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Alumnus to Speak on Snake Research


Photo credit: Sasha Tetzlaff

Written by: Communicator StaffJanuary 23, 2016
Dr. Brett DeGregorio, a Wildlife Biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers and an IPFW Alumnus, will be returning to campus Jan. 22 to present some of his doctoral research from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in Room185 of the Science Building. The talk which will highlight IPFW’s contribution to environmental research and herpetology.
DeGregorio received his masters degree in Biology from IPFW in 2008. During DeGregorio’s time at IPFW he studied under Dr. Bruce Kingsbury, an IPFW professor specializing in ecology, conservation and herpetology and the director of the Environmental Resource Center. Then, DeGregorio went on to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for his doctorate.
For his dissertation DeGregorio studied the predatory relationship of rat snakes and songbirds, according to the Sperry-Weatherhead Lab website. That research will be one of the subjects of DeGregorio’s talk at IPFW. He will also go on to explain the role of climate change in the possibly increased predation of birds by snakes.
DeGregorio explained in a phone interview that his doctoral work was actually funded by the military, which then offered him a position as a Wildlife Biologist at the conclusion of his studies.
The Department of Defense has nearly 30 million acres of land and “the highest density of federally threatened, endangered, and sensitive species of any federal land management agency,” according to the Conserving Biodiversity on Military Lands website.
Thus the DoD has a team of biologists and other professionals who oversee how to reconcile what DeGregorio admitted were two “mutually exclusive” goals: training military personnel and environmental conservation efforts to be a “conscious steward”.
What helped DeGregorio get to that point, however, was his time at IPFW and his graduate study work with Kingsbury.
Kingsbury came to IPFW in 1992 and began the first Center of Excellence which later became today’s Environmental Resource Center.
Kingsbury hopes to “change perceptions and behavior” towards snakes to appreciate them, even if some find them scary. The ERC hopes to help educate people about conservation efforts, the interesting qualities of animals, and give people a habitat to visit in the middle of the city.
Conservation, Kingsbury explained, is going to need more financial contributions in the near future as “government resources to work on protection [are] less than before.”
Kingsbury’s special area of research, herpetology, is the study of amphibians and reptiles. For Kingsbury, it is particularly Massasauga snakes, which he believes “should be protected because they exist,” not because they are of human benefit.
Kingsbury explained that a work of art has no direct benefit to humanity but they are protected and respected; he believes the same should be done for living creatures.
Kingsbury has contributed to the field of herpetology because of his groundbreaking research. Kingsbury’s work revealed that different kinds of snakes use old crayfish burrows to hibernate during the winter. Sometimes reptiles slow their metabolism so they receive sufficient oxygen through their skin without breathing. His research has also displayed that not every snake migrates for the winter, which Kingsbury realized after he tracked the locations of snakes for a duration of time. The snakes were tracked via telemetry (radio markers) and geographic information systems.
Sasha Tetzlaff, a research assistant working with Dr. Kingsbury at IPFW, intends to work with DeGregorio in the future to help find a way to head start, or raise endangered species in captivity in order to release them into the wild successfully. Currently, head starting is expensive and largely ineffective as animals die soon after release. DeGregorio hopes to one day make a cheap and effective model for head starting.
Tetzlaff, who received his Masters in Biology at IPFW in 2015, grew up around zoos. He  always had an interest in animals and spent time telling others about them.
At a certain point, however, Tetzlaff decided he wanted “to be the guy figuring out those facts.”
That led him to pursue research, which he said has introduced him to some intriguing truths. Snakes are rarely perceived to have forethought or strategy, except perhaps in novels like “The Jungle Book,” but they actually do stake out their prey said Tetzlafff about recent research done in the field.
Tetzlaff explained that snakes have been found to visit nests during the day to scope out the eggs or chicks, leave and return in the night to consume the nestlings and their parents. This shows patience and timing, which until recently, was unknown.