STEM Tuesday — Reptiles — Interview with Author Sneed B. Collard III
Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing award-winning author Sneed B. Collard III, author of One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution. In its starred review, Kirkus declares the book a “fresh and accessible approach to an important scientific concept.”
Sneed B. Collard III: Being a reptile nut, I had been thinking about marine iguanas for a long time, and even devoted a section to them in my book Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, which has garnered a surprisingly large following over the years. When my family and I got to visit the Galápagos in 2016, seeing these unique animals instantly became one of the highlights of my life. Besides their incredible adaptations, the animals’ fascinating history intrigued me as a beautiful example of how new species arise from accidents and evolution, and I wanted to share that story with both children and adults. Coincidentally, a fairly recent scientific paper had used genetic markers to establish the timeline for when marine iguanas and Galápagos land iguanas split into different species, and I thought it would make a great story for young readers. I sat down to write the story and my editor at Tilbury snapped it up.
MKC: Care to share a favorite research experience?
Sneed: After reading about marine iguanas for so many years—and watching nature shows about them—just seeing these lizards dive into the ocean sent chills up my spine. Another thing that made a deep impression on me is that the Galápagos had recently come out of an El Niño year, in which warmer waters surround the islands and the lizards’ favorite marine algae dies back. This often leads to widespread starvation, and as we walked one island we found dozens of marine iguana skeletons littering the coastline. Since climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and severity of El Niño events, the skeletons were a sobering example of how urgent it is for we humans to cut our global CO2 emissions immediately.
The highlight of my visit down there, however, happened on our last day of snorkeling. My daughter, son, and I had just climbed back into a zodiac boat after swimming with sea turtles when another snorkeler shouted that a marine iguana was feeding underwater right next to him. I quickly pulled on my mask and snorkel and leaped back into the water. I swam over there just in time to see a large iguana grasping a rock about three feet below the surface, using its teeth to scrape algae off of the rock. It is a sight I will never forget!
marine (l.) and land (r.) iguanas
MKC: How would you describe the book’s approach?
Sneed: To me, evolution is one of the most remarkable stories on earth, and so for One Iguana, Two Iguanas, I just wanted to tell the story of how the marine iguana came to be. The recent genetic research made that fairly easy. I just imagined that first pregnant female lizard (scientists think it was a kind of ctenosaur lizard) somehow floating on a raft hundreds of miles when dozens—perhaps hundreds—before her had perished at sea. Somehow, though, she made it to the Galápagos, and turned a brand new species loose. After introducing the lizards, I just launched into the story of how the islands were created, how new life reached them, and then used our best understanding of evolution to recount how that new species established itself on the islands and eventually split into the two species of iguanas we have today. This approach allowed me both to use my best story-telling skills and slip in the science of it all at key moments. Sidebars and other excursions allowed me fill in the rest. It ended up being one of the favorite books I’ve ever written!
MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while drafting the book?
Sneed: Actually, both of my parents were on my mind while I was writing. Both were biologists who had unfortunately passed away before their time in the years before my visit to the islands. I knew how much they would have loved to visit the Galápagos, but they never did. I could almost feel them smiling over my shoulder as I worked on the story, though. Another huge inspiration was Dr. Jack Grove, a scientist, Galápagos guide, and former graduate student of my dad’s. Jack and I have developed a special friendship over the years and he has shared many Galápagos stories with me. I dedicated the book to him, and he actually provided a number of its outstanding photographs.
MKC: Do you choose to write about STEM books?
Sneed: When I write, I don’t think, “I am writing a STEM book.” STEAM and STEM, after all, are just artificial constructs that, I think, sometimes mask the fact that this is a really great book or this is an amazing story. I simply set out to write about things that interest me and that I think will help get other people excited about this incredible planet we live on. I don’t want only a science teacher to pick up my book. If I’ve done my job well, I want everyone to read it without partitioning their interests according to the academic categories we’ve been taught. I’ve worked with and mentored a lot of young people, and whenever I can I tell them, “Take an interest in everything. We only get one life. The more you learn, the more you will appreciate what a remarkable journey we are on.”
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