Then there was a sun and a moon, and last Monday the moon decided to come between the sun and the earth for three hours. Even though Jacksonville wasn’t in the path of totality, people still took to the streets from wherever they were to see the event that won’t take place again until 2024.
According to JSU Associate Professor of Physics Laura Weinkauf, it’s been a while since there was a total solar eclipse like the one on the 21st.
“The last one visible from the contiguous U.S was on Feb. 26, 1979,” She said. “Times vary for eclipses, this one was around three hours. Totality was around two and a half minutes, although in 2024 totality is predicted to last more than five minutes. It depends on the details of where in their orbits the moon and earth are.”
Jacksonville State University set up a viewing party on the TMB lawn for anyone who wanted to come and view the eclipse. People in lawn chairs set up shop to wait, families brought their small children to the bounce houses set up, it was a community that came together for a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Sophomore Noah Davis went to the viewing party and said, “It was good to see a public interest in science. We need more of that.”
Sophomore Eric Cline also went with a group of his friends to see the eclipse.
“It was a really cool experience to see the lighting around everyone change,” He said. “It was almost like wearing sunglasses without actually having any.”
Viewing the eclipse without protective glasses was not recommended though. Weinkauf says that the need for protective lenses comes from the sun’s damaging rays.
“Even with part of the sun’s disk blocked, the amount of light coming through can damage the cells on the retina of the eye,” She said. “Permanent vision loss can occur, and since the sun doesn’t look as bright when it’s partially covered, there’s more danger of looking too long at the sun during an eclipse.”
Even for someone who works as an astronomer by trade Weinkauf says that she really just wanted to enjoy the eclipse. She took to Tennessee with some friends and colleagues for viewing.
“It was amazing,” She said. “Some astronomers did plan to take data from the eclipse, but I just went to enjoy it.”
When Jacob Garmon and Griffin McDaniels set off for a four-day excursion into the Conecuh National Forest in May, they hoped for a relaxing trip filled with sightings of their favorite reptiles and amphibians. What they didn’t expect was to find one of the most elusive and threatened snakes in the country: the eastern indigo snake.
Garmon, a senior biology major with a concentration in ecology, and McDaniels, a second-year biology graduate student, were driving through the forest when McDaniels spotted the indigo snake just off the road.
“He hopped out of the truck before it had even stopped moving,” Garmon laughed, “and I couldn’t get the keys out, so I just threw the truck in park and left it running.”
Once ranging from Mississippi to the Carolinas, the indigo snake now only has native populations in Florida and southern Georgia and is a federally protected species. It vanished from Alabama in the 1950s and remained absent until reintroduction efforts began in 2010. Since then, Auburn University has released 107 microchipped snakes into the Conecuh forest.
“Of the 107 that Auburn’s been releasing on Conecuh, only three have been seen in the last three years,” McDaniels said. “What’s interesting is that the one that we found was about five, five and half foot long, which is smaller than all the 107 that they released.”
It is not yet known if the snake Garmon and McDaniels found was one of the three confirmed recaptures. If not, it is possible that this snake is a native-born individual, one that hatched in Alabama in the seven years since reintroduction efforts started.
The indigo snake is the longest snake native to North America, growing up to 8.5 or 9 feet in length. Despite their intimidating size, they pose virtually no threat to humans; indigo snakes are non-venomous and ophiophagus, meaning that they eat other snakes, including venomous ones like rattlesnakes and copperheads.
These characteristics were also factors in the indigo snake’s decline. Garmon and McDaniels identified three key issues that have contributed to the snake’s place on the federally threatened species list: fear, the pet trade and habitat loss and accidental persecution.
Many people, afraid of the snakes because of their size and color, would kill them without knowing or realizing that they are harmless. The docile nature of indigo snakes made others believe they would make good pets, and this led to what McDaniels calls “pet trade poaching.”
Finally, the indigo snake suffers from habitat loss—but not directly. During months of extreme heat and cold, indigo snakes seek shelter in gopher tortoise burrows, and this sandy soil habitat is rapidly being destroyed. Without these burrows, indigo snakes can die from exposure.
But indigo snakes aren’t always safe inside gopher tortoise burrows, either. Rattlesnakes also seek shelter in these burrows, and one method of getting rid of rattlesnakes is to “gas” them out by throwing gasoline down the burrows, often resulting in indigo snake casualties.
