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Daniel Jonas: Snakes and spiders and lizards, oh my!

We all have things we are passionate about in life.

Passion for sports. Passion for art. Passion for music. And, of course, a deep, unwavering passion for snakes, spiders and other things that creep and crawl along the forest floors.

While that last list might be a bit of a stretch for some, maybe most, people, it is undoubtedly the passion that drives high school science teacher Daniel Jonas.

Jonas is in his 11th year teaching biology and natural history at Parkersburg High School, but it his passion for the outdoors – specifically the things that live there – that truly drives Jonas in his career and in life.

“Teaching allows me to show other people what I consider to be the most interesting things in the world,” Jonas said. “Seeing kids learn about wildlife and have an active interest in it is a great feeling. One of the highlights is the field trips we go on. I take students to local wildlife parks to find and identify animals and we also visit elementary schools and lead programs.

“Another highlight is seeing students’ love for nature. They often come show me pictures of cool things they’ve seen outside or tell me stories of some interesting experience they’ve had. Some of them go on to pursue a career in the nature sciences. I like to think I’ve played some small role in that.”

Jonas fell in love with the world beyond his front door at a very young age. Having grown up in areas heavily populated with various turtles and snakes, he quickly grew a passion for these creatures as he often ventured outside to explore the animals in his neighborhood.

And that passion only grew when he came to Marshall University as a student in the late 2000s. There, he met Dr. Tom Pauley and began surveying different parts of the state for species of salamanders and snakes with other students that shared his love of the outdoors.

“I really enjoyed my time working with Dr. Pauley’s graduate students doing state herpetological surveys,” Jonas said. “We visited some beautiful locations around West Virginia, and I learned a lot about natural history on those trips. He taught a wildlife conservation course and it’s the only class I ever took from him, but since he’s the leading herpetology expert in the state, I’m still in touch with him today. His love of wildlife, especially salamanders, is something I remember every time I take students on field trips and show them how to safely flip rocks and logs to see what’s underneath.”

Jonas earned a Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a master’s degree in teaching. From there, he quickly merged his passions with his education to create the perfect path in life.

“I got degrees that allow me to pursue a career that I enjoy. I gained an interest in wildlife identification while there that led to me eventually starting a natural history course of my own and led me to new hobbies,” Jonas said. “Also while at Marshall, the education department assigned me to Huntington High School for my student teaching and I met teachers there that helped me a lot as I was learning how to be a science teacher. HHS had the only high school herpetology program in the country at the time and I took some of their ideas and incorporated it into what I do today.”

After graduation, Jonas traveled north to Parkersburg where he has taught high school science for the past 11 years. He began teaching general and honors biology courses at the school, eventually expanding his classroom offerings to include personally crafted courses based on his experience in the classroom and in the field.

He began a Nature Club during his first few years in Parkersburg before developing his own herpetology course in 2016 rooted in his experience as a student teacher at Marshall. In 2019, he changed the title of the course to natural history and expanded the curriculum to include wildlife beyond reptiles and amphibians, such as mammals and birds, and their vital role in the ecosystem. It is one of the only high school courses of its kind in the country.

“I wanted to create a course that taught students about local wildlife – what lives here, how to identify it, how to understand animal behavior,” Jonas said. “I wanted to give students a chance to see wildlife where it actually lives, not just in a book or online. And I wanted to give them a chance to care for live animals. I have snakes and lizards in my classroom that students are responsible for. I’ve also had turtles in the past.”

In addition to caring for and studying various reptiles inside the classroom, Jonas often takes students on field trips to locations such as Mountwood Park where they focus on finding salamanders and snakes. “Lifting a log and seeing a salamander underneath is something everyone should experience at some point,” Jonas said.

Away from the classroom, Jonas frequents various parks, wetlands and wildlife refuges across the state observing different species of reptiles and birds. He has even turned his passion for the subject into public service.

Each year Jonas offers on social media to identify snakes that find themselves in the homes and yards of residents in an effort to alleviate the fear and misunderstanding of the creatures. He also holds a snake education program at the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge where he answers questions from the public and shares facts about reptiles. He even brings along a few of his own pets for children and families to interact with.

And the highlight of his reptile collection? A corn snake named Marshall after his alma mater.

“I have been reading about snakes and looking for them in the field for over a decade now and consider myself to be very knowledgeable on the topic. I want to use that knowledge to help people understand that snakes aren’t scary. I can’t make everyone love them, but if they just tolerate them and leave them alone that’s fine with me,” Jonas said. “Snakes are widely misunderstood by the general public and people have all kinds of ignorant beliefs about them that can only be combatted with education, experience and exposure.

“I’ve given snake talks at the Ohio River Islands National Refuge four times and led the local Master Naturalist group on a hike looking for snakes. I’ve lead reptile programs at several local elementary schools, along with my natural history students. I’m just trying to help people understand and appreciate an often-hated animal. Someone has to speak for snakes.”

While his love for the outdoors has always been apparent, it is young people and the joy of helping them identify, understand and learn about these creatures that has become his newest passion in life.

“My students are the best part of my career,” Jonas said. “Everything I do is for them. I already have wildlife as my personal hobby, so I’d be looking for salamanders and birds whether or not I was a teacher. But having students experience these things with me adds a level of satisfaction and pride. Every negative thing about education can be attributed to adults, but I have never had a bad day in a natural history class or with the Nature Club.

“I want students to appreciate unloved animals. I teach them about snakes and spiders and try to be a voice for the misunderstood species. Kids seem to get it. Most of all, I just want them to know what’s out there and have an appreciation for it. We don’t protect what we don’t’ care about and we can’t care unless we know what’s out there. The kids are why I do this and I hope they know that.”