ROADKILL CAN OFFER LESSONS IN ECOLOGY

by Whit Gibbons

March 29, 2015

The time of year has come when you may begin to experience a common wildlife phenomenon anytime you drive somewhere. Roadkill. As I have said before on this topic, don't be grossed out just because an animal is dead. Certainly no reasonable person likes to hit an animal with a car or see a dead creature on the road, but wildlife victims of highway accidents can enhance environmental education. Scientists have preserved road-killed specimens in museum collections for decades.

Learn to notice animals, dead or alive, especially small ones. Anyone can see a dead coyote by the side of the road. But what about a leopard frog the size of a deck of cards or a scarlet king snake that looks like a peppermint stick? Developing a search image for small animals on roads is not that difficult. Most herpetologists can spot a salamander the size of a matchstick in the rain at night.

If traffic conditions allow, stop and look at interesting dead animals. Most do not smell bad because few remain on the roadside once crows or other scavengers see a dining opportunity. Possums are part of the nighttime cleanup crew. Take a good look at your find and snap a photograph of it so you can identify it when you get home. Check out the habitat along the road to get a sense of where such animals live. We determined the habitat of rare coral snakes in a region by finding road-killed specimens over a period of several years.

Some road-killed victims provide a different kind of continuing education material. In my talks I have used many possums that were acquired by searching for babies in the pouches of road-killed females. A litter of orphaned babies who have stayed with the mother can be raised with a high success rate. I know of an Australian educational program that does the same with baby kangaroos, known as joeys. In some talks to schoolchildren, I show them a 3-pound snapping turtle. We acquired it as a result of a large female being killed on a local highway. Inside her were 51 ready-to-be-laid eggs. We incubated them at home and several hatched. Most were released back at the pond the mother had come from, but the education outreach program kept two, and they provide great learning opportunities for our presentations.

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 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 not to let them get out of the car, except in a residential area or on a country road with no traffic.

Less obvious hazards include animals that could harm you. For example, an almost-dead copperhead can still bite and inject venom. Rabbits sometimes have an ailment known as tularemia or rabbit fever that can be transmitted to a person if blood from an infected rabbit gets into an open cut. In some regions, fire ants are the first animals to find fresh roadkill. Do not pick up an animal that is covered in ants. Following these guidelines will help ensure that the experience is safe as well as educational.

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 dead animals you see and will probably run over fewer yourself. One day perhaps 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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