Dennis Ferraro is the resident herpetologist and a 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.
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.
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.