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Serious fun

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Greetings from the mountains of Tennessee and the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists!

Now before you inquire after the latter, let's deal with that question-begging "joint meeting." As excruciatingly detailed in the official program, this comprises the 94th annual synod of the august American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH), the 30th of the breakaway American Elasmobranch Society, 72nd for the arcane-sounding Herpetologists' League (HL), and 57th involving the more pedestrian Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR). So while a thousand humans claiming one or more of these affiliations are milling in a convention hall in Chattanooga (yes, of Choo Choo fame), no one sub-grouping of ichthyologist (those who study fishes) or herpetologist (those who study reptiles and/or amphibians) is any longer of sufficient numerical inertia to hold its own societal soirée. And while this might be a shame on some level, a hard-learned lesson of economics and PR, there's also much to be said of larger-scale exchanges of ideas among those who, for purely traditional reasons, conjointly lavish their efforts of understanding upon poikilotherms (you know them as cold-blooded vertebrates). After all, we're currently riding out the Earth's Sixth Great Extinction, and keepers of the various flames being snuffed out need to stick together.

I'm here because it's ostensible research for a book. But I won't hide the fact that living in the often vacuous fun-hog heaven of B.C., further depredated by Stephen Harper's anti-intellectual Canada, I enjoy occasional doses of the type of humanity that remains largely unconcerned about the absurdities of war and religion, or artificial constructs like "the economy." That is, people who are instead 100 per cent committed to humanity's knowledge base when it comes to the past, present and future workings of the Earth; i.e., those who trade in what can be divined of tangible reality.

I'd attended many such meetings as a graduate student and academic, but when I switched to full-time writing I'd lapsed, returning — and then only as an observer — after a long hiatus. When I'd deigned to re-engage, at the 2006 Joint Meetings in New Orleans, it was in service of an earlier book project. It had been great to see old friends, catch up on the latest research, and hear people speak passionately about the minutiae of frogs and snakes. I've looked forward to it ever since — as well as an accompanying bounty of self-deprecating humour.

After the opening session in New Orleans, for instance, I'd struggled through a sea of earnestness and shuffling chairs toward the crush of coffee break only to find familiar faces grouped in the very clusters I'd abandoned a decade prior. And it was déjà vu all over again when I realized they were still executing familiar fashion-suicide pacts. Herpetologists clearly thought cargo pants had been invented for them — the loops designed for tongs and snake-sticks, the cavernous, sagging pockets for Ziploc bags full of critters. They'd taken ownership with gusto, though their comical devotion to khaki was more crap than gap; I'd noted with dismay that the official uniform of established herpetologists remained cargo shorts, Hawaiian shirt, white tube socks and running shoes that had never been run in.

This same style had been adopted by young ichthyologists, though their button-up shirts tended toward Escher-esque prints of interlocking fish and they were more inclined to sandals — as if in any instant they might need to step into water. T-shirts from past joint meetings were also legion, the logo always an ectotherm gumbo featuring several or all of frog, salamander, lizard, snake, turtle, crocodilian, fish and shark, ensuring you couldn't be sure of the wearer's affiliation. But I had a way to tell them apart: whether from habit or the courtesy of experience, herpetologists reflexively wiped their hand on their pants before shaking yours. In either case, hairstyle never changed: if you'd had a long pony tail, or massive beard in the '80s, you still did, only they were now bone white. Imagine a troop of aged ZZ Top clones dressed as boy-scouts and you get the picture.

Beyond dress details, New Orleans could have been any other conference/convention as folks chatted around cookies and java urns. Until you realized these conversations didn't concern sales projections, office politics, or the previous night's baseball game. Instead, they were about how so-and-so's wife was doing since losing half a calf muscle to a black-tailed rattlesnake bite. Or how much money the U.S. Army was doling out to fund gopher tortoise research on their bombing ranges. Or how a tiny fungus no one had heard of a decade before was poised to wipe half the world's amphibians from the face of the Earth. I remember thinking at the time: Toto, we're not in Whistler anymore.

Nothing has changed on the schadenfreude front in Chattanooga, but then nothing has changed on the serious front either, which more than makes up for my tacit association with the former. I'm heartened to find the reductionist studies as arcane as ever, the meta-analyses more sweeping than can be imagined, the graduate students as requisitely earnest and their scientist mentors more dedicated than ever — with more tractable problems to confront than the silly taxonomic, distributional and physiological issues we'd once mucked with. While we fret and politicians bleat, these are the people in the trenches confronting mindless development and rampant habitat loss, continental-level pesticide contamination, a raft of new emergent diseases, and a tsunami of invasive species in every quarter. And while this adds up to an extinction wildfire propelled by the growing accelerant of climate change, they're out there doing something about each and every aspect despite precipitous declines in funding and a prevailing anti-science sentiment.

Another reason I like these meetings: if we get through this extinction event with any ecosystem intact, it's folks like this we'll have to thank. Which puts in context something a grad student friend observed of a further humorous class divide at her first joint meeting: "Even the reptile people are different than the amphibian people. They're a whole other level of weird."

Maybe so, but in this strange milieu, it also makes them a whole other level of hero.

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