BYU professor recognized for study of reptiles

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    By PHILLIP STAHLE

    Whether he’s crawling through central Mexico looking for lizards or searching deep inside the jungles of Brazil for giant turtles, he feels right at home.

    For BYU zoology professor Jack Sites, speciation, DNA sequences and modern molecular techniques are his passion.

    “I love to be in the field, I feel like I’m getting paid for a hobby,” he says.

    As a herpetologist, Sites has chosen to center most of his work over the past twenty years mainly in Mexican mesquite lizards and giant Amazonian turtles.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science also has been following Dr. Sites’ work over the years. Recently, they have elected Sites as a Fellow with their organization. With 144,000 members, the 150-year-old body is the world’s largest federation of scientists. The Association also publishes the weekly journal magazine Science.

    His work with the mesquite lizards has been the most recognized, and is probably the reason for his appointment as a fellow, he said.

    “What you normally would find only replicated in a lab someplace, we did in northern Mexico,” Sites said.

    Sites and his team had discovered a 5-square-kilometer area in the dusty Mexican desert where two genetically different communities of mesquite lizards overlapped. By gathering specimens and looking for slight changes in their DNA, Sites could actually observe evolution and speciation as it was happening.

    “These are deep questions, questions that are investments in the future. By studying this community we can better understand speciation and evolutionary constraints,” Sites said.

    Sites’ department chairman, Richard Tolman, is optimistic about the honor and increased reputation Sites has brought to the zoology department.

    “Few scientists receive this recognition from AAAS; it is reserved for the best scientists whose work is truly outstanding. Sites’ work with mesquite lizards is recognized worldwide by herpetogists as cutting-edge research,” Tolman said.

    Sites hopes to involve his students in the work with the endangered Amazonian turtle. The 100-pound turtles are being slaughtered at an increasing rate for their meat and eggs, so the Brazilian government has enlisted Sites to study the turtles’ nesting and migration habits to determine how best to preserve the animal.

    Along with lizards and turtles, Sites has analyzed the venom of Brazilian coral snakes, documented the reproduction methods of reptiles atop Mexico’s volcanoes and explored the unique species of Australia’s Northern Territory.

    Sites received his doctorate in zoology from Texas A&M in 1980, then he did post-doctorate work there for two years before accepting his first teaching assignment at BYU. In addition to his work as a professor of zoology, he is also the curator of amphibians and reptiles at BYU’s Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum.

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