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Story of a Latina "Croc Hunter"

How a girl from the suburbs of LA came to be an expert in crocodilian parasites

By Marisa Tellez
Published on LatinoLA: November 14, 2011


Story of a Latina "Croc Hunter"


"If a woman loves a crocodile, she takes on its character." Independence, strength, and intelligence may be some of the characteristics that this ancient Egyptian proverb is referring to, and qualities that have shaped my character since I was a young girl.

At an age when most girls were playing with dolls, I was developing my knowledge of the world's top predators.

Not a day went by that I wasn't imaging my future career as a leading apex predator scientist, broadening the world's knowledge and respect for these magnificent creatures. After years of self-education on the world's predators, I developed a great passion for understanding the scientific and evolutionary background of one of the oldest lineages of predators on our planet- the crocodile.

I came to realize that scientific research and teaching were paramount in furthering the field of crocodilian biology, as well as providing the knowledge needed to aid in the conservation of the eighteen out of twenty-three endangered species.

You must be wondering where I am from. I am actually from the suburbs of LA. I guess you can say I was a "swamp/jungle girl" trapped in a city girl's life. I loved animals - always had! I always loved getting out of the city and enjoying nature and getting dirty. And I guess you can say I haven't changed one bit.

I've traveled to Belize, Mexico, Southern United States and the Amazon in pursuit of getting my hands on alligators or crocodiles to study their parasites. Yes, parasites! Throughout my collegiate career, it was my parasitology course that had the greatest impact.

The world of parasites fascinated me and I developed a curiosity for understanding the parasites' highly-developed technique of manipulating their hosts' immune system for their own reproductive success. By applying knowledge from my parasitology and other biology courses, I began to question the evolutionary life-history of crocodilians, and the possible role parasites had in influencing this taxon's evolution.

I wondered if the antagonizing co-evolutionary race between parasites and crocodiles over millions of years contributed to the hosts' potent immune system. And if so, could this knowledge be utilized in medical sciences to determine how to neutralize or eradicate virulent human parasitic diseases?

Furthermore, I pondered the idea of a unique interaction between crocodilians and parasites that has allowed the host to adapt to changing environments over evolutionary time. However, I've come to realize that the rapid human-induced alterations in the environment are possibly disrupting the delicate balance between host-parasite systems, creating a even more difficult challenge challenges for the conservation of species.

The type of impact humans can make on an environment became clear when I was in Belize. While volunteering at a crocodile sanctuary for four months, I encountered the negative alterations urban development is having on the ecosystem. I witnessed deforestation, poaching, and pollution due to mis-management and lack of environmental concern.

I made an effort to integrate myself into the Belizean community, learning their customs and way of life to better understand how to communicate the importance of species diversity for a healthy ecosystem, and how ecological negligence could devastate their way of living. It was difficult to introduce concepts of preservation when much of the community was concerned about its own daily struggle to survive, in addition to dealing with chauvinistic views for the first time.

Every day was a constant battle to illustrate my role as a female scientist, especially since I was studying an "un-feminine" animal. However, I overcame such struggles and performed presentations at local villages, schools, radio and TV shows, discussing the importance of preservation, and providing facts of the crocodiles' significance in the ecosystem.

Undoubtedly, the opportunities I experienced in Belize facilitated confidence in catching crocodiles and communicating with others. Communication is vital in catching crocodiles, as false or weary communication could lead to injury, as I learned. Due to a mis-signal in rescuing an abused 5-foot crocodile, I realized in two seconds my hand was badly bitten. After weeks tending to my hand, the biologists and I reassessed the capture to understand what went wrong to prevent another injury.

Once I was physically ready, we successfully and safely rescued another crocodile. My scar has not only become a symbolic mark of the joint effort and focus one needs in dealing with crocodiles, but also the inner-strength and intellect one needs to accomplish challenging tasks.

So where am I now? Well, I'm still working with crocodilians and parasites. Currently, I am at UCLA to obtain my PhD in biology studying parasitism in the American Alligator in Louisiana. I have been going to Louisiana for the last couple of years to look at how environmental and anthropogenic impacts are altering the parasite- alligator relationship as an alteration can be detrimental to the health of the ecosystem.

Not to mention to the people: Alligators are one of the leading incomes for the people of Louisiana, an already poor state.

I love working with crocodilians! Honestly, it doesn't feel like work at all - I actually haven't "worked a day in my life" since having the opportunity studying them.

So why am I doing what I am doing?

Yes, I want to contribute to the conservation of crocodilians and contribute greatly to science. But I also strive to do my best to be a role model for younger generations. I believe that my position as a young, Hispanic woman scientist is important as a role model for low-income and minority youth illustrating that achieving success in higher education is possible.

I have participated and plan to continue school presentations, promoting the importance of continuing one's education, as well as the preservation and conservation of our world's ecosystems. Sometimes I think I strive to be the best in my field not for my own personal gratitude, but to inspire and give hope to youth that as long as they work hard that they can accomplish anything!

For anyone interested in funding my crocodilian research, I am part of the SciFund Challenge which ends December 15th to help raise funds for individual researchers. Even $1 can go a long way for my research!

Please go to http://rockethub.com/projects/3823-mysteries-of-a-prehistoric-affair

About Marisa Tellez:
PhD Candidate at UCLA studying parasitism in crocodilians
Author's website
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