ROADKILL 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.

Despite the 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.

Though little 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.

Learn to 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.

Stop and 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.

Some roadkill 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.

When you 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.

Less obvious 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.

Road-killed 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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