About Mark

Exploring the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia

Since my earliest childhood memories, I have been fascinated by other living things. It started with a cat, then a goldfish and two mice, and kept growing from there. Like many kids, I also grew up loving dinosaurs … a phase which I never outgrew. Born in Philadelphia, my parents moved me to Abington, PA, when I was six. That’s where I found a place that would shape my continued connection with nature, Baederwood Park–a 16 acre stretch of woodland on Tookany Creek where I spent many thousands of hours, either with friends or by myself. On days off, I also spent lots of time in Burholme Park in Philadelphia with my grandfather, where we’d collect aluminum cans and glass bottles to earn a few dollars that I could keep. He lived through The Great Depression, which was a challenging time for most people, so I guess this was his way of teaching me how to survive when the going gets tough. A side benefit was that it kept me active whenever I stayed at his home. We also went fishing quite often in what is now called the Tookany Creek Watershed, and I’ll never forget that time I caught an eel using hotdogs as bait.

In fourth grade, I was lucky enough to have a teacher (Mr. Dresher) who encouraged me to grow as a budding scientist. Though now retired, Mr. Dresher is still an amazing wildlife photographer to this day, and I attribute his encouragement to my eventual interest in becoming a science teacher.

Middle school, meh. High school the same. Not a lot of great memories from that time, although I did make some long-lasting friendships. We all had to hang together in the face of adversity, I suppose, and it doesn’t sound like high school has gotten much better since then.

I received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a certificate of advanced study in Spanish from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a small school situated in a natural setting, so it was a perfect fit for me. It’s also the place where I can say that I truly learned to write, although I have yet to track down the professor who taught me to actually reread and edit my work.

After graduating, I went to serve in the United States Peace Corps in Panama, where I helped teach farmers how to ranch iguanas, among other things. Whenever I find some of those old pictures, I’ll be sure to post them! That’s also where I met my wife, and we now have two kids.

Upon returning to the United States, I started working for Princeton Public Schools in Princeton, New Jersey. I’ve now been both a science teacher and a Spanish teacher for fifteen years running.

I’ve also been writing in my free time, and was fortunate to sign with a IMG_6633wonderful agent, Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency, in 2012. Last year, my first novel sold to Sky Pony Press, and Earning My Spots will be coming out in September.

Several more novels are in the works, as well as two nonfiction books, which will primarily be geared towards a school-age audience. As a teacher of children in kindergarten through fifth grade, I figure this is the age group that I probably know best. I’ve also got two novels for teenagers in the works, but need to make time to finish them. As a full-time teacher, parent, and concerned citizen of our global community, it isn’t always easy to find the time to sit down and write, especially with so many pets to keep after, many of them adopted and all of them needing proper care. This is especially true for the box turtles I have been studying, because they are a species in decline. When I was a kid, I remember catching box turtles in my suburban neighborhood, but now, they’re all gone.

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Babies from the box turtle brood I’ve been studying for the past five years. For more information, check out teacherturtles.com

Since 2013, I have been on the trail of jumping spiders in Central America, from Mexico down to Panama. I have been conducting this research under Dr. Robert Curry, who was one of the 10517499_10205134498269026_979785346543600183_n co-discoverers of the world’s first plant-eating spider, which has the scientific name Bagheera kiplingi in honor of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

In Panama, where I am pictured at right, I have found another species of jumping spider that behaves very similar to Bagheera kiplingi, although it isn’t closely related. Both of these spiders spend most of their time on thorny plants called ant-acacias that are patrolled by stinging ants. Yes, I have been stung too many times to count in my studies. This spider has the scientific name Frigga crocuta, and I find it very interesting that crocuta is also in the spotted hyena’s scientific name.

I have been to Mexico three times, Costa Rica once, and Panama three times to study Bagheera kiplingi and Frigga crocuta. Surprisingly, I first observed Frigga crocuta and its relationship with ant-acacia plants at a location that was about 30 miles from the place where I served in the Peace Corps. If only I’d paid more attention to the ant-plants while I was there!

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A young Frigga crocuta makes its way along the leaf of an ant-acacia plant near the town of Natá in Panama.

My interest in living things also includes plants, which are often neglected (but very deserving) of attention. At left, I am posing with a Venus flytrap, which is probably my all-time favorite DSC_0058plant, although I definitely have an appreciation for a wide variety of species, including pitcher plants, sundews, and (of course) ant-acacias.
Since buying a house in 2015, with a bit of land to work with, I am starting to garden for food, as well as establishing an area for native plants where my turtles might roam. Two exceptions to this “turtle garden” will be my leopard tortoises, named Leo and Josephine, which come from the grasslands central and southern Africa, so I will have to maintain some grass so that they can feel at home (during the summer months, at least).

In early 2016, as a winter storm was bearing down on us, a kindergartener brought a green anole lizard to Riverside Elementary School, which she had found in a salad. That story ended up catching on with local media, and it soon grew into a worldwide viral event. Now the media attention has died down, but Green Fruit loop is still doing fine (as you can see in the picture below).

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Looking great, Green Fruit Loop!