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Portrait Gallery: David Wojnowski, reptile and amphibian expert

David WojnowskiDavid Wojnowski, assistant professor of teacher education, studies horned lizards and he says salamanders are cute. His area of expertise is environmental education.

 What is your title? How long have you been at UNT?

I’m assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration within the College of Education since 2007.

What is your academic and professional background?

I have a bachelor of science in education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a master of education with a minor in water resources from North Carolina State University. I was a public school teacher and an environmental education specialist.  I earned my doctor of philosophy degree in curriculum and instruction with a focus in elementary science education from Kent State University.

Your doctoral thesis is about teacher’s perceptions of snakes in rural Kenya.  What have you discovered?

That teachers can use an alternative conception about snakes following intensive environmental education opportunities.  My research focus is investigating people’s perceptions of reptiles and amphibians. People have a strong reaction to snakes, regardless of where they come from or their cultural upbringing. Only a few cultures aren’t afraid of snakes - usually the ones that eat them - or revere snakes for religious reasons.  There is a predominance of fear, aversion and hatred for snakes; even within cultures that respect snakes, some people don’t like them and avoid them.   

David Wojnowski, teaching in KenyaWhat are some memorable moments from Kenya?  

The way in which I was referred to changed as the community got to know me.  First I was mazungo, white person in Swahili, to Professor Wojnowski, to David, to Dawdi (Swahili for David), to Bwana Nyoka or snake man.  My newest name came from the traditional Turkana tribe earlier this year. I still get goose pimples thinking about it. They called me apana arewa, or “father of the puff adder,” a type of viper.

While talking with the Turkana village elders, they shared their belief that snakes go far away when it rains, but in reality they’re just hiding.  Half an hour later, some teenage boys sent out on a snake hunt found one.  I investigated, and six inches from my nose is one of the most venomous vipers with the fastest strike of any snake in the world, the saw-scaled viper. I caught it, pinned its head down and showed the very attentive group its fangs. 

Have you eaten what you study?

In Boy Scouts, I ate rattlesnakes. I like frog legs and rattlesnake meat - they taste like chicken.  You can group snakes four ways: deadly venomous, venomous, mildly venomous and non-venomous; none are poisonous, so you can eat every one of them.

What’s your favorite reptile or amphibian? 

I love salamanders. I think they’re cute and unusual.  I had a collection of 30-something salamanders and now have four. Salamanders can live 20-25 years. I call them by their scientific names so I don’t forget them.

What reptiles and amphibians have you seen roaming around the DFW area?

On occasion, I catch a snake for classroom purposes and then return it. For example, the Texas rat snake or a garter snake. On the UNT Dallas campus I found a yellowbelly racer, Texas rat snake and garter snakes and even an alligator. Unfortunately, horned lizards have been extirpated from most of the metroplex due to their habitat shrinking and introduction of the non-native fire ants.

David WojnowskiWhat is your current research and projects?  

Just finished and published an article about horned lizards from a survey in Colorado. It’s the first documented case of a round tail horned lizard squirting blood from its eyes on someone. It squirted in my hand. They usually do this to attacking canine predators as a form of defense.  I’m the committee education chair for the Horned Lizard Conservation Society, and we did a survey in Colorado City. I recently spoke about my snake research in Kenya at a social science conference at the University of Cambridge, England. I’m also on the planning committee for the international conference Tourism and Environmental Education: A Natural Link in Kampala, Uganda, next June.

Tell us about your family.

My wife is Brenda Wojnowski, assistant professor of education at UNT. We have a cat, Maximilian, who we call Max. Our kids are Richard, Sophia and Neil.

(Photos: Right, with schoolchildren in Kenya; left, with a friendly monitor lizard. Interview by Megan Beck, student assistant, University Relations, Communications and Marketing.)

(It's not possible to know everyone on a big, busy campus. So InHouse periodically publishes Portrait Gallery features to help us learn about our colleagues and their contributions to the university's success. Send suggestions for Portrait Gallery subjects by email to InHouse with "Portrait Gallery" in the subject line.)

Posted on: Tue 08 February 2011

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