Two years ago, senior Scott Malotka approached Dr. Phil Cochran, Biology Department, to ask about the possibility of doing research with bullsnakes, the largest species of snake found in Minnesota. Dr. Cochran said he had nothing going on that involved bullsnakes at the time, but he’d keep it mind.
Flash forward to last spring, when Dr. Cochran was asked to assist the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with radio-tracking bullsnakes at the Weaver Dunes north of Winona. He knew just the environmental biology major who’d jump at the opportunity to gain valuable professional experience.
Not that Malotka didn’t already have other activities on his plate. Dr. Cochran also had a small contract from a Trout Unlimited chapter in northern Indiana that was concerned about chestnut lampreys parasitizing trout in the Little Elkhart River, and Malotka had committed to studying the problem for his senior thesis. Dr. Cochran and Malotka made two trips to Indiana this past summer to collect data.
Dr. Cochran’s contracts pay only expenses and not salaries. Fortunately, Malotka was hired for the summer by Saint Mary’s Geospatial Services division — yet another way for a student to gain professional experience. The flexibility in scheduling permitted by GSS allowed Malotka to participate in the lamprey and bullsnake projects.
Malotka helped Dr. Cochran with radio-tracking snakes three days per week for most of the summer. On a good day they got to see one or more of the six snakes being tracked — and since some of them are more than 5 feet long, that can be an impressive sight — but much of the time the bullsnakes were underground. This fall, Malotka is earning internship credit with the department as he processes the collected data. In the long run, the value of the project will be realized in a greater understanding of the snakes’ activity patterns and use of habitat throughout the year.