Snakes are the “roller coaster of the animal kingdom,” according to Dr. David Penning, a biology professor at Missouri Southern.

“People love to be kind of scared, and they’re interested in them,” he said. “But while snakes are one of the most easily recognized animals, we know almost nothing about how they function in every aspect of their life. There’s so much left to be done.”

Penning, who joined the university in 2016, has devoted much of his research to furthering our understanding of snakes – from their strike speed to how snakes eat other members of their species. His research has made him a go-to expert on the reptiles, and has been featured on the Discovery Channel and PBS.

Now, some of his undergraduate students are contributing to our knowledge of snakes through research of their own in Penning’s reptile physiology lab – which offers access to more than 100 snakes from 10 different species.

Senior Ashley Burns is currently studying predator and prey dynamics among Western Rat Snakes, using high-speed motion capture technology to measure their acceleration and velocity.

“Currently, literature doesn’t talk about how they strike in different scenarios,” said Burns. “We’re going to try to find a quantitative difference in the way they strike at predators and prey. There have been two studies, but they got opposite results. This research will be a kind of tiebreaker.”

Christian Neff, a senior biology major who also serves as the lab’s research technician, is studying the mechanisms of constriction.

“I’m studying the physiology of constriction to determine how their prey dies,” said Neff. “There’s confusion in the literature that tells us something else is going on.

“The opportunities this research gives me now and in the future really mean everything to me.”

Burns and Neff each recently received grants from Missouri Southern’s Student Research Grant Committee to further their projects. Penning said that both projects address “unknowns” in the field of study, and the plan is to publish the students’ conclusions.

“It’s incredible and so unique to be able to have this resource on campus,” Burns said of the lab. “We’re doing great stuff here. Everyone should be proud of it.”

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