“By the time I was eight years old, whenever a good-natured aunt or teacher would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, fully expecting me to say ‘astronaut’ or ‘firefighter,’ I would adamantly proclaim that I was going to be a zoologist,” said Greg Pandelis, a senior majoring in ecology, evolution and biodiversity as well as evolutionary anthropology. “They would then often tell me that it was fantastic that I wanted to work in a zoo, and later regretted it as they found themselves in a long conversation with an eight-year-old about why zoologists don’t necessarily work in zoos.”  

It’s difficult for him to pinpoint one event that sparked his intense interest. However, his passion grew when his family moved to the Alaskan bush during his middle school years. “I spent every chance I could out on the tundra, observing the wildlife and compiling my very own natural history collection, taking measurements and preserving parts of wild game that local Yupik hunters gifted to our family. My passion for natural history and evolutionary biology has not diminished since then and has in fact grown within the University of Michigan community, which has provided me with so many remarkable opportunities!”

Greg Pandelis photographing a strawberry dart frog in the lowland rainforest of Nicaragua (visible on log to the right of his camera) during scientific collecting expeditions organized by the Rabosky lab. Image: Jose G. Martinez-Fonseca.

Pandelis’ research focuses on untangling the driving forces behind adaptation in snake skulls. “I pair innovative 3D CT scan data with traditional natural history information to understand how factors such as diet and habitat influence the diversification of skull shape through evolutionary time.

“The implications of my work are wide-ranging – understanding how snake skull shape evolves in response to ecological variables will elucidate how vertebrate skulls evolve more broadly. This increases our understanding of how important traits such as skeletal shape are molded by natural selection.”

“For his thesis, Greg is studying the evolution of skull shape in group of snakes from South America, the dipsadines,” said EEB Professor Dan Rabosky, Pandelis’ advisor. “This is a group of snakes that has undergone a spectacular evolutionary explosion, diversifying into more than 700 species and a wide variety of ecological roles. Greg is using CT scanning to understand how their skulls have evolved to allow them to eat such a wide variety of prey items.” Pandelis is in the Honors Program of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

When Pandelis was in high school, he started a skeleton preparation business, “Greg’s Bugs and Bones,” where he used techniques of museum preparation (dermestid beetles) to professionally prepare skeletons for scientists and other clients. While living in the Yukon delta of remote western Alaska for a few years, he would prepare skeletons of wolverines, wolves and more that local trappers and hunters would bring him.

In the next year, he plans to conduct independent field research in Greece, studying the reptiles and amphibians of a little known island system with the goal of coming to a better understanding of its biodiversity. After the completion of this work, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in herpetology and evolutionary biology.