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Learning from road kill

Discovery naturalists make the most of roadside carcasses

Posted: December 23, 2011 - 1:00am
  Photo by David Job
Photo by David Job

Ten students stand over a dead porcupine but it is the blindfolded girl that everyone is watching.

“What is your nose telling you,” I ask the fourth-grade student from Auke Bay Elementary School.

She responds, “It smells like something is dead.”

The rest of the class is silent. The class’s body language shows me they are both grossed out and intrigued by the rotting carcass. One student’s stomach is uneasy and he walks away. It is a seminal moment for the whole group.

Taking away our vision is a way to develop and utilize our other senses. Humans rely on visual cues so much that using senses like touch, hearing and smell can help us make new connections with nature. When the blindfold comes off the student, the class expects an, “Oh that’s gross!” Instead, the girl is curious and examines our find as her eyes adjust to the afternoon light. Following her example, the other students forget their squeamishness and focus. The once uncomfortable fourth-graders are now a group of naturalists that want to know more about the mystery in front of them.

I am as excited as the kids about our find, but I have to remember to ask questions about our ecosystems lesson. Where will the porcupine’s nutrients go? What breaks this animal down? What will happen to the flesh of this animal when we come back here in the spring? A student whispers “bones”. For a second I day-dream about the perfect skeleton and the lessons it will provide. Then I realize the porcupine will not make it until then.

For years, Discovery naturalists have harvested road-killed critters and relocated them to our outdoor classrooms. A decomposing carcass exemplifies fourth-grade lesson objectives on the energy cycle and decomposers. It doesn’t take long before the F.B.I. — or fungus, bacteria and invertebrates — move in and begin to redistribute the food energy the porcupine once gleaned from a spruce tree. Recently however, the students and naturalists aren’t the only ones benefiting from the practice. Over the past few years the coyotes behind Auke Bay have discovered my late-fall tactics and have made me rethink my approach to this lesson.

In the fall of 2010, a different class headed out to look for the porcupine I placed the night before. As the class arrived at the fresh road kill we were amazed to see that the animal had been delicately chewed apart and its guts spread out in a 30-foot radius. What stood out on the porcupine carcass were the surgically precise cuts on the hind leg. Even for a coyote dissecting a porcupine is tricky business. This surprise provided a new ecological mystery and a lesson for our young naturalists. As we looked around for answers the student’s senses heightened. I asked the students, “How did this porcupine die? Then what happened? Can you find any signs?” The kids scoured the site, weaving around the trunks of the even-aged spruce and hemlock forest.

The coyotes taught this fourth-grade class that there is another piece to this puzzle. Now in the body of the carnivorous scavengers, we wondered where the energy would go next. Referencing our pre-hike classroom session, the students realized some of the critter’s nutrients will return to the soil and fertilize the spruce the porcupine thrives on. Will another carnivore hunt the coyote? Will this coyote be scavenged someday too? Hopefully we’ll find more clues on our next hike.

It’s a 5-minute walk back to the school. A student tells me, “This is the best field trip I have ever done.” I am thrilled, and reassured that scooping up stinky dead stuff on the side of the road is worth it. Back in the classroom I always reveal the porcupine’s road-side origin. They usually stare at me incredulously for a moment but then seem thankful for the learning the relocation provided. On our next hike, the first place they’ll want to visit is the porcupine site. It will likely be covered with snow, but I bet we’ll find some coyote tracks to follow.

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