The Secor Laboratory of Evolutionary and Integrative Physiology

at the University of Alabama


Stephen Secor



Growing up in upstate NY


I grew up in Upstate New York, close to Syracuse and as a kid kept a small collection of fishes, amphibians, and reptiles that I caught in nearby woods and streams. When we moved to the "country" (Cazenovia), and started a small horse farm, my interests quickly shifted to horses and all through high school I rode, my family fox hunted, my dad played polo, and I competed in show jumping events in the northeast. With the expectations of becoming a horse veterinarian, I entered college as a biology major, first at Michigan State University for a year and then at Syracuse University for my sophomore year. I transferred to the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the start of my junior year, where I become increasingly more interested in the natural world, and less interested in the veterinarian path. Two classes that really sparked my interest were Animal Behavior (taught by a new faculty member at the time, William Shields) and Herpetology (taught by Maurice Alexander). Growing up on a farm I easily understood the various theories and concepts of animal behavior and the herpetology class rekindled my past interest in herps, especially snakes. These two classes lead me to explore graduate programs in snake behavior.



Headed west for graduate school


Prior to the days of computers, the internet, and Google, one had to search for a graduate program and major advisor by going to the library and scanning journal articles. Sitting in the stacks in the library and browsing through recent herpetology journals, I came across the work of Dr. Charles Carpenter on snake reproductive behavior at the University of Oklahoma. After we exchanged a few letters and I applied, I was accepted to OU's Department of Zoology graduate program, which prompted my family to pull out a map and reacquaint ourselves with the state of Oklahoma. So in mid August of 1981, my wife Diana and I (two weeks after our wedding) packed up a small moving van with mustang in tow and headed west to Oklahoma. After settling into our small apartment (with no air conditioning) and getting acquainted with fellow graduate students and faculty, Dr. Carpenter (Doc) bestowed me the honors of being the new snake guy, in charge of his snake colony. I was ecstatic, having in the past possessed a few gartersnakes, milksnakes, and a pair of ratsnakes, I now was caring for kingsnakes, bullsnakes, hognose snakes, copperheads, rattlesnakes, and assortment of other native and exotic snakes. And that was just for starters, it wasn't long before fellow graduate student, Jim Krupa, and I had converted the OU's Animal Behavior Laboratory into our own zoo, with the idea that if we caught it, we kept it (or ate it). Catching animals and keeping them was part of Doc's mentoring philosophy and belief that if you really want to know about an animal, then go out into the woods, field, or creek, sit down, and watch it. I attribute the training from Doc and my experiences at Oklahoma to why I will always consider myself as a naturalist. My Masters' thesis followed my initial interest in working with Doc and described the reproductive behavior of the speckled kingsnake. As this was a lab-study, my experiences in the field in Oklahoma lead me to pursue a field-base study for my doctorate.


After being accepted to UCLA Department of Biology to work with Dr. Laurie Vitt for my PhD, we once again packed up and headed west. Laure recommended that I study lizards for my dissertation (easier to find and larger sample sizes), but I stuck to my guns and convinced him that I could successfully work on snakes in the field. With a bit of luck and many hours in the field, I was able to develop a fascinating project comparing the activities and energetics of two sympatric species of snakes, the sit-and-wait foraging sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes) and the active foraging coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum). Using implanted transmitters and radio tracking, I monitored the activities, body temperatures, and feeding habits of these snakes. Joining forces with Dr. Ken Nagy in the department, I also used doubly-labeled water to calculate the daily energy expenditure of these snakes for two full years. In a nutshell, coachwhips ingest and expend three times the energy compared to the more sedentary sidewinders, but in the end they have the same net energy gain. My expectation that my career in science was going to be devoted to field studies of reptile energetics was soon to change.



