William Ryerson

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First step towards becoming a pirate...learn to sail

Contact Information

Office: BPB 412

Phone:(860) 486-4158

Mailing Address: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of Connecticut
75 N. Eagleville Road Unit 3043
Storrs, CT 06269


Ph.D University of Connecticut, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology May 2014.
Major Advisor: Kurt Schwenk
Dissertaton Title: Why Snakes Flick Their Tongues: A Fluid Dynamics Approach

M.S. University of South Florida, Integrative Biology, December 2008.
Thesis Advisor: Stephen Deban
Thesis Title: The Role of Abiotic And Biotic Factors In Suspension Feeding Mechanics Of Xenopus Tadpoles

B.S. University of Maine, Marine Science, May 2006

Research Interests

My research lies primarily in the fields of vertebrate morphology, physiology and biomechanics. I am interested in the form and function of animal movement, and how these principles change through ontgony and evolution. Generally, I focus my work on reptiles and amphibians, but I am open to potential work outside of these systems.

Photo by T. Landberg

Fluid Mechanics of Tongue Flicking in Snakes

Under the guidance of Kurt Schwenk, my dissertation is focused on the fluid mechanics of tongue flicking in snakes. Snakes are well known for their forked tongues, and it has been proposed that this mechanism allows for detection of a chemical gradient. Differing concentration of odor particles would provide individuals with the ability to determine the relative direction of the odor source. However, snakes sample the environment for these odor cues by rapidly extending and oscillating the tongue. This has the potential to obscure the odor source by inducing mixing of the air around the tongue. Enough turbulence will prevent the organism from determining directionality of the source. Using high imaging and visualization techniques, I aim to describe the movement of air around the tongue of snakes during the tongue flicking behavior, and determine if snakes possess the ability to discern direction. I also am investigating the potential effects of ecological, morphological, and behavioral factors that may modulate tongue flicking.

Jumping in Plethodontid Salamanders

Plethodontidae, the lungless salamanders, is well studied for the myriad of unique behaviors and morphologies. Aposematic coloration, toxic skin secretions, and ballistic tongue feeding are just some of the mechanisms under investigation around the world. My interest in this system is the ability of these salamanders to propel themselves into the air. Unlike most jumpers, plethodontid salamanders don't possess large hindlimbs suited for this task. Instead, it appears that these salamanders bend and rapidly straighten their torso, providing the momentum required for the jump. In addition to describing this behavior, I'm interested in seeing (using EMG) how the axial musculature powers this ability, as well the role the hind limbs do play in this matter.


May 2014 - EEB 3898 "Field Herpetology"
Spring 2014 - EEB 3894 "Current Research in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology"

Teaching Assistant
Fall 2013 - EEB 3254/5254 "Mammalogy"
Summer 2013 - BSC 1107 "Principles Biology I"
Spring 2013 - BSC 1102 "Foundations of Biology"
Fall 2012 - EEB 3273 "Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy"
Spring 2012 - BSC 1108 "Principles of Biology II"
Fall 2011 - BSC 1108 "Principles of Biology II"
Spring 2011 - BSC 1108 "Principles of Biology II"
Fall 2010 - EEB 3273 "Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy"
Spring 2010 - BSC 1108 "Principles of Biology II"
Fall 2009 - BSC 1108 "Principles of Biology II"


Spring 2009-Present: Reviewer, Journal of Experimental Zoology
Fall 2009-Spring 2012: Senator, Graduate Student Senate
Spring 2010-Present: Reviewer, Journal of Morphology
Fall 2010-Spring 2012: President, EEB Graduate Student Association
Fall 2011-Present: Reviewer, Journal of Comparative Psychology
Fall 2012-Present: Reviewer, Journal of Experimental Biology

Professional Affiliations

American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists
Sigma XI
Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles


Bold indicates undergraduate/mentee authors

Ryerson, WG, Hessel, A, and Whitenack, LB. pending revisions. Comparative jumping mechanics in plethodontid salamanders. J. Exp. Zool.
Ryerson, WG and Horwitz, S. 2014. Sidewinding in the green anaconda. Herp. Review. 45, 337-338. Pdficon small.gif
Ryerson, WG. 2013. Jumping in the salamander, Desmognathus ocoee. Copeia. 2013 (3), 512-516. Pdficon small.gif
Ryerson, WG and Schwenk, K. 2012. A simple, inexpensive system for digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV) in biomechanics. J. Exp. Zool. 317A, 127-140. (with cover) Pdficon small.gif

Cover of the February 2012 isssue of JEZ, highlighting Kurt's and my research

Ryerson, WG and Deban, SM. 2010. Buccal pumping mechanics of Xenopus laevis tadpoles: effects of biotic and abiotic factors. J. Exp. Biol. 213, 2444-2452.Pdficon small.gif