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Field Museum’s snake expert is tickled pink about new job

Sara Ruane, 39, is the museum’s new assistant curator of herpetology.

Sara Ruane, the Field Museum’s new assistant curator of herpetology, in a lab in the museum’s sub-basement.
Sara Ruane, the Field Museum’s new assistant curator of herpetology, in a lab in the museum’s sub-basement.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The elevator sinks below the ground floor, the control panel displaying its descent as it reaches the basement and keeps going.

The doors open onto a corridor that looks like part of a 1950s nuclear fallout shelter. Then, through a set of double doors into a vast, windowless chamber with thousands upon thousands of sealed glass jars, each filled with a urine-yellow liquid and creatures, many of which have been dead for a very long time.

An idle mind might imagine the twitch of a tail or a milky eye snapping open inside one of the jars, just before all of the lights go out.

Jars of snakes line the shelves in the basement of the Field Museum on Dec. 2, 2021.
Jars of snakes line the shelves in the basement of the Field Museum.

Thankfully, the afternoon’s guide through the “wet collection” is Sara Ruane, the Field Museum’s new assistant curator of herpetology, aka, its snake expert. She’s no fusty academic, mumbling terms incomprehensible to all but her peers.

Ruane, 39, has traveled much of the globe in search of snakes and is blessed with an ability to entrance her audience like, well, a snake charmer.

“It is definitely a ‘Night At the Museum’ of relics sort of vibe at times,” she says.

She’s in charge of about 300,000 specimens of reptiles and amphibians.

“There are actually probably more than that,” she says. “Not all of them are cataloged. Part of my job is to bring in more.

The tour winds past colossal jars packed with tangles of slithery creatures: mambas, cobras, milk snakes.

“And did you know that the name ‘milk snake’ comes from an old myth that these snakes were found around farmers’ barns because they would sneak in to suck the milk out of a cow’s teats?” she says. “It’s not true. Snakes don’t really have a sucking apparatus. They don’t have lips.”

Sara Ruane, assistant curator of herpetology at The Field Museum, holds the dead holotype of an Iranian spider-tailed viper that has a bulbous tail that resembles a spider to trap prey during a media tour at the Field Museum, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 2, 2021.
Sara Ruane, assistant curator of herpetology at the Field Museum, shows off the tail of an Iranian spider-tailed viper.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In the nearby underground lab, Ruane twists off the lid to one of the jars. A nose-twitching odor fills the air: ethanol, the solution used to preserve and store specimens. She dips her fingers into the liquid and pulls out a small, earth-brown snake. Ruane points to the odd, feathery thing at the tip of the snake’s tail — at one time believed to be an abnormal growth.

In nature, the snake, native to Iran, lies in wait, blending perfectly into the arid, rocky landscape. The feathery thing begins to twitch, looking exactly like a spider. A bird swoops in — and the spider-tailed viper has its dinner.

“It is very, very, very effective,” Ruane says.

Sara Ruane, assistant curator of herpetology at the Field Museum, holds the dead holotype of an Iranian spider-tailed viper that has a bulbous tail that resembles a spider to trap prey during a media tour at The Field Museum, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 2, 2021.
Sara Ruane, assistant curator of herpetology at the Field Museum, holds an Iranian spider-tailed viper.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Speaking of biting, Ruane says she’s felt a snake’s teeth a “gazillion” times, though never the venomous kind. It’s the price you pay, she says, for grabbing snakes that would rather be left alone — in places as far-flung as Panama and Madagascar. She keeps a pet ball python at home, a snake she received when she was 11. His name is Coolio, after the 1990s hip-hop star.

“Over the years, I’ve been a little bit disenfranchised by Coolio. So I’m not saying it loud and proud. To be fair, the snake doesn’t answer when I talk to him,” she says.

She feeds the snake rats, which she keeps in her freezer at her home in Downers Grove.

Ruane grew up in Pennsylvania. On Sundays after church, she’d go on walks with her grandparents. Her grandmother was an amateur naturalist who encouraged Ruane’s love of collecting bugs and “creepy crawlies.” One day, Ruane found an infant milk snake in a cemetery.

“That was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. ... A milk snake is what I ended up working on for my PhD. So it was sort of like a foreshadowing of things to come for me,” she says.

After the lab visit, it’s up to Ruane’s office on the museum’s third floor. One wall is lined with, as you might expect, scholarly volumes about snakes, organized by geographical region. Less expected: a hot-pink velvet chair, a pink mini-fridge, even a pink-handled snake “hook.”

“A big part of my love of the color pink is that although I work in a field that is dominated in many ways still by men, I consider myself pretty ultra-feminine in my style, in the kinds of things I like outside of work,” Ruane says. “Pink is by far my favorite color.”

She’s wearing silver loafers with heels. A tattoo of a scarlet kingsnake coils around her left ankle.

Sara Ruane, assistant curator of herpetology at the Field Museum, holds a snake hook while showing off her tattoo in her office at The Field Museum, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 2, 2021.
Sara Ruane, assistant curator of herpetology at the Field Museum, shows off her tattoo of a kingsnake.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ruane says she’s encountered some sexism in her field — though not to her face. Five years ago, someone posted on an amateur herpetology website something “very slanderous” and “very sexist” about her, Ruane says.

Did she respond?

“It’s not worth my time,” she says.

Perhaps her detractors haven’t seen Ruane wrangle a snake — a really big one. In 2019, she was on a snake-hunting trip in Belize. She traveled there with a team of herpetologists and some bat biologists, who caught dozens of bats simply by throwing up a net. The bat scientists were unimpressed that Ruane and her team had managed to catch so few specimens — that was until they brought back a 9-foot-long tiger rat snake.

“I jumped into the grass and grabbed it. … The snake is trying to bite me in the face,” said the 5-foot-3, 120-pound Ruane.

When Ruane returned to camp, one of her colleagues opened a pillowcase and released the reptile.

“This snake comes flying out, and everyone starts screaming and jumping on the tables. It was awesome.”