Environmental forecasts and reports are all too often full of grimness and gloom. But ecology has its lighter moments, and we should remember them, as I do – a memorable field trip when I was teaching a herpetology class.
My goal for the field trip was to have the students handle as many kinds of reptiles and amphibians as possible. One way to add to the list of animals is to pick up road kills. Handling dead animals has its yuck factor, but road kills can offer the opportunity to observe seldom-seen creatures.
On my way to meet the students, I found a road‑killed river cooter. A cooter is not a likely turtle to catch on a field trip. So, although I could see more of its insides than I cared to, I decided to bring the specimen along to show the students. But this cooter now providing an educational opportunity had done so by becoming road kill the day before and was not welcome as a passenger. So I pitched the turtle, which was the size of a meat platter, up on top of the van. A few miles down the road I found a road‑killed corn snake. Why not? On top of the van went the snake. With luck, I would have specimens to show the students upon my arrival. To my surprise, the show-and-tell items all stayed in place.
The students were standing around at our meeting spot, excited about a toad they had found while waiting. Their enthusiasm increased immeasurably when they saw what I had already collected. Road kills can sometimes smell bad (real bad) but are nonetheless valuable educational tools. The students were properly impressed by the cooter, the corn snake and a bullfrog (all very dead) that I showed them atop the van.
Everyone then piled into my van, and I was soon gratified to see that I had already taught them the value of watching for road kills. I knew because, when we saw a dead armadillo, they wanted to stop and take a closer look. As the students got back in, I heard a loud thump on top of the van. Someone had thrown the armadillo atop the van assuming that this was what herpetologists did with road kills, even mammals. Not wanting to quell their enthusiasm, I said nothing.
We caught many live animals that day, but we also stopped for road kills. And each departure was accompanied by a thump on the top of the van. As we approached Cordele, Ga., the van was heavily laden with a bizarre assortment of carcasses. I checked for buzzards in the rearview mirror. When we reached the traffic light in town, I was answering a question from someone in the back and probably going too fast. Someone shouted that the light had turned red. I stopped in plenty of time, though abruptly. Our cargo did not.
We watched the armadillo slide across the intersection and stop in front of the walker of an elderly woman preparing to cross the street. A six‑foot gray rat snake slithered to a standstill alongside the patrol car that had stopped for the light on the other side. The street was littered with a high biodiversity of other interesting but very dead creatures. Our final observation was a corn snake dangling over the front of the van, its body swishing back and forth across the windshield.
As on any good field trip, the teacher learns as much as the students. For example, we all learned that dead armadillos moving 40 miles an hour slide a long way on a city street. Corn snakes make colorful windshield wipers. And Cordele has a small and polite police department that actually helped us pick up the carnage. I couldn’t possibly find Cordele again without a road map, and I’m sure some of the residents who remember our field trip are glad. I doubt they want another lesson in the educational value of road kills.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.