I Love Pennsylvania: Notes from the National Association of Science Writers Conference

I am so glad to be back in Pennsylvania.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, the folks at the University of Florida did a great job at hosting the National Association of Science Writers annual conference, which started last week. The University of Florida, which I toured, is doing some impressive research and I enjoyed touring the Florida Innovation Hub.

And the people of Florida are incredibly nice.

But, man, do they have critter problems. 

Professor of Wildlife, Frank Mazzotti,
Professor of Wildlife Frank Mazzotti and friend.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was attending “lunch with a scientist.” I picked to have a sandwich with Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor who specializes in alligators, crocodiles and, more recently, Burmese pythons. Why more recently? Well, Burmese pythons are one of the many invasive species that are threatening southern Florida, particularly the Everglades. But there are other invaders, according to Mazzotti, like puff adders and Nile Monitor Lizards.

So, now, Florida is starting to sound a little like Jurassic Park to me. I was shocked that T-Rex hadn’t made a comeback in the Sunshine State.

The researcher said that one of the problems was that these invasive species can threaten native species. For instance, Mazzotti explained a little too matter-of-factly, pythons may kill alligators.

Let me repeat that. The pythons may kill alligators. Now, all of the sudden, I’m not in Jurassic Park, I am in the middle of a Japanese monster movie.

There have also been instances when these invasive snakes have crawled into houses through laundry chutes and up toilets. Luckily, I finished my roast beef sandwich, or I would have most certainly lost my appetite.

People in Florida should feel fortunate that they have researchers like Mazzotti, however. He, among other researchers and animal control officials, are coming up with creative solutions to the problems of invasive species. Since most of these creatures are being brought in as pets and and then released by their owners, the state has introduced a pet amnesty program. You bring in your snake, or lizard, or killer flying vampire turtle, whatever, and the program finds a new home for it. They’re also hiring expert snake-catchers to find and capture some of the species causing the most harm.

Mazzotti, perhaps after years of watching slithering creatures trying to escape, noticed my discomfort at the conversation. Full-body shivers will get you noticed, after all. Once he found out where I was from — the surprisingly monster-free state of Pennsylvania — he asked if I knew what animal was responsible for the most deaths in the United States. I didn’t know, but I naturally assumed it was crawling under the floorboards of some Florida home.

But, I guessed: bears? sharks? texting Kardashians?


The deadliest creature statistically is the white-tailed deer.

I got the last word in though. I replied, “That may be so, but I’ve never heard of a deer crawl up a toilet.”

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