Unlocking Awe: How Amphibians and Reptiles Can Invoke Its Profound Benefits

What’s your physical reaction when you experience something that inspires wonder, like a beautiful species or an immense sweeping landscape?

Maybe you let out a little gasp. Your eyes get large as you smile or open your mouth slightly. Perhaps you get a shiver down your spine–or goosebumps.

In these moments, you’re feeling a sense of awe. Increasingly, we’re learning just how important that is for our well-being. Researchers have discovered a relationship between time spent experiencing awe and increased life satisfaction, overall health, and more (Eagle and Amster, 2023; Keltner, 2024).

If you’re like us at ARC, the outdoors is where you tend to find awe, especially when you come across an amphibian or reptile. For us, a fascinating species is an instant way to feel wonderment and connection to the natural world.

For example, have you ever taken a minute to focus your attention on a turtle basking on a log? Perhaps you were delighted as you watched the movements of this majestic, long-lived animal with the most advanced armor ever evolved. Maybe you smiled as, despite all this, it clumsily sort of half-dove and half-fell into the stream below the log.

One common ingredient of an awe-inducing experience is the unexpected, something that defies expectations. Part of the thrill of the natural world is never knowing what you’re going to find.

With the large number of diverse amphibian and reptile species in the US and the varieties of habitats they inhabit, there’s no limit to the ways they can amaze us. Have you had the experience of flipping over a log to find a bright red salamander, watching a gorgeous box turtle cross your path, or having another of countless possible experiences with these animals?

Encounters like this not only serve to fill us with wonder but are accompanied by a whole host of benefits. Standing in awe of the natural world isn’t merely a fleeting sensation; it’s linked to enhanced physical, mental, and emotional well-being (Eagle and Amster, 2023).

Whether gazing at an open wetland covered in pitcher plants, traversing through towering redwoods, or being mesmerized by a lizard doing pushups, these awe-inspiring moments have a transformative impact on us.

The natural world can be both a trigger for this feeling and the beneficiary of it. Studies reveal that spending time in natural environments correlates with heightened levels of awe. And not only does awe evoke feelings of calmness and kindness, but it also fosters a deeper connection with the world around us (Eagle and Amster, 2023; Keltner, 2024).

It follows that people who have these experiences in nature are more likely to take action to help protect it.

Awe has been shown to enhance critical thinking and expand our perception of time. By immersing us in the present moment, awe cultivates a sense of abundance, promoting a willingness to extend ourselves to help others and to safeguard the natural world.

It’s in this spirit that we implement our PARCA, or Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area, approach. PARCAs are the most important habitats for the species that need it most, located across the US and strategically chosen for protection and restoration.

One of the reasons it’s so important to restore PARCAs to healthy ecosystems with a full suite of biodiversity is that these landscapes and the species they hold are awe-inspiring. They connect us to nature in a way that a flower garden can not. They’re full of unexpected surprises and natural beauty.

It’s our responsibility to ensure that future generations can also have the chance to experience the benefits that come with feeling a sense of awe, sparked by amazing species and stunning places.

For ourselves and our descendants, it’s critical that we have the opportunity to be awed by nature. Our understanding of how this phenomenon impacts us physically and mentally is only recently emerging, but what we know so far is that a heightened sense of awe stimulates the vagus nerve, inducing feelings of calmness and connection.

Plus, imaging studies demonstrate that awe reduces activity in the part of the brain focused on ourselves (the self-referential default-mode network), fostering altruistic behavior and a diminished sense of self (Eagle and Amster, 2023).

Moreover, studies suggest that awe may act as a natural antidote to stress, reducing inflammation and promoting cardiovascular health (Eagle and Amster, 2023).

By slowing down and appreciating the incredible amphibians and reptiles in our ecosystems and otherwise immersing ourselves in the wonders of nature, we open ourselves to myriad physical and mental health gains. Plus, when our minds are receptive to the beauty and mystery that surrounds us, we can more clearly see just how worthy of saving it is.

Eagle J. and Amster, M. (2023). The Power of Awe: Overcome Burnout & Anxiety, Ease Chronic Pain, Find Clarity & Purpose–In Less Than 1 Minute Per Day. Penguin Books.

Keltner, D. (2024). Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Hachette Go.