DWR Environmental Scientist Veronica Wunderlich Discusses Her Work with Reptiles and Amphibians


Veronica Wunderlich, DWR senior environmental scientist, with turtle

DWR senior environmental scientist Veronica Wunderlich. Courtesy photo

Veronica Wunderlich is a Department of Water Resources (DWR) senior environmental scientist with a focus in herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians.

Veronica recently spoke on DWR’s Water Wednesdays live educational series –view her talk on DWR’s YouTube channel. DWR will also replay her talk on July 22.

Below, Veronica discusses how she got started in herpetology –she even had snakes as pets as a kid, her current work, and how to translate a passion and interest in wildlife into a career – “If you really love the creatures you work with, you will never regret working with them.”

What is your education background? How has your education prepared you for your work in herpetology?

I have a B.S. in Zoology from San Francisco State University and a M.S. in Zoology, also from San Francisco State with an emphasis in physiology and behavior. While I did not focus specifically on herpetology in school, I did gain the needed skills to understand how to design and implement experiments, understand and evaluate scientific papers, and work with wildlife in both the lab and field settings.

What influenced you to work in the field of herpetology?

Professionally, my work with wildlife began at the Oakland Zoo, where I started as a volunteer and was eventually hired for a temporary animal keeper position.

I have always enjoyed reptiles and amphibians, even keeping snakes and turtles as pets as a kid. I really fell in love with them when I worked with giant garter snakes for the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. One of the biggest attractions to working with herps is the complexity and variety of life histories. The range of environments that they live in and the amazing adaptations that they have developed to live in those environments means that herpetology never ever gets boring. And they are really cute!

Describe the day-to-day responsibilities of a herpetologist with DWR.

My job involves a good mix of office work, evaluating projects for their effects on species, writing documents, keeping up on the latest scientific literature, and helping with herp issues in any way I can. When I am in the field, I conduct a variety of surveys for species and their habitats.

What species do you primarily work with in the Delta?

The main species I work with in the Delta are the Western pond turtle, giant garter snake, California red-legged frog, and California tiger salamander.

How is DWR contributing to the conservation of herp habitat in the Delta?

DWR’s Division of Environmental Services works to ensure that species are properly protected whenever we do a project. This can be very challenging but is always worth the effort.

DWR contributes to conservation directly through its work with restoration projects, such as the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project, which provides restored habitat for a wide variety of species, including Western pond turtle.

The Department also gives grants for projects that often benefit multiple species, through programs such as the Urban Streams Restoration Program.

How do herp species contribute to the Delta ecosystem?

Herps, like all animals, are an important part of the ecosystem. They are both predators and prey. As predators, they help keep populations of algae and plants, insects, rodents, and other small creatures under control – many of which can be pests.

As prey, they contribute to the survival of other species, such as birds of prey, mammals, fish, and even other herps. Even their poop is important, as it adds to the organic compounds in soil and water that allow invertebrates and plants to grow and thrive. Also, their burrowing helps aerate the soils and contributes to the health of the ecosystem. Everything in an ecosystem is interconnected, which means the loss of any native creature in an ecosystem can lead to consequences that are not always obvious on the surface.

What are some things students should know before entering the field of herpetology?

Herpetology, like many field focused studies, means working in all kinds of conditions – from cold to hot, and often strange hours like nighttime surveys for nocturnal creatures.

It means being dirty, smelly, and getting pooped or urinated on -- and sometimes even bitten. It is also one of the most satisfying, enjoyable careers you will ever embark upon. Days that seem miserable often make for the best stories as time goes by. You may see far flung places you never dreamed of, or discover far more interesting things about your own backyard than you ever dreamt possible.

You will form deep friendships with others that share your passion and will never be bored or stop learning, because there is always something new to discover. And if you really love the creatures you work with, you will never regret working with them.

What advice do you have for current college students in your field, or to younger students who have an interest in herpetology?

If you are interested in herpetology, get curious, get out there, and observe! Look for herps when you are out hiking, walking, or even in your own backyard.

Write down what you observe, take pictures, take the time to watch how reptiles and amphibians behave and learn by observing them. You can do this when they are out and about and when you can’t find them.

Also, read about herps, find and join groups dedicated to their study, attend talks and lectures, and volunteer to help out with field work. Reach out to people in the field of herpetology. Generally, they are excited to share what they know with you. There are websites that are a wealth of information such as www.californiaherps.com; field guidebooks are also an invaluable resource.

And if it takes a while to get to a career in herpetology or things don’t go quite as planned, don’t give up. Life is not a straight line.