Close-Up: Creating Hands-on Learning Materials with Friends of the Island Fox
Patricia Meyer, Program Director, Friends of the Island Fox and President
Channel Islands Park Foundation
Keri Dearborn, Education Director, Friends of the Island Fox
Conservation topics can be complex, making them difficult to explain to children or mixed audiences. At the same time, reducing important conservation issues to simple sound bites may fail to communicate how individual actions have global consequences.
How the Channel Island fox became critically endangered on four islands off the coast of Southern California is just such a complex conservation story. No single factor caused the crisis and the actions of people on the mainland, over 20 miles away, indirectly compounded the problem. In order to transform a complicated topic into an
understandable local mission, Friends of the Island Fox created hands-on learning materials that engaged eyes, ears, noses and hands. By intertwining a variety of learning styles, we have been able to reach a broader spectrum of the public and institute a greater understanding and retention of the offered information.
In schools the old notion of a food chain has been replaced with a food web or bio-web–the interconnection between numerous living things and their environment.
Understanding how an animal is connected to other aspects of a specific environment helps people understand why it is important to protect individual species, not as lone animals, but as important players in an overall ecosystem.
Hands-On: Sometimes simple is best. After talking about what an animal eats, where it lives and what it needs to survive, we use a ball of yarn to build a bioweb. We start by holding one end of the yarn and having individuals identify different plants, animals and non-living elements in the ecosystem that could be connected together. The ball of yarn is tossed or rolled from person to person. Each participant wraps the yarn around his/her wrist before passing it on. The next player must connect to this animal/plant/abiotic element. Each connection creates a single link. For example:
- island fox eats Jerusalem cricket
- Jerusalem cricket eats Catalina cherry roots
- Catalina cherry needs island fox to disperse seeds
- island fox eats toyon berry
- toyon provides shelter for song sparrow
- song sparrow eats Catalina cherry
- Catalina cherry twigs are building material for bald eagle nest
- Bald eagle protects island fox from golden eagle
When the yarn is pulled taut, everyone can see the web of connections. If we remove the island fox, the visual collapse of the web reinforces the idea of how living things are interconnected and people can then more fully appreciate how the extinction of a single species can impact an entire ecosystem.
Nature in Balance Scale
The island fox tumbled toward extinction when its ecosystem fell out of balance.
Impending extinction can be difficult for people to appreciate when the causal events happen over extended amounts of time. The cumulative impact of small changes can be hard to understand.
Hands-On: We have found that an actual balance scale best demonstrates, visually and physically, how small impacts can combine to create weighty changes and how balance is a delicate state.
In PowerPoint presentations, we use an image of a scale with the island fox on one side and the elements of its ecosystem on the other side in a state of balance. As non-native plants and animals are introduced, and native plants and animals disappear, the balance visually changes. Finally, the ecosystem is completely out of balance and the island fox is headed toward population crash.
At public events we use a physical balance employing visual representatives of plants and animals in the ecosystem. A figure representing an island fox is placed on one side of the scale (weight 1 lb). Participants play a “game” choosing three natural food items, a native plant to hide in and another animal that lives in harmony with the island fox by helping to keep away unnatural predators. Choosing correctly from the offered choices creates a “balanced” ecosystem and a balanced scale (5 elements = weight 1 lb).
Incorrect choices do not balance and offer the game facilitator the opportunity to explain why. The player is then encouraged to make choices that would be correct and put the ecosystem back “in balance.”
Real Size Comparison
It is difficult for people to visualize the size of animals with which they have no real experience. You can make a big impact on understanding when you provide real size comparisons. The island fox is small; its introduced predator the golden eagle is large.
Hands-On: Create easy-to-use, durable silhouettes to demonstrate actual size. Our realsized golden eagle is constructed from a single plastic, large truck sunshade. Start from your largest dimension and use cut out sections to make details.
Demonstrating Scientific Equipment
We raise money for radio tracking collars. If you want someone to participate in a conservation project, they need to have complete understanding of what they are supporting. To make real connections with the public, demonstrate how real equipment is used in the field.
Hands-On: We use retired radio tracking equipment in modified demonstrations outdoors and indoors. In large outdoor areas, a biologist “tracker” can follow behind an “island fox” person walking around. Both demonstrators can talk to people as they travel through public areas. In smaller locales or in classrooms, the radio collar can be
hidden and tracked down using the audience to indicate which way to go to find the stronger radio signal.
Recreating the Job of a Field Biologist
Friends of the Island Fox financially supports rabies and distemper vaccinations for island foxes in the wild. Part of the management of this endangered species includes annual capture, counting, health evaluation and vaccination of individual island foxes. Children and adults are fascinated by what biologists actually do in the field.
Hands-On: We partnered with Channel Islands National Park and Catalina Island Conservancy biologists to replicate their annual capture process and specific fox health check routine. We collected an actual data sheet, followed along during the capture process and watched an actual health check in the field. We recreated the steps
biologists follow and the equipment kit they use so people could participate in the stepby- step process of an island fox health check. A toy, stuffed fox was modified to give it teeth, an ear canal and injuries that could be observed during a health check.
As the island fox population reaches recovery, understanding island fox behavior, management of stable populations and protection of the ecosystem have become new goals. Island foxes use their sense of smell to find each other, as well as their natural food and unattended human food.
Hands-On: To understand the important role scent plays in how an island fox finds its way through its habitat, we developed a grid of 16 stanchions. Each stanchion has one of three scents (peppermint, mandarin orange or nothing). Participants try to follow one of the scents as a trail through the grid from a start point to an end point.
What Does It All Mean?
Studies have shown that engaging people in experiential learning creates memories and helps them retain complex and new information. Many local endangered species do not have the glamour or media coverage of large exotic animals, yet the only way to save these endangered species is with the engagement of local communities. Hands-on
learning is like play; understanding grows naturally and in a positive way.
Patricia Meyer and Keri Dearborn began their conservation journey as docents for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association and as lecturers training other docents. Drawing on her background in human relations and as an MBA, Pat founded Friends of the Island Fox (FIF) as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit conservation and education organization in 2005. Keri joined her on the FIF Board with the task of developing education outreach and was inspired to earn her Masters in Environmental Education. Since 2005 FIF has reached over 31,000 school children and adults through educational programs and public events. They have drawn public attention to the plight of the endangered island fox and, by doing so, raised funds to support island fox recovery through annual health checks, distemper and rabies vaccinations, road signs, necropsies and the funding of 82 radio-monitoring collars. In 2011, FIF became a program of the Channel Islands Park Foundation and Pat currently serves as the Foundation President.
Visit islandfox.org for more information about the endangered Channel Island fox.