Latina crocodile hunter explores reptiles' heritage and her own

The Croc Lady

Julie Platner/KPCC

Marisa Tellez is breaking new ground in the study of crocodilian immune systems and learning about her own heritage along the way.

When wrangling a crocodile, the key thing to remember is to keep your hands and arms away from those jaws.

Marisa Tellez learned that lesson the hard way. She is the world's only expert in crocodiles and their relationship to parasites that allow their immune system to work.

She once got too cocky and too close, said Tellez. The result was a gash in her hand, a healthy dose of concern from her parents and a newfound respect for the object of her studies.

From wrestling with crocodiles to capoeira training here in Los Angeles, the 30-year-old doctoral student at UCLA may seem like one tough character but she says that's not what's important to her.

"I'd rather impress people with my knowledge or my intelligence than my ability to handle an eight-foot gator," Tellez said.

Her Latina heritage has opened up new opportunities in her narrow field of study where men often dominate the conversation. Tellez often travels to Latin America to work with the more robust crocodilian populations there.

At the same time, her forays into crocodile hunting have allowed her to get closer to her Mexican heritage. She is learning Spanish while she wrestles with crocodiles.

Research into parasites and their crocodilian hosts has been ongoing since the early 19th century. But only recently have scientists begun to look into the complex dynamics between the two.

Crocodiles have one of the strongest innate immune systems on the planet, according to Tellez. Part of that system relies on crocodiles' relationship to parasites, a give-and-take that has developed over the course of 200 million years.

"We have so much that we can learn from this animal because in reality we are a very delicate species," Tellez said. "We are pretty new here on Earth compared to crocodilians."

Her work in Mexico has already led to the possible discovery of one new parasite species.

With contributions by Grant Slater

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