Dennis Ferraro

Dennis Ferraro

  • Contact Information
  • My Story
  • Publications & Presentations
  • Background
  • Interests
  • Grants
  • Advising
  • Courses Taught
  • Outreach

Title Conservation Biologist/Herpetologist and Community Engagement Coordinator
Address 415 Hardin Hall
3310 Holdrege Street
Lincoln NE
Phone 402-472-8248
FAX 402-472-2946
Cell 402-490-2155
Vitae Download file
Contact Preference


Office Hours

MW 1:00 - 4:00 PM

Dennis Ferraro is the resident herpetologist and an professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has been a UNL faculty member since 1990.

He is originally from Connecticut, and grew up fascinated with the creatures in and around ponds near his home. By the time he was in third grade, he knew what a herpetologist was and that he wanted to be one. "My mother started out being afraid of snakes, but after so many got loose in the house, she had to learn to live with it," he recalled. "My husbandry technique was not as refined as it is now. Now nothing gets out."

"My main goal in my career and in life is the conservation of amphibians, reptiles and turtles in North America," he said. Ferraro maintains the university's live animal lab of native Herpetofauna - that's reptiles and amphibians - for research and educational purposes, and has developed a health and medical protocol for the animals' care.

He teaches Conservation Biology (NRES 211) every semester, Introduction to Herpetology (NRES 474/874) every fall, and now teaches Tropical Ecology (NRES 492) each spring, which includes 10 days in Puerto Rico. He also helps to advise students working on master's theses and supervises independent studies. Ferraro received the 2010 Holling Family Excellence in Teaching Award in March 2010.

Dennis Ferraro

Ferraro and a UCARE student have worked on a study of prey selection in water snakes. Collecting data "is easy if they've just eaten because the water snake's first defense is to regurgitate their half-digested food on you," he explained. "We've both been vomited on quite regularly by water snakes." Preliminary findings show that the snakes are feeding on injured or sick fish, not game fish, so the snakes are actually enhancing sport fishing experiences.

Ferraro is well-known for handling snakes as he speaks, and his talks around the state typically draw large, enthusiastic crowds. He reaches approximately 6,000 people a year through various presentations, such as the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission annual Outdoor Expo. Ferraro has ventured into multimedia as well, releasing an 11-track CD, Frog Calls of Nebraska, in 2008, and following up with a video, "Handling an American Alligator."

Ferraro said that while he doesn't necessarily hold out hope that all who hear him speak will build a backyard hibernaculum for garter snakes - although he has the instructions, if anyone is interested - one of his goals is "to get them to appreciate snakes in the environment." Snakes are the natural predators of gophers, rats and other rodents that can become a nuisance if their numbers go unchecked.

Contrary to popular belief, even venomous snakes do not chase people. "No snake in Nebraska has territory or protects its young," Ferraro said. "Sometimes people might have the impression because of a snake's fright mechanism that they're chasing them." In fact, Ferraro said, snakes chasing humans "only happens in my dreams. Since 1990 I have had just over 4,000 snake captures. I can't remember any of them coming to me. I had to chase every single one. I wish they'd stay still."

Ferraro typically drives 5,000 miles each year, checking on the communities and populations of various species across the state. Specifically, he has collected data on more than 3,700 snakes, 3,400 amphibians and 410 turtles and lizards since 1990. He does radio tracking and telemetry in reptiles, and surgically implants transmitters in snakes. He shares the data he gathers on reptile and amphibian populations with the Nebraska State Museum, the Game and Parks Commission, and other agencies that need it.

Amphibians are particularly sensitive to environmental contaminants. Some researchers believe that amphibians, with their sensitivity to environmental degradation, may also point the way to factors that lead to increased outbreaks of disease in humans. Ferraro conducts amphibian disease and malformity tests in Nebraska.

Dennis Ferraro

Besides health benefits, working with our native fauna can be an economic boost. Prairie dogs, humble though they may be, are a keystone species, creating ecosystems in which other species thrive, including rattlesnakes, burrowing owls, salamanders and beetles. And, Ferraro adds, there is no research to back the popular notion that cows and horses break legs in prairie dog holes.

