My fall semester in the Education Department as a Life Science Programs Intern, has provided a fresh appreciation of environmental conservation. Specifically, I have loved learning and sharing about the salamanders in our collection. As a Biology major it’s second nature to recite what amphibians are; they’re cold-blooded animals with vertebrae that undergo metamorphosis and have permeable skin that is not covered by fur, scales, or hair. Easy.
As an intern, salamanders have become much more than their anatomy. Throughout this semester I’ve had the opportunity to develop and plan a Science Discovery Cart activity for guests to engage in, themed “Amphibians as Bioindicators of Environmental Health”. Environmental health is especially close to my heart because I was raised in Georgia on the Flint River, and to think of a world without this place of undisturbed nature is heartbreaking. The health of the river is very important to me, and knowing that amphibians also value and depend on it instantly connected me with them.
My favorite activity as an intern has been taking salamanders out for live animal encounters to interact with guests. “Would you like to meet Goldy?” I’d say, inviting guests of the museum to observe the earthy and odd creature that was resting motionless in her special travel container. The answer is never the same. Some children are surprisingly brave and approach me with two hands stretched wide, ready to explore the unidentified creature.
There are always three questions that come immediately upon investigation from kids: “Is it real?”, “Is it a lizard?” and “Can we touch it?” The first two questions are easy to answer, and kids take their eyes off of the animal only to watch for my responses. Yes, she’s a real animal, but Goldy isn’t the spotlight kind of critter and prefers to stay hidden, so she stays extremely still while traveling in her container. No, even though she certainly is close to the shape of a lizard, she isn’t one; Goldy is the resident representative of Spotted salamanders at Fernbank. The third question however, is a difficult answer to give when children are so eager to learn: No, salamanders shouldn’t be touched by people because of their permeable skin. They take up and lose water through their skin, and touching them could dry them out or make them sick by spreading disease. Even without being touched, the remarkable character of their skin makes salamanders effective for teaching because amphibians are particularly sensitive to pollutants in their habitats, and dependent on fresh water free of toxins from toxic waste, metals, and trash.
Now I have realized and shared the ecological importance of amphibians not only with museum guests, but with my family, friends, and roommates! I have loved my time as an intern because I love teaching children about the significance of environmental health, the contagious cheerfulness and enthusiasm of the children, and have loved connecting with the animals at Fernbank.
You can meet Fernbank Museum’s animal ambassadors by attending a Live Animal Encounter, typically offer on weekend afternoons and school holidays. Check the “Today at Fernbank” sign the next time you visit for program listings.
—Rachel Whitmire, Life Sciences Intern Fall 2013