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Richard King: ‘The godfather’

April 5, 2011
Richard King

Richard King

At times, Richard King’s research methods can be painstaking — and outright painful.

Known as the godfather of the Lake Erie Water Snake, King has captured and studied thousands of the bad-tempered, foul-smelling serpents. As a measure of their gratitude, the very creatures that King has championed frequently sink their tiny sharp teeth into him.

A 21-year veteran professor in NIU’s Department of Biological Sciences, King is an expert on reptiles and amphibians, and more broadly on evolution, ecology and conservation biology. The Lake Erie Water Snake, found only in a cluster of islands in western Lake Erie, is among his greatest triumphs.

King first identified snake-population declines in the 1980s, and his work eventually led to the snake being listed as a “threatened species.” He and his students then helped develop and implement a recovery plan.

The effort was so successful that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service honored King and his Ph.D. student, Kristin Stanford, with the 2010 Recovery Champion Award. The agency is now proposing to remove the snake’s threatened-species status — a remarkable achievement considering that of 1,900 protected species, just 22 have been delisted following population recovery.

The story of the watersnake’s comeback has attracted widespread media coverage from the likes of NPR and Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” but it only begins to describe the breadth of King’s research.

Along with students and colleagues, he has published studies on the ecology and conservation of spotted salamanders, woodfrogs, spring peepers and rattlesnake. King also has shed light on population ecology, the microevolution of color patterns in reptiles, new approaches to assess the effects of invasive species and new ways to reintroduce locally extinct species.

Marcio Martins, a biologist at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, calls King “an international reference in the areas of ecology, microevolution and conservation of amphibians and reptiles.”

Adds Steven Beaupre, professor of biological sciences at the University of Arkansas, “In Dr. King, you have an outstanding citizen and teacher who developed a world-class research operation. At a time when destruction of wetlands and invasive species has forced local extinctions and listing of many amphibians and reptiles, Dr. King’s research is extremely vital and timely.”

King has an impressive and highly cited publication record. He is a frequent invited speaker at scientific meetings and has served as a reviewer for 38 scientific journals and several funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation.

His work also has attracted more than $1.25 million in funding from NSF, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

“It is a tribute not only to his energy and resourcefulness, but also to the high esteem with which he is held in his field that he has been so successful in this endeavor,” says NIU Distinguished Research Professor Peter Meserve.

Interwoven throughout King’s work is a strong commitment to students. He helped develop new courses for the graduate program in biological sciences and also contributed to curriculum development for NIU’s new environmental studies program.

Additionally, King has directed 10 theses and dissertations, with five more in progress. His research projects have provided real-world experiences in cutting-edge conservation practices for dozens of students.

“Interest in conservation biology is high, but opportunities for training can be scarce,” King says. “Developing a strong conservation component in my work helped expand opportunities for highly qualified and motivated student researchers. My goal is to build on the success of these projects.”