Dordt College News

Mahaffy studied rattlesnake habitats

June 24, 2014

Biology Professor Dr. James Mahaffy credits his love for science to having grown up in Eritrea in East Africa.

Mahaffy received an early education in ecology by exploring the habits and habitats of the animals that roamed and scurried across the rocky areas in the highlands north of Ethiopia.

The Mahaffys had a Klipspringer as a pet—a rock antelope that stands about 15 inches high. Mahaffy watched troupes of baboons, hunted scorpions, investigated praying mantis egg sacs, and domesticated African chameleon lizards that caught flies on the screens in their home. Homeschooled throughout his elementary school years, he took high school courses by correspondence. Both gave him plenty of opportunities to explore and learn about the world around him.

“I’ve always had an interest in wildlife,” he says. In recent years that interest focused on two Midwestern species: mountain lions and rattlesnakes.

For several years, Mahaffy says, he was known as the wacky professor interested in mountain lions, and, in fact, after a farmer shot one in Sioux County, he was interviewed by a reporter from the Public Broadcasting System. Mahaffy followed reports of mountain lion sightings locally to try to gather evidence of male mountain lions moving back into Eastern South Dakota, Iowa, and Southern Minnesota from Western South Dakota. However, without funding to radiotag the animals, it was difficult to learn more and he turned his attention to rattlesnakes.

Recently he’s been looking at the historical distributions of rattlesnakes in the Midwest, based on death records in different communities. This research also helped find specific areas where they were likely quite common. Some rattlesnakes are still found in Broken Kettle Nature Preserve, less than an hour from Dordt College, but overall their numbers greatly diminished as settlers plowed the land. Timber rattlesnakes can still be found in the cracks in the limestone along the Mississippi River.

Mahaffy has focused on the lesser known Massasauga Rattler that lives in wetland areas. As wetlands disappeared into cropland, the Massasauga also diminished in number. Today, Mahaffy says, there are likely only four or five population areas left.

Many say “good riddance”’ to mountain lions and rattlesnakes, but Mahaffy thinks it’s good to know the impact people are having on other creatures and he knows that God’s creatures need places to live. He also understands that people have safety concerns.

Mahaffy, who did his doctoral research on fossils, has spent most of his 35 years at Dordt trying to make biology interesting to non-majors. He told about tapeworms taller than a door, about having malaria and hook worm, and about using Epsom salt to treat parasites. He tried to help them understand how nutrients get to the big toe or what happened to the oatmeal they had for breakfast, all to help his students connect concrete experiences to what they were learning.

Mahaffy hopes that he has been able to instill in his students a sense of awe and wonder toward creation and its Creator by helping them learn about and feel something toward the creatures who share their world. He hopes his former students will continue to learn and explore so that they can also have an impact on the actions, policies, and beliefs of others.

Sally Jongsma

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