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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Road Kill Redemption

Air Date: Week of

Flattened frogs and squished squirrels come back to life as teaching aids in classrooms across America. Students charting road kill share their data on the Internet and learn important lessons in animal behavior, migration patterns and the perils of development. Wendy Nelson reports.


KNOY: It's not unusual for volunteers to help collect information for environmental studies. That's how much of the data for frog surveys or bird counts is gathered, for example. So perhaps it's not too surprising that grade school students in places like Granville, Michigan, have volunteered to investigate one of the great mysteries of the modern age. It's all part of a project that puts a new spin on the old question: Why did the chicken cross the road? The answer: Sometimes he doesn't. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains.

NELSON: Over the years 12-year-old Jamie Terrell and her mom have worked together on many school projects. They've collected butterflies and identified flowers. But now, they're looking for something different.

TERRELL: What do you think it looks like? Does it look like a feathered friend or a furry friend?

JAMIE: A squirrel.

TERRELL: Think so?

JAMIE: Mm hm.

TERRELL: Car go by. Real slower.

NELSON: After 3 drive-bys they determine this flattened tuft of fur is indeed a squirrel. But it was kind of hard to tell at first, since it had been run over so many times. Jamie makes some notes about the location of the squirrel, the speed limit on the road, and the weather conditions. Then they drive on.

(Children's voices indoors)

NELSON: The next day Jamie and her classmates report their findings during the Roadkill Roll Call.

MAZUREK: Okay. Roadkill participants: any new -- yes.

GIRL: A rabbit.

MAZUREK: Rabbit. Where at?

GIRL: Thirtieth Street.

MAZUREK: Thirtieth Street? Okay, today we'll enter it on the computer.

NELSON: Blake Mazurek's sixth grade class is one small part of a much larger project. Thousands of students in more than 35 states are helping to collect data about roadkill. The participants can be in any grade but they all have to follow the project protocol. Each day they travel an assigned stretch of road, usually a mile or 2 long. When they spot a dead animal, they record pertinent data. Now, kids being kids, they're naturally intrigued by all things grotesque, including dead animals in the road.

(To child) What did it look like?

BOY: Well, it was all smashed up, and bloody and stuff like that.

GIRL: All I saw mostly was the tail. It looked like it's been there for a day or 2.

NELSON: At this point you might be wondering what kids could possibly learn from a flat cat or a squished squirrel. As it turns out, plenty. They learn about migration patterns and different habitats, and the conflicts between humans and animals that development causes. This is the first year Blake Mazurek has used the roadkill project with his class at Prairie View Junior Middle School in Granville, Michigan.

MAZUREK: I think what we'll be finding is that there'll be some differences between our suburban areas of our district and the rural areas, as far as the types of animals and also the frequency. And I think they're also going to find a higher concentration, of course, on those roads that have higher speeds and more traffic. So what I'm anxious to see is how the kids pull that out. And I think it'll be really helpful once we have our plotting and our maps.

NELSON: The Roadkill Project got its start 6 years ago. It was the brainchild of Brewster Bartlett. Bartlett, or Dr. Splat, as he's better known, is a 9th grade science teacher in Derry, New Hampshire. He says at first most kids think the concept is crazy.

BARTLETT: They have no idea what they're getting themselves into. They're interested, and eventually they start to piecemeal the project together as saying well, there are a lot of animals being killed. What can we do to stop that?

NELSON: The project started small, mostly in New England. But now there's an entire Web site devoted to it, where classes from all over the country post their findings. Dr. Splat says sometimes even he's amazed at the lengths the kids make, like the student in Florida who found a correlation between roadkill and litter.

BARTLETT: She noticed that a lot of kids apparently were throwing apples, after they eat the apple, on the road. And she came up with the idea, well, if you throw food outside onto the road, it's going to attract other animals.

NELSON: Last year, Dr. Splat's students in New Hampshire saw the effects of El Nino firsthand, by studying roadkill. They noticed the fatality count was way down compared to previous years. So, they did some digging and discovered the unseasonably warm weather caused the animals to migrate early, before the students started monitoring the roads. Dr. Splat says almost any teacher can find a use for flattened animals in their lesson plans. Students can track data by making charts and graphs. They can look up information from previous years to trace the historical patterns of roadkill. And they can debate ideas for reducing animal fatalities, like encouraging drivers to slow down. The Roadkill Project is expanding all the time. There are now classes participating in such far-flung places as Montreal, Moscow, and Hong Kong. And if that means another lesson they learn is one about the potential for global cooperation to combat roadkill, Dr. Splat says that's just fine with him. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Granville, Michigan.

(Music up and under, banjo: "Crossin; the highway late last night, he should'a looked left and you should'a looked right. He didn't see the station wagon car, the skunk got squashed and there you are. You got your dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin' to high heaven...")

KNOY: To find out more about the Roadkill Project, visit our Web site at www.livingonearth.org.



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