Today, there are federal laws in place to protect these snakes. Under the Federal Endangered Species Act, a person found to have killed an indigo snake can face a fine of up to $50,000 and up to a year in prison.
Special permits are required to own or handle these snakes as well, either in captivity or in the wild, so Garmon and McDaniels were not legally allowed to touch the snake they found, even to hold it until a park ranger or specialist could come to the scene.
Garmon and McDaniels’ sighting has garnered attention across the state. Dr. David Steen, an assistant research professor at Auburn University, tweeted one of Garmon’s photos of the snake, saying, “Thanks to Griffin McDaniels and Jacob Garmon for observing the animal without disturbing it and reporting the sighting.” And Mark Bailey of Conservation Southeast, Inc. reported the sighting at an indigo snake conference at Troy University the day after the snake was found.
For state biologists and snake enthusiasts, this sighting is important.
“It spread like wildfire,” Garmon said. “It’s a big deal. It’s the first sighting in about a year and a half.”
“People are more excited about the possibility of a native-born snake than anything else,” McDaniels added. A native-born snake would be proof that reintroduction efforts are succeeding, and it would indicate that the indigo snake population is on the rise.”
Garmon and McDaniels saw about 17 different species of reptiles and amphibians on their trip, including gopher frog tadpoles and southern cricket frogs. Both are exciting finds, because gopher frogs are endangered in the state of Alabama, and southern cricket frogs have orange, yellow and green color variations in not seen in the brown coloring of the northern cricket frogs found in Jacksonville.
Garmon and McDaniels want people to appreciate the wildlife in their state parks and own backyards but remind budding naturalists that nature is the animals’ territory.
“Be sure to read up on the species of local fauna [before you travel] so you know what to expect and what you might encounter,” Garmon advised.
And when it comes to snakes, the consensus is that it’s best to leave them to the professionals.
“If you aren’t familiar with snakes and can’t identify them, leave them alone,” McDaniels said.
If you think you’ve spotted an indigo snake in the Conecuh National Forest, do not touch it, but keep it in sight and contact Tim Mersmann, Conecuh National Forest District Ranger, at (334)-222-2555 or email@example.com as soon as possible.
You can find more of McDaniels’ wildlife photography here.
Calling all future Bill Nyes, Jane Goodalls and Sheldon Coopers: JSU’s School of Science is the place for you. Formed during a campus-wide restructuring in the fall of 2016, the School of Science is home to the biology, chemistry, geography, geology, math and computer science departments.
“I have absolutely loved JSU,” said Amber Smith, a sophomore chemistry major from Bremen, Ga. “It has been a great experience, both educationally and socially. If I had to pick my favorite part of the entire experience, I would have to say developing a close group of friends that share the same goals as me.”
Students in the School of Science can major in any of the departments in the School, but many are pre-med majors and plan to go to medical school after graduating.
Such is the case with Smith; she fell in love with the sciences in high school and plans to pursue medical or pharmaceutical work in the future.
“I love finding out how the world and the human bodies work, and I feel like there is more we don’t know,” Smith said. “That’s basically why I love it: I feel like it is a field that encompasses all aspects of our lives and it has room to grow.”
Smith encourages female students like her to continue to pursue their love of science, despite it being a traditionally male-dominated field.
“My advice to any incoming freshman girls planning to major in science is to develop relationships with professors and peers who can encourage you and help you when you do not understand something,” Smith said. “Also, do not go into your science courses simply trying to make the best grades. Rather than striving for the A, strive for a better understanding of the material. Enjoy studying and learning.”
But the School of Science can help students achieve an array of goals. Caelan Goss, a senior from Piedmont, Ala., is a math major hoping to break into the field of philosophy through mathematics.
“I wanted to be a math major because in Plato’s Republic, he argues that mathematics is the beginning to understanding philosophy,” Goss said. “So, I majored in mathematics insomuch as I would be able to understand philosophy and the under workings of the universe.”
After graduation, Goss plans to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy to further understand the physics and metaphysics of the universe, and he hopes to one day become a professor of philosophy.
“It may not seem an essential part of society today,” Goss said, “but it is an underlying question which every human being queries upon; thus, I deem it a suitable query in which to base a study.”
More information about the School of Science and its respective departments can be found on JSU’s website or by calling Tracey Casey at (256) 782-5225.