STATESBORO — Lance McBrayer’s job description requires him to spend part of his day surrounded by thousands of dead snakes, lizards and frogs.
Such a working environment may seem like a nightmare for most people, but for a biologist who has devoted his career to studying these kinds of animals, it’s a dream job.
McBrayer is the curator of the scientifically renowned herpetology collection at Georgia Southern University.
Herpetology is the branch of zoology that deals with amphibians and reptiles, and the collection managed by McBrayer includes approximately 38,000 specimens that were gathered over the course of four decades.
Some 160 different species are part of the collection, which is the second-largest such menagerie in all of Georgia. A few of the specimens came from other parts of the country, but the overwhelming majority of them are native to this state.
In fact, approximately 95 percent of the herpetological species that live in Georgia are represented in the collection.
“The collection gives us a record of what herpetological diversity was like in this region over the last 40 years,” said McBrayer, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Georgia Southern. “We can look at how species’ distributions have changed over that time, and how development has affected the distribution of different species.”
Georgia is one of the best places in the entire U.S. for herpetological research. According to McBrayer, when it comes to number of species, only a few states like Florida and Texas rival Georgia in the total number of amphibian and reptile species.
“Georgia is located in kind of a transition zone, so we have ‘herps’ from several different regions,” McBrayer said.
The state’s remarkable diversity was recognized by Gerald Williamson and Robert Mullis, the two southeast Georgia men whose labor of love resulted in the herpetology collection that now resides at Georgia Southern.
Williamson and Mullis started the collection around 1960. For the next four decades, they spent untold hours walking through countless acres of forests, fields and yards, searching for salamanders and turtles as well as snakes, lizards and frogs. They focused most of their time and effort on the area that ranges from the Low Country of South Carolina, to the Fort Stewart military reservation, to the Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia-Florida border.
The Williamson and Mullis collection eventually became a part of the Savannah Science Museum. Numbering approximately 36,000 specimens, the collection was transferred to Georgia Southern when the museum closed its doors in 1999.
Since then, Williamson has donated about 2,000 additional specimens from the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center to the University.
“The real benefit to Georgia Southern is that, for the most part, this is a Coastal Plain collection,” McBrayer said.
“Since we’re located in the Coastal Plain, I think it’s appropriate that the collection is here, too. We are very fortunate to have it.”