ROADKILL CAN TEACH US ECOLOGY
Eleanor H. Porter's character Pollyanna could always find something to be glad about, so I'm sure she would understand this take on roadkill. No reasonable person likes to hit an animal with a car or see a dead animal by the road, but if you enjoy learning about wildlife, road-killed animals have a silver lining: they offer educational opportunities.
Animal deaths on our nation's highways are higher than ever. Paved highways now dissect every major habitat in America, and any animal that travels overland on a highway, even for short distances, can become a casualty. Though such highway carnage is highly regrettable, these wildlife victims can be used for environmental education.
In addition to seeing road-killed specimens in museum collections, you can learn how to recognize roadkill (and live animals). Anyone might notice a dead deer on the shoulder of the road, but what about a glass lizard the size of a pencil? Developing a search image for small animals is not difficult. I know people who, while traveling 50 miles an hour on a highway, can spot a quarter-sized baby turtle or a salamander looking like two inches of spaghetti.
Stop and look at interesting dead animals. Many are killed at night. They aren't likely to smell bad because few stay on the road past the breakfast hour of crows and vultures. Roadkill may be your only opportunity to see a rare snake or a frog that only comes out at night. Take a good look, or even a photograph, of what you find. Check out the identification when you get home. Look carefully at the habitat on both sides of the road to get a sense of where the animal lives. Scientists at the Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL) determined the habitat of the rare coral snake in South Carolina based on where we found road-killed specimens over a period of several years.
Some road-killed victims provide a different kind of environmental education material; what might be called "continuing education." SREL acquires baby possums for school talks by searching the pouches of road-killed females. A litter of unharmed babies can be raised with a high success rate. An exciting road-kill moment came two months ago when a large female snapping turtle was killed on a local highway. Inside her were 51 ready-to-be-laid eggs. We incubated them and expect several of them to hatch any day now. Though the mothers are gone, the baby snapping turtles and baby possums will provide great learning opportunities for schoolchildren.
When stopping to examine roadkill, your foremost concern should be not becoming roadkill yourself. No animal, no matter how rare or unusual, is worth stopping for in an unsafe spot or stepping incautiously onto a busy highway. Such advice smacks of common sense, but in the excitement of finding something new, enthusiasm can override caution. I know of two college students who were hit by oncoming traffic while jumping out of a vehicle to look at an animal on a highway. When children are along, the safest approach is to have them stay in the car except on a back country road with no traffic.
Less-obvious hazards include animals that could harm you. For example, an almost-dead rattlesnake can still strike and inject venom. A disease called tularemia can be transmitted via the blood of rabbits if it gets into a open wound. In some regions, fire ants are the first animals to find fresh roadkill. So don't pick up an animal that is covered in ants. Following such precautions will help ensure that the educational experience remains an enjoyable one.
animals are an inexorable feature of an extensive highway system. Once
you develop a search image for small creatures on roads, you will be astounded
at the number of dead animals you observe and will probably kill fewer
animals yourself. Steps are under way to develop protocols to minimize
damage to wildlife whose habitats we have fragmented with roads. Meanwhile,
let's learn something about animal ecology while we are waiting.
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