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Assistant Professor Researches Vipers in The Gambia

Posted 01/14/2011
Posted by Meagan Fazio

Dennis Wasko spent two months this past summer trekking through mud and searching the undergrowth in the small West African country called Republic of the Gambia or The Gambia. His quest? Puff adders, which he calls “one of the most dangerous snakes in the Old World.”

Wasko, an assistant professor of biology in Hillyer College, was in The Gambia on a Greenberg Junior Faculty Grant. These internal grants promote research, scholarship, and artistic work by young, tenure-track faculty.

Puff adders, a type of viper, are prevalent in The Gambia, where they present a significant public health problem from venomous snakebites. Because little is known about the snakes’ habits, Wasko is collecting data on their preferred habitat, movement, feeding patterns, and other information that may help predict where the snakes can be found.

“Vipers are my thing,” says Wasko. “If, through my work, I can eventually put some information out there that will help people,that would make me very happy.”

In May, Wasko led a group of eight Hillyer students to Costa Rica, where they spent 10 days learning about rainforest ecology. Wasko had previously spent time there studying a pit viper called the fer-de-lance, whose bite is also potentially lethal to humans.

But it’s not the fact that these snakes are venomous that attracts Wasko.

“That’s only incidental to me,” he says. “I am interested in the way they lead their lives, the way they perceive the world around them. Vipers rely on scent and ground vibrations to catch prey rather than sight and hearing like a lot of other animals. Pit vipers have a pit between their eyes that allows them to see body heat. These snakes are just so different and that is what fascinates me.”

Wasko leads the double life of a college professor — in his case, one part catching snakes and implanting tracking devices to collect data, and one part teaching general and environmental biology to first- and second-year Hillyer students.

“Being in the field does recharge my batteries, but I wouldn’t want either life by itself,” says Wasko. “I love doing research and I love teaching. Each makes me appreciate the other more.”

Wasko uses his research to enrich students’ experiences in the classroom.

“I draw examples from my own fieldwork in my teaching, and I show my students photographs taken in the field to illustrate certain points. Also, my fieldwork in Costa Rica led to the student study abroad trip this summer.

“Taking the students into the field in Costa Rica gave them an experience they won’t forget—not just the ecology we studied but also the opportunity to see that people live very differently from us in other parts of the world. I think that’s s an important lesson too.”