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Snakes Alive! Visit ASU's 'Living Collection'


November 10, 2008

While winding down Homecoming’s memory lane be sure to include a visit to a certain hallway in Life Sciences A-wing – the one that houses the “Living Collection.”

“Living” is not the only feature that distinguishes this reptilian collection from other natural history exhibits that are normally pickled, dried or stuffed. The reptiles are also special because they are all of known origin, making them valuable for education, outreach and study. The 18 species of rattlesnakes along the north wall cover all of the species and subspecies found in Arizona.

Interestingly, no one seems to know exactly how long the collection has been in place, though most believe its origins extend from the 1960s when the School of Life Sciences was the Department of Zoology. At that time Herbert Stahnke headed the department, and the treatment of bites from scorpions, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters generated enormous interest and anti-venin.

Venomous animals were the Stahnke forte. His expertise was such that he was once featured on the television show, “What’s My Line?” An anti-venin for scorpion stings was still being manufactured in the Life Sciences buliding into the 1990s. To see a relict of those days one only has to look up at the façade on the right side of the main entrance to the-A wing at 451 E. Tyler, better known as Palm Walk, where an art deco motif contains a scorpion.

Today, the creatures on exhibit serve both educational and scientific functions by helping to develop an appreciation of the diversity of the venomous reptiles that exist throughout Arizona. The Living Collection has become one of the favored stops on the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences “Points of Pride” tour, and part of the Barrett Honors College program for middle school students last July. Their favorite: the albino.

Western diamondback rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox are the most common venomous species in the state. However, true albinos are very rare, with uniformly pale scales, pink eyes and only a hint of orange scale patterning near its rattle-adorned tail.

Come see (and touch!) some of ASU’s oldest and scaliest friends at the School of Life Sciences booth during Homecoming, and reconnect and discover the latest in alternative fuels, biomedical discovery and science education outreach. Remember what created that spark, the one that jumpstarted your future, sneaking up on you like a sidewinder on a daily basis in that hallway back in the day.