A black and yellow snake slithering through the woods.
Herpetology on Site: How the Study of Reptiles & Amphibians Is Helping Clients Navigate Environmental Regulations & Permitting

Herpetology on Site: How the Study of Reptiles & Amphibians Is Helping Clients Navigate Environmental Regulations & Permitting

For those unfamiliar with herpetology, David Cooper specializes in the study of reptilian and amphibian species. It’s an interest he’s had since a very young age, and something he is passionate about even outside of work hours. His knowledge is helpful during stream and wetland delineations, protected species assessments and inventories, habitat assessments, and associated environmental documentation for numerous project types. He is also currently serving as the Secretary for the North Carolina Herpetological Society, as well as the Steering Committee Chair for North Carolina Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and has been an active member of the local herpetological community since the 1980s. Read on to discover more about David’s unique skillset, how it relates to the civil engineering industry, and why it’s important for architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) clients and their projects.

Collage of David Cooper safely holding and examining snakes
Left: David safely examines a Timber Rattlesnake through a clear snake tube. Right: David with an Eastern Hellbender during a research study on the New River in North Carolina. Photo Credits: Henry Wood, Ed Corey.

From a very young age, I’ve had a strong interest in the natural world. My interest in nature, and specifically amphibians and reptiles, was fostered by my parents, who were both biologists and educators. Growing up in a house with a pair of spelunking crustacean biologists had a huge influence on my path toward becoming a scientist myself. Dad was primarily a crayfish taxonomist who discovered, described, and researched many species, including some cave-dwelling creatures, but also published numerous papers on herpetology. Mom was primarily a scientific educator who had also published several research papers. We don’t have caves where I grew up in central North Carolina, so my interest included backyard frogs, toads, turtles, snakes, salamanders—you get the picture, and our house became a bit of a zoo. I spent five years of my youth in the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Junior Curator program, during which my interest in keeping the creepy crawly critters from the backyard developed into a stronger desire to learn about them and their natural history. During the pursuit of my Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology at NC State University, I was lucky enough to land a temporary job as a research technician and educator at the museum, and after graduating I lucked into a full-time curator role there. In the seven years I spent as a curator at the museum, I traveled the state, documenting insects, fish, crayfish, mussels, and of course amphibians and reptiles. I also became a mentor and educator for the Junior Curator program, a rewarding experience.

My day is often spent outdoors in a variety of settings, working through a multitude of weather conditions, eating lunch on the go, and interacting with reptiles, birds, rodents, and bugs.

In 2007, I first began working for an environmental consultant, an opportunity that came along due to my ability to find and identify certain crayfish and amphibian species. At that time, development and the housing market was booming. There was a huge demand for wetland delineations and protected species surveys as part of the due diligence process. A year later, the 2008 economic downturn began. The firm where I worked downsized significantly, losing many of the staff with specific skill sets, so I had to diversify my own skills in turn. At this point, I was able to learn GIS, AutoCAD/Civil3D, and other tools and programs that help me in my environmental inventory and compliance work today.

My Not-So-Typical Typical Workday

Snakes, alligators, lizards, and other reptiles may not be what you typically think of when you think about the AEC industry, but environmental scientists play a big role in supporting clients and their projects during the due diligence and permitting phase. Whether the project is for future public transportation, a private development, or a municipal government building or facility, there are environmental regulations in place that require us to investigate project sites for protected resources, and we are often some of the first members of the design team to visit a project site. Our goal is to aid our clients with their project goals by providing regulatory compliance.

Collage of David Cooper administering an antibiotic and holding snakes
Left: Administering an antibiotic to a Timber Rattlesnake as part of a radio telemetry project. Right: An Eastern Kingsnake in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Photo credits: Henry Wood, Patrice O’Connell.

The bulk of my work involves identifying and documenting aquatic resources in support of the environmental permitting for a future development project of some type, but I have also had opportunities to use my amphibian and reptile survey and identification skills as part of a larger team of scientists conducting biotic inventories. A biotic inventory is a large-scale survey for a particular type or types of plant or animal. During a biotic inventory, we tailor our survey techniques to those most likely to find the species we are searching for. For amphibian and reptile surveys, as well as bird and other surveys, we often walk along a series of parallel transects, which we follow using a handheld GPS and/or a phone or tablet showing the predetermined transects. Other, more in-depth survey techniques for amphibians and reptiles include using baited live traps for aquatic species, installing drift fence arrays with either pitfall or camera traps, and deploying sound recording devices to document calling frogs and toads. These types of specialized surveys are sometimes requested by land managers who need to know what habitats and species occur on their properties.

Regardless of the type of survey I am conducting, whether it is a standard due diligence natural resources investigation or a full biotic inventory, my day is often spent outdoors in a variety of settings, working through a multitude of weather conditions, eating lunch on the go, and interacting with reptiles, birds, rodents, and bugs. I typically pack a lunch, leave around 7:30 a.m. and spend my day bushwhacking through some of the thickest, toughest vegetation you can imagine. It’s a physically demanding job, and it takes someone who is willing to get a little dirty.

A collage of A Gopher Tortoise in Florida, A red Salamander in North Carolina and A Southeastern Five-lined Skink in Florida.
From Left: Gopher Tortoise, Florida; Red Salamander, North Carolina; Southeastern Five-lined Skink, Florida.

Snakes and Reptiles…at Home

Due to my proficiency in working with reptiles, and especially snakes, I sometimes receive requests from the animal service units of local police departments and wildlife organizations who need help handling or housing escaped or confiscated reptiles. I often end up caring for them long-term since they’re either not native or have no locality data and can’t be released into the wild. Sometimes I even have to keep them for pending court cases. In most situations, I am the last opportunity for survival for these animals. I don’t consider them to be pets, by any means. I use many of them as educational specimens. To keep them, I do have the appropriate permits and comply with the laws for owning them. Keeping animals such as snakes is a long-term commitment. Snakes can live more than 30 years in captivity, and although they only eat a meal every two weeks or so, they still require food, water, shelter, and veterinary care.

A collage of A Big Bend patch-nosed Snake in Texas, An Eastern Coral Snake in Florida and A Southern Copperhead in North Carolina.
From Left: Big Bend patch-nosed Snake, Texas; Eastern Coral Snake, Florida; Southern Copperhead, North Carolina.

Wetland delineations and stream identification, federally protected plant surveys, and biotic inventories are just one small part of what VHB’s environmental scientists do in the field for our clients. In addition, we provide natural resource assessment and analysis, environmental planning, archaeology, NEPA documentation and analysis, sustainability/resiliency planning, climate adaption planning, wildlife surveys, and endangered species assessments. Our environmental group works on a variety of projects for energy, federal, transportation, industrial, commercial/institutional, and residential developments that emphasize resiliency and sustainability as we face the future dilemmas of sea level rise and climate change. We continue to be a resource for helping our clients with environmental concerns plan long-term for disaster management, population growth, and infrastructure improvements.

Learn more about VHB’s environmental services or reach out to me with questions through email.

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