OFFERS LESSONS IN ANIMAL ECOLOGY
by Whit Gibbons
July 13, 2008
A few years
ago I wrote about the few positive aspects of road-killed animals. The
message is still suitable for people who don't automatically assume a
dead animal is a yucky animal.
decrease in highway driving because of gas prices, human tragedies occur
every day on our nation's highways. Others occur virtually every minute--road-killed
wildlife. National statistics are unavailable, but animal deaths are incredibly
high because paved highways now dissect every major habitat in America.
Any animal living near a highway and traveling overland or through the
air, even for short distances, can become a casualty.
positive can be said about highway carnage, roadkill can play a role in
environmental education. Sometimes the dead animals are even used in what
might be called continuing education. For decades scientists have been
preserving road-killed specimens in museum collections.
notice roadkill, especially small things. Anyone can see a dead beaver,
but what about a dead scarlet kingsnake the size of a pencil? Developing
a search image for small animals is not difficult. I know people who can
be traveling fifty miles an hour and spot a quarter-sized baby turtle
or a salamander looking like two inches of spaghetti.
look at the dead specimen. Most are killed at night and do not 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 at the
habitat on both sides of the road to get a sense of where the animal lives.
We were able to determine the habitat of coral snakes in South Carolina
by finding road-killed specimens over a period of several years.
actually provides environmental education material directly. The Savannah
River Ecology Lab acquires baby possums for school talks by searching
the pouches of dead females. A litter of unharmed babies can be raised
with a high success rate. I know of an Australian educational program
that does the same with baby kangaroos, joeys. One of the most exciting
roadkill moments came when we picked up a road-killed kingsnake that was
five feet long and found inside it a four-and-a-half-foot-long rattlesnake.
stop 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 onto a highway without looking.
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 while you bring the animal to them.
hazards include animals that could harm you. For example, an almost-dead
rattlesnake can still bite and inject venom. And the blood of some mammals,
such as rabbits and rodents, can cause an ailment known as tularemia,
or rabbit fever. If blood from an infected animal gets into a cut on a
person's hand, the person can become infected.
On rare occasions,
another factor comes into play. Technically, no parts can be removed from
endangered or threatened species, even one dead on the road. Taking a
tail feather from a dead wood stork would be a federal offense. So for
several reasons, picking up roadkill should be done with caution and by
someone familiar with the species.
animals are an unfortunate yet 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 deaths and will probably kill fewer
yourself. One day we will 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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