Chadron State College
Chadron State College

Professor's passion leads to discovery

February 15, 2008

Dr. Chris McAllister and a dead rattlesnake that he's preserved for research.
By Justin Haag, Communications Coordinator

When considering the size and location of a recent discovery by a Chadron State College professor, one can surmise why it’s been overlooked for so long.

Dr. Chris McAllister, CSC associate professor of biology and life-long herpetologist, has discovered a microscopic parasite that has not been recorded in any previous literature. The single-celled protozoan was found in the feces of a marbled salamander and is just 40 to 50 micrometers long. For comparison, a grain of salt is about 1,000 micrometers. The finding will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Parasitology.

McAllister said discoveries of species such as his are not uncommon, but are considered to be significant accomplishments.

“Since salamanders, in general, are rarely examined for this type of parasite, when you find one the possibility exists that it’s a new discovery that has never been reported,” he said.

McAllister said he’s had a fascination with reptiles and amphibians since he was a child growing up in Little Rock, Ark.

“I used to bring snakes home and my mom would freak out,” he said.

Since then, the attraction has led him to a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Through the years he has studied countless salamanders, toads, frogs, bats and millipedes.

A high point in his career occurred in September 2005 when he and students from Angelo State University made national news when they discovered a two-headed rattlesnake under a rock. The discovery remains prominent on Internet search engines.

“I know herpetologists who have been turning rocks and logs for longer than I have been, and have never made a discovery like that,” he said.

The low point came at his home in 1995 when he was bitten by a captive diamondback rattlesnake while cleaning its cage. He survived the bite with 27 vials of anti-venom from the Dallas Zoo. Despite the bite, McAllister had the snake released and remains a staunch advocate of keeping reptiles and amphibians in the ecosystem.

“It was my fault. The snake was just doing what comes natural to it,” he said. “

McAllister, who joined the CSC faculty in 2006, has found the relatively arid northwest Nebraska climate to contain many fewer reptiles and amphibians than the region near his hometown. Arkansas has more than 20 species of salamanders and Nebraska has just two, he said.

He said the majority of parasites that he finds are species-specific to their hosts and that most of them do no harm to animals or humans.

“It’s not to their advantage to kill the host, or even make them very ill,” he said. “And, they aren’t pathogenic to humans. I’m not going to, but I could lick my fingers after doing a necropsy and not worry about getting an infection.”

When making a discovery such as McAllister’s, scientists are given naming rights to the organism and it is common courtesy to name it after a colleague. McAllister, who has had two species named after him, said he is naming this species after a fellow herpetologist at Arkansas State.

“Not very many people want something that’s found in feces to be named after them, but it’s an honor because it is published in the refereed literature and it’s there forever,” he said.