CORVALLIS - The first hint that you've arrived at a unique environment is the frog-motif doorbell button.

As you step gingerly into the house, you can't spot any critters slithering or hopping underfoot. Yet a colorful chameleon - or at least a glossy photo of one - boldly displays itself on one wall, and an "is-it-real-or-plastic?" lizard is climbing up a window.

As you crowd with the other humans towards the "watering hole," finding it to contain drinks and snacks, you may think this is a common social get-together, until you catch bits of conversations, such as "... muscle contractions in a rattlesnake's tail , as model to study heart fibrillations..."

That's when you realize you really have entered Herp Night, in its own protected habitat in the residential hills of Corvallis.

Lynne Houck, an associate professor of zoology, and Stevan Arnold, professor and chair of the OSU Department of Zoology, are the founders and hosts of this informal herpetology seminar. Close to the full moon each month, they put out signals to aficio nados of amphibians and reptiles.

Attracted are a diversity of the human species - faculty, graduate students, and occasional undergrads from various OSU departments, as well as U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management professionals, hobbyists, and others. Students and faculty from the University of Oregon appear. Fisheries and wildlife folks migrate from wilderness are as around the state.

The most honored attendant is known as "Doc." Robert Storm specialized in the hybridization of frogs as an OSU zoology professor, until his retirement in 1984. "The young people have all the up-to-date techniques," he says. "I like to listen."

Two regular attendants raise reptiles. Brad Tylman and Kate Hemlock of Brad's World Reptiles create educational exhibits, presenting them at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and traveling widely with them.

"It's a mixture of casual mingling and academic sharing," said Houck. "We always schedule a few short presentations. Sometimes a student uses this chance to practice for a job interview. It helps us keep abreast of what each other is doing, and broad en our awareness. People share ideas, like, 'Have you heard about this technique?'"

"There's nothing like it," Arnold added. "One great thing is that it's a way for students to get to know faculty outside of their offices."

After a lively half hour of on- and off-track chit-chat, the population of up to 35 people settles in one room, wall-to-wall onto couch, chairs and floor cushions. A huge image of some amphibian or reptile is projected onto a wall, and the first presen ter of the night begins to share highlights of his or her research.

One Herp Night this spring took advantage of the convergence of experts at the university for meetings about survey and management. Charlie Crisafulli, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, began with a slide presentation of his ongoing stu dies of the devastation and recovery at Mount St. Helens in Washington.

For 18 years, he and colleagues have tracked the response of not only salamanders, but also other vertebrates as well as their habitats, to the catastrophic volcanic eruption. Showing graphics about the active volcanic history of the area, he emphasize d the uniqueness of the opportunity to study the aftermath of such a disturbance "in our lifetime, in our own backyard." His photos over time of a few of the same sites demonstrated amazingly rapid recovery.

Then Larry Jones of the Olympic Washington Forest Service shared views of the salamander Plethodon vandykei in the Cascade Mountains as an indicator species. Jones' most emphatic message was: "salamanders rule!"

Next, Rich Nauman discussed his survey information on terrestrial salamander populations in Oregon and Washington. Considering himself a liaison between agencies and the land, he compiles data to help determine what human activities should be permitted at a known site of a species, and how much of an area around a site must be protected. He has a long-term vision for amphibian protection.

Last, Deanna Olson of the U.S. Forest Service and Forest Science Laboratory gave an overview of the management plans for five species of terrestrial salamanders. She talked about the need to update plans for protected species, and how new management i deas for Oregon may lead to the protection of fewer, but larger, areas.

The presentations are laden with technical references, yet are also peppered with teasing, jokes about dealing with government agencies, and a few insider anecdotes about the perils of field research.

The local seminar began in the summer of 1997, when Houck and Arnold arrived at OSU from the University of Chicago. Houck says the model was a weekly seminar led by her major professor when she was in grad school at the University of California at Berk eley.

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Lynn Houck, 541-737-4353