Gerry Zegers, UMaine Machias’ animal DNA detective

Gerry Zegers, associate research professor of biology at the University of Maine at Machias, knows that a career in biology is about more than just working in a lab. Zegers uses his DNA analysis skills to help solve wildlife-related crimes — and he is teaching his students how to do the same.

Zegers moved to Maine with his wife Ellen Hostert, who is also a professor of biology at UMaine Machias, in 1999. Before moving to Machias, Zegers had worked as a lab technician with well-known wildlife biologist Michael Soulé in Santa Cruz, where he learned many of his DNA techniques. He completed his Ph.D. at University of California, Santa Cruz studying the genetic diversity of the immune system in pocket gophers.

“Pocket gophers are the most variable mammal in North America. It was a model in which we could see genetic variation at different levels in an animal population and also study their immune systems,” Zegers says.

Maine doesn’t have any pocket gophers, but Zegers still found many biology projects that he could get involved in at UMaine Machias. He had always been interested in fish. When the Atlantic salmon was listed as an endangered species, he started studying the species, eventually even becoming a board member of the Downeast Salmon Federation.

Zegers now works on research that aims to capture environmental DNA, or eDNA, for Atlantic salmon in the water of local ecosystems. The goal is to not only give an indication of the quantity of salmon, but the physiological condition of the creatures using eRNA, particularly during the transition they make between freshwater and saltwater environments. 

“He has a really wide ranging interest and expertise,” says Sherrie Sprangers, co-chair of the Integrative and Marine Sciences Division at UMaine Machias, who works with Zegers on this research. “He has all these molecular skills, but he uses them to look at ecological questions. He has these really wide ranging interests and he’s able to pull things together from two very different ends of the biological spectrum.”  

In 2017, Zegers started partnering with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) Warden Service to offer a wildlife forensics class every other spring that teaches the skills needed to process the type of crime scene scenarios handled by game wardens. Around that time, the local wardens were looking for someone close by who could help them process DNA for wildlife-related crimes. Zegers had the skills — and the enthusiasm — for the job.

“We had several meetings with him and it became apparent that he was an expert in that field and was quite capable of taking over that DNA forensics for us,” says Joe McBrine, UMaine Machias alumnus and member of the Warden Service.

Since then, Zegers has helped solve a number of crimes with his DNA skills, from figuring out a hunter had killed more than their allotted deer and moose by testing the DNA of samples of frozen meat, to identifying the bear in the state’s first black bear attack on a human based on the blood and saliva on the cloth that the victim used to wrap her wounds.

“He’s a team player for sure,” says Josh Beal at the Warden Service. “He gets the job done. I think he truly believes in our mission which is to catch intentional violators. I think he does it out of the goodness of his heart, to help us out to help protect our resources.”

Zegers is also passionate about teaching other students how they might use their biology skills for careers in the future — including this kind of DNA sleuthing. Zegers works with the Warden Service on a continuing furbearer study, using the DNA from the tongues of bobcats caught by trappers to determine their sex and age, and frequently hires students to help with the lab work. 

Zegers looks forward to continued mentorship through his UMaine Machias classes — and he’s taught a wide range of them, including mammalogy, herpetology and entomology. He has even taught a geology class, a phage genomics class and a sea kayaking course (as a graduate student, he served as a guide for Monterey Bay Kayaks, so he says, “that’s in my DNA”). 

Zegers is proud of what his mentorship has led to for UMaine Machias students, particularly when it comes to connecting students with the unique research and career opportunities offered through the state agencies.

“When you look around at who’s working for DIFW and DMR [Department of Marine Resources], I think you’ll see a disproportionate number of UMaine Machias students. We really focus hard on placing students with the services. Machias is a great place for this because of in large part the assembly of faculty that we have. We have a lot of biologists in the science program and we are all field motivated — we like to get outdoors and work with animals and plants ourselves. We have unprecedented access [to the outdoors], and we have built over the years a really strong relationship with the agencies.”

His agency connections have brought Zegers more than just internships for his students, too. Zegers says that McBrine got him and his daughter Anne involved in Revolutionary War reenactments through the Machias Historical Society. 

“Nobody is willing to be a redcoat because the history is personal for them, so my daughter and I are redcoats,” Zegers laughs. “At the [Machias Wild] Blueberry Festival, we do the Battle of [Machias] Rim where I get shot out of a boat. There are some videos of me drifting around in the Machias [River] while my daughter abandons me.”