He sees rattlesnake-oriented ecotourism possibilities for western Nebraska. After a presentation at a national conference, Ferraro received email requests for tours of prairie dog towns. He organized a trip that brought several people from Texas and New York to western Nebraska via Omaha, and guided them through safe encounters with wildlife. Ferraro also used his knowledge of rattlesnakes' habits and defenses to help park officials at Scottsbluff National Monument in western Nebraska create boardwalks and tunnels that allowed park visitors and rattlesnakes to coexist safely.

As the head of the curriculum committee for Nebraska's Master Naturalist program, Ferraro is hoping to inspire outdoor outfitters and bed and breakfast owners to turn prairie dog villages into destinations of choice.

Underlying the many projects that Ferraro has in the works are his ongoing goals: to promote the conservation of Nebraska's amphibians and reptiles to the public, and to instill appreciation of and stewardship for natural resources in students and youth.

Selected Publications

Virchow, D.R., S.M. Vantassel, S.E. Hygnstrom, D.M. Ferraro, J.J. Lusk, and M. Wilhite. 2010. Cottontail control: an overview. Wildlife Control Technology. 17(3):32-34.
Virchow, D.R., S.M. Vantassel, S.E. Hygnstrom, D.M. Ferraro, J.J. Lusk, and M. Wilhite. 2010. Habits and habitat: cottontail rabbits. Wildlife Control Technology. 17(3):13-14.

Educational Background

  • BS - Iowa State University, Zoology (1978)
  • Other - Iowa State University, Graduate Research in Herpetology (1978)
  • MS - University of Nebraska-Omaha, Biology (Herpetology) (1993)


  • 2017 – Holling Family Award for Senior Faculty Teaching Excellance awarded by College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources | University of Nebraska-Lincoln 
  • 2015 – Certificate of Recognition for Contributions to Students awarded by UNL Parents Association 
  • 2/13/13 – Nebraska Urban Pest Management Conference Recognition Award awarded by Nebraska Urban Pest Management 

SNR Mission Area(s)

  • Applied Ecology

Affiliations (index)

Notable Websites

Areas of Interest

  • Monitoring and Conservation of Nebraska's Herpetofauna
  • Herpetology
  • Wildlife Management and Conservation
  • Wildilfe IPM
  • Programing Amphibian and Reptile Awareness and Appreciation
  • Wildlife Damage Management
  • Master Naturalist
  • Amphibians
  • Reptiles
  • Biodiversity
  • Ecosystems
  • Endangered Species
  • Wetlands

Currently this page only displays grants that were awarded on 1/1/2009 to the present. If a grant was awarded prior to 1/1/2009 and is still active, it will not be displayed on this page.

Grant Title Master Naturalist PI Support
Starting Date 9/1/2016
Principal Investigators
Dennis Ferraro
Ending Date 6/30/2020
Funding Level $36,000.00
Funding Source Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Grant Title Nebraska Master Naturalist Program (Additional Funding)
Starting Date 4/7/2016
Principal Investigators
Dennis Ferraro
Ending Date 6/30/2017
Funding Level $91,947.00
Funding Source Nebraska Educational Telecommunications

Grant Title Nebraska Master Naturalist Program
Starting Date 7/1/2015
Principal Investigators
Dennis Ferraro
Bruce Mellberg
Ending Date 6/30/2018
Funding Level $150,000.00
Funding Source Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Grant Title Nebraska Master Naturalist Program: Statewide Expansion and Specialized Training in Habitat Management (additional funding)
Starting Date 4/2/2015
Principal Investigators
Dennis Ferraro
Ending Date 6/30/2016
Funding Level $89,656.00
Funding Source Nebraska Environmental Trust


Undergraduate Majors Bachelor of Science in
  • Fisheries & Wildlife
Graduate Program(s)

Courses Taught
Course Number Course Title Fall Even Years Fall Odd Years Spring Even Years Spring Odd Years Summer Session Cross Listing
NRES 111 Natural Resource Conservation in Society None
NRES 111 Natural Resource Conservation in Society n/a
NRES 211 Introduction to Conservation Biology X X X X n/a
NRES 348 Wildlife Damage Management X X n/a
NRES 474 Herpetology X X BIOS/NRES 474/874
NRES 492 Study Tours in Natural Resource Management - Puerto Rico X X NRES 492/892
NRES 874 Herpetology X X BIOS/NRES 474/874