Biodiversity – Why Should We Save The Creepy, Crawly, Unlovable Critters?
Cameron Park Zoo
An interactive outreach approach involving Middle and High school students in environmental decision-making
At Cameron Park Zoo we have Zoomobile programs for elementary students that cover the main aspects of vertebrate and invertebrate life but we needed a different approach to reach the older middle and high school students whose teachers were interested in our outreach programs. Do you know that 95% of the world’s animals are less than 3″ in length, and that the major biomass of our world is made up of insects? You probably do, but most teenagers don’t and they will be the ones voting and making decisions about land use, conservation, wetlands and all the other important environmental issues in the very near future. How can we stimulate them to think about the value of all animals and about what might be happening to them? How do we help them to understand that their actions will effect the future biodiversity of the earth? This was our dilemma.
We began to resolve these issues by developing a program with a contest format in which the students would work in small groups to learn about a specific education animal, present that animal to the rest of the class and then take part in a vote to determine the most valuable animal. Essentially, the losing animal gets kicked off the Education Department “Survivor” team.
We explain the focus of the morning’s work to the class and then give them some background information on biodiversity.
Habitat diversity: All the different types of ecosystems from rainforest to coral reef to old growth forests are included in this definition. Some habitats contain more forms of life than others do but they are all disappearing at an alarming rate. Rainforests and coral reefs cover only 2%-7% of the world’s surface area but probably contain 50%-90% of the world’s species of living things. It is important that these habitats survive to support the species that dwell within them.
Genetic diversity: There are inherited genetic differences in different populations of animals of the same species. Nature’s safety net generally works to provide enough variation among the animals if you have at least 500 breeding individuals. When the population numbers drop in an area the ability of the animals to adapt is severely restricted; one virus or environmental calamity could destroy the entire population. If you have less than 50 breeding individuals the population will probably be inbreeding with resultant increases in birth defects and mortality.
Species diversity: This is the term most people associate with biodiversity, the numbers of different species of animals. Scientists’ opinions differ on the actual number of current species but most agree that the number of named species is approaching 1.7 million. Estimates of the total number of species, including all the undiscovered ones run from 5-15 (some say 100) million species.
Threats to Biodiversity: The major threats to extinction in prehistoric times were those of natural disasters and competition with other species. Historically we lost animals through overexploitation and the introduction of exotic species (i.e. Cane Toads). Presently these factors still play a role in extinction but now the major threat is that of habitat loss due to human population growth and activity, including pollution. When possible we use Texas examples of endangered and threatened animals to keep the focus on local action. What has happened to the Horned Lizard? Why did the songbird population decrease when the coyote population was decreased?
Think about it. In terms of habitat loss, the Atwater Prairie Chicken, and Texas Tortoise provide us with local examples of loss due to industrialization and urbanization.
Importance of Biodiversity: We review the value of animal and plant life in terms of food, shelter, medicines, pollinators, natural pest control, and recycling. Just think what the world would be like without Dung beetles.
Docent Demonstration: One of our lucky docents does a demonstration presentation of one of the animals, usually the Hissing Cockroach, to show the students the type of information they might find and present. (i. e.- Did you know some cockroach species could live for a week without a head?) We show them that learning can be fun and they get to vote on the docent’s animal as well.
Student Participation: In a class of 20 40 students, we ask that the teacher divide the pupils into 6 compatible groups. Then by using our live education animals, information fact sheets and docent cheerleading, we help the students discover the value of “their” animal and ways to present that information to the rest of the class. Each group works together to research the facts they will use to fill out a worksheet from which they can lobby for the critter they are advocating. The animals are kept in clear plastic carrying cases at the students’ table so they can be observed closely, but not removed from the cases. Secure tops are a must.
We chose some of our less universally loved education animals: tarantula, rat, cockroach, millipede, lizard, frog, and snake to be part of our team. Our fact sheets were revised to help the students develop their animal “selling points”. We provide encouragement by having the classroom teacher and several docents circulate and prompt the students if some of them are making a slow start. A worksheet gives them four categories to discuss: Physical characteristics, Talents and Behaviors, Contributions to Human Society and the summary category…Why is this animal valuable? With younger classes we suggest they defend the animals place in the education department, i.e., “we had a reduction in our budget and there is less space for animals. Why should we keep this animal over the others?” For older classes we make it a bit more global and suggest they think about how they would defend the animal and its habitat if it were being threatened by habitat loss or human activity.
The student groups pick one or two members to make the presentation to the class and the others carry the animal around the room to give the rest of the students a closer look. We use a chalkboard or a portable, erasable board to tally the vote. At the completion of the presentations we act as scorekeepers. The students vote for the animal they feel is the winner in each of the 4 categories. Each student gets one vote for each category, the votes are totaled and the animals are ranked in “importance”. A discussion of what we would have lost with the demise of this species (the one with the least number of votes) follows. If time permits we then take the animals out and give the class a touch experience. From complaints of “Yuck!” at the beginning of the session, to heated debate on the merit of “their” animal at the class conclusion, you can see students looking at these often-maligned creatures in a new way. The presentations are unique, surprising and at times very unusual. Each class is different; the ranking always varies so it keeps the classes fresh for docents and students alike.
Expansion topics: In most instances we have 50 minutes to present our program but when we have more time we cover information about what the zoo does to contribute to biodiversity. This includes discussion of AZA and the purposes of zoos, ISIS and the SSP and the animals at our facility currently on breeding programs. We close with a discussion of what the students can do to help: saving space in their own backyards for wildlife, being careful consumers and not buying wildlife products from threatened or endangered animals, joining conservation groups, recycling and finding new owners for animals they can’t keep (not releasing them into the wild).
Conclusion: We have been able to adapt this program for 7th 12th graders and for sessions lasting from 45-90 minutes. It’s an interactive program that allows us to sneak in biodiversity facts and figures and all the rest of our litany about the value of all life in our world. We do offer additional pre and post classroom work as requested by the teachers.
Questions? Email Diane Cooney at firstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered species site http://endangered.fws.gov/
Biodiversity and Conservation, Hypertext book by Peter J. Bryant – http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/bio65/Titlpage.html
Ecological Society of America http://esa.sdsc.edu/biodiv2.htm
Defining the “B” Word by John Harte from Defender, Spring 1996 http://www.defenders.org/bio-bi03.html
The World Conservation Monitoring Centre http://www.wcmc.org.uk/infoserv/biogen/biogen.html