hand-in-hand with natural history, and I've really enjoyed developing this hobby over the last five years. It's a perpetual challenge but rewarding experience to capture the beauty of these animals for others to enjoy, and I am trying to expand my photographic interests into other taxa.

What do you do in your free time?

A Hoosier through and through, my second home is the basketball court.

If you could have people do one thing to help save amphibians and reptiles, what would it be?

Herpetological conservation is, in many ways, similar to the conservation of other organisms. However, a small brown frog gains none of the mass appeal of the giant panda, and amphibians and reptiles are some of the most misunderstood and reviled animals on the planet. Our University of Georgia Herpetological Society focuses on educating the public about the importance and value of these organisms, and these efforts are every bit as important as the science that guides them. Basic education and outreach about amphibians and reptiles is the foundation necessary for their conservation.

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In Their Words

I want to live in a world with great amphibian and reptile diversity, and I'm going to do my best to provide the next generation with that opportunity.

—Todd Pierson

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