Postdoc in Physiology, being reinvented


In June of 1990, I presented some of my dissertation work at a physiological ecology meeting held at the White Mountains Research Station in Bishop, California (the "Bishop Meetings"). Following my talk, a distinguished-looking gentleman, Dr. Jared Diamond, asked me a string of questions regarding what I knew about the digestion physiology of my snakes, and then of snakes in general. I replied that I knew nothing of their digestive physiology and little if anything was known. After the meeting, Jared invited me to his office in the Department of Physiology at UCLA's School of Medicine to chat about snake physiology. He asked whether it was possible that sidewinders might possess some adaptive traits of their gut given that they feed so infrequently in the wild (once every 40 days from my estimates). I replied that if any snake possesses an adaptive trait of their gut, it would be the sidewinder. He smiled, nodded, and asked if I would like to find out. Jared's lab (specifically Bill Karasov) had previously developed the technique to quantify brushborder nutrient transport rates by the intestine. That fall, Eric Stein (Jared's lab tech), and I applied this technique to the sidewinder and found that sidewinders significantly upregulate intestinal function with feeding and then downregulate function once digestion has completed. The work lead to a postdoc in Jared's lab and after I had finished in Biology in 1992, I moved back to the lab, this time as a budding physiologist.


A major glitch we soon encountered was that we would not be able to continue working on sidewinders in the School of Medicine. As a more attractable alternative, I found the Burmese python, also an infrequently feeding sit-and-wait forager, to likewise experience significant up and downregulation of intestinal performance with each meal. The python has the advantage of being nonvenomous, easy to obtain from captive breeding program, easy to maintain, and amendable to variety of diet and surgical treatments. We undertook a variety of different projects with the pythons and as well as worked with several other snakes, turtles, lizards, and frogs. During the time I was postdocing, Diana and I had two children, Everett (1992) and Danielle (1995), which prompted us to move from LA.



Life in the in the Deep South


After a wonderful interview at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and being offered the physiologist position, we moved in the December of 1998 from LA to Oxford Mississippi. With Diana and me driving a big rental truck towing our Tarus, Diana's brother Doug and sister Jane and our kids, Everett and Danielle, and my colony of pythons in Doug's minivan, we trek from Los Angeles to Oxford Mississippi to arrive on Dec. 23rd 1998 during an ice storm. Fortunately, we had a house next to campus, and with help from fellow faculty were able to unload and enjoy a Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas (with a tree). Oxford, Mississippi is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Los Angeles, 10,000 people compared to 10,000,000. It has big trees, it's moist, has some neat history, and is a wonderful place to raise kids. As the new physiologist in the department I started right off teaching Human Physiology to 160 students. Human physiology became my spring class and Anatomy and Physiology my fall class (only 120 students). It wasn't long before I had my research up and running with studies of gut physiology and metabolism on the pythons, marine toads, and diamondback water snakes.



Crossing the Border


One afternoon while working at my desk, I received a call from Dr. Gordon Ultsch at the University of Alabama asking me if I would be interested in a physiology position at UA. At first I was a little reluctant given that UA was just in the next state over, but after his persistent praise of UA and the department, I applied. When I interviewed I found a very active and productive department, and was fortunate to be offered the position. In August of 2001, we moved from Oxford to Tuscaloosa. While Tuscaloosa lacks the small-town feeling of Oxford, it's not overwhelming (~ 100,000 people) and possesses most of the amenities of a larger city. I always tell people that Tuscaloosa is a very easy place to live. The University of Alabama and the Department of Biological Sciences has constantly been growing and getting stronger since I've been here. My lab work continued without missing a beat in the move from Mississippi and continues to focus on the evolution of digestive responses among ectotherms and the regulation and capacities of gastrointestinal and cardiovascular performance. We still work with the Burmese python, marine toads, and diamondback watersnake, and literally any amphibian and reptile that we can get our hands on. In 2010, we initiated projects on the digestive physiology of fishes. Our kids have grown; in the fall of 2010 Everett stated at UA in the Honors College as a music major (he plays oboe) and Danielle started high school (she plays baritone).
















After trying to get my kids to wake early on Saturday mornings to bike with me, I was left to bike on my own and soon transitioned from an old mountain bike to road biking. I joined the Druid City Bike Club in November of 2007 and seldom miss a week without biking.