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Utah herpetologists preserve roadkill specimens in annual preservation event

Around 25 people came together at Lytle Ranch Preserve, just outside St. George, to spend one day preserving roadkill specimens. The gathering contains a wide variety of community members, from students to hobbyists to government agency employees, all interested in herpetology and making use of reptiles and amphibians that have been killed by vehicles.

Throughout the course of the year, roadkill is collected from Utah, Nevada and even southeast California by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) employees, researchers and community members. Alison Whiting, adjunct professor in biology at Brigham Young University and the curator of herpetology at the Bean Science Museum, organizes the event.

“We now have quite a network of govern government, workers, academics, and then just lay people, enthusiastic herpers, who drive around with plastic bags in their car and pick up roadkill and then take all the data, the appropriate data with it, and throw them in the freezer and save them until October, November when we have our annual pickle party,” Whiting said.

Those specimens are then preserved at these annual preservation events participants call pickling parties. This year’s group came together for one mid-November Saturday, preserving a total of 105 specimens that included ring-necked snakes, a long-nosed leopard lizard, and three Gila monsters.

The first pickle party was organized by retired herpetology professor and collection curator Jack Sites. Sites and DWR employees wanted to do something useful with reptiles that were left as roadkill. This pickling party has allowed community members, experts and government employees to come together, learn from one another while contributing to science through the preservation of animals that would otherwise be left on the road.

After thawing the specimens, all attendees participate in the processing of these animals, taking steps to ensure adequate fixation of tissues prior to long term storage.

“So we take the specimens, usually they bring them in, in coolers or something. So they've been frozen. We give them a museum number, which is a unique identifier that links that specimen with all of its data. And so we give them that number. And then we record all of the information that collecting time, place, collector, any other useful information — maybe the habitat, the type of plants that was found in or things like that, that's all recorded in a spreadsheet,” said Whiting.

Once data is recorded, a small tissue sample is taken for future DNA extraction and specimens are injected with a 10% formaldehyde solution. This solution contains formalin, a chemical that fixes proteins in tissues, preventing decomposition and allowing for long term ‘wet preservation.' The fixation and preservation processes prevent the degradation of physical structures, helping to maintain the integrity of tissues post mortem.

All specimens and corresponding data are then entered into the Bean Life Science Museum collection, and are recorded in an online database. The collection is used for primarily teaching and research purposes. Researchers from all over can request loans and tissue samples for specific research projects.

A number of studies have been conducted using the specimens preserved during this event. One group looked at the stomach contents of rattlesnakes, seeking to understand dietary changes across geographic range and whether that correlates with venom.

“They did find very cool things that the venom seems to be specific to certain geographic regions because they're eating different things," Whiting said. "And so their venom is adapting to specialize on different prey.”

The collection has played a huge role in expanding knowledge of the ranges of several species, particularly those that are rare and difficult to locate.

“I have a student who's just looking at the, the Arizona mountain kingsnake that I mentioned, that is so rare and so hard to find. And we're able to go back and just look at all of the records that we have from the pickled parties for museum specimens that have been collected," Whiting said.

The event started off small but has garnered interest throughout the years. With the increased attendance Whiting is hoping to increase accessibility by switching locations between St. George and Provo every other year. Next year’s pickle party will take place in Provo in November 2023, with hopes to expand the event.

Erin Lewis is a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a PhD Candidate in the biology department at Utah State University. She is passionate about fostering curiosity and communicating science to the public. At USU she studies how anthropogenic disturbances are impacting wildlife, particularly the effects of tourism-induced dietary shifts in endangered Bahamian Rock Iguana populations. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting and getting outside with her dog, Hazel.