In their science classes this fall, Class 2 students have been discovering ecosystems and the invaluable role they play in New York State. They’ve explored the three main ecosystems found in New York (forests, wetlands and meadows), discussed the intricate nature of food chains and food webs, and studied the interdependent relationships between living and nonliving things.
As part of this study, two special guests from Teatown, a 1000-acre nature preserve and education center in the Lower Hudson Valley, recently visited a class. The guests, Elissa Schilmeister and Maddy Schroeder, are environmental educators at the preserve. They brought (live!) animal friends for the students to meet and, along the way, emphasized the importance of cultivating an appreciation and respect for New York State wildlife.
Before they brought out their first live animal guest, the visitors shared a taxidermy mount of a coyote and explained that it wasn’t until humans forced out the wolves that they came to live in New York State. “But when you take a predator, like the wolf, out of an ecosystem it creates an imbalance,” Ms. Schilmeister noted. With no wolves left, New York’s deer population grew. This larger population meant less food, so the deer became weak and sickness began to spread. They were also forced to begin searching for alternative forms of food, which is why many upstate New Yorkers complain of deer eating the flowers in their gardens.
“Imagine in the city if they took away all of the police or sanitation workers.” Ms. Schilmeister shared. “Just as humans have jobs, each animal in our ecosystem has a job. Thinking of it in this way can help us to appreciate animals more, even those that might seem scary.”
Next, the visitors presented a large turtle shell, which they passed around the room. “A turtle shell is a bone that grows with the turtle and can heal itself,” Ms. Schilmeister explained. “These shells contain the turtle’s backbone, which is why they can never take them off.” After each student felt the shell, Ms. Schroeder took out the first live animal visitor, a diamond back terrapin. The terrapin is New York State’s only brackish water turtle, which means it lives in estuaries (where freshwater and saltwater meet) like the Long Island Sound and the Hudson River. But, as Ms. Schilmeister noted, their population has been dwindling for several reasons.
Many humans take terrapins out of the wild to keep as pets or even smuggle them to Canada where they are sold and shipped to Asia to be eaten, and often terrapins get stuck in crab traps where they drown. But the biggest reason of all is that 90% of the terrapins’ nesting habitat has disappeared due to humans. Turtles leave the water and lay their eggs on land, but with fewer open areas to choose from they are having trouble reproducing. “The best thing for us to do with nature is to observe it with our eyes,” Ms. Schilmeister noted.
As they prepared to bring out the next animal guest, the visitors prompted, “If you don’t like an animal or are afraid of an animal, that’s okay. But the more you learn about that animal’s purpose, the easier it will be to appreciate it for what it is.”
With that said, Ms. Schroeder reached into a cloth bag and pulled out New York State’s longest snake species, the black rat snake. While they aren’t venomous to humans, these snakes eat rats (hence the name), are excellent climbers, and reach up to six feet in length. “Its role in nature is to control the rodent population,” Ms. Schilmeister explained as Ms. Schroeder let the students get a closer look. “Remember, every animal has a job. There are things in nature that we should be careful of, but not everything will hurt us.” The students were amazed to learn that snakes’ mouths contain something called a Jacobson’s organ, which allows them to “smell” by flicking their tongues.
Once the snake was returned to its bag, the room erupted into a chorus of “Awwww,” as the students were greeted by three different species of owls. The first was the eastern screech owl. This species, which typically resides in hollowed out trees, is able to survive in suburban and urban areas and has been spotted in both Central Park and Prospect Park. Ms. Schilmeister shared that their biggest strength is their hearing. “They can hear a mouse tunneling under snow three feet deep. That’s like a person being able to hear a whisper from five city blocks away!”
The second owl visitor, the barred owl, resides in New York’s forests and swamps, far away from people. The students learned that they are more diurnal than other owls and will venture out during daylight. Ms. Schroeder also demonstrated their distinct call that sounds like “Who cooks for youuuu?”
The third and final owl guest, the great horned owl, is known for its large eyes. As the owl turned its head, surveying the classroom, Ms. Schilmeister shared that its eyes are large because they need to dilate at night. But because of their size, the owl can’t move its eyes to look around; it must move its entire head. For this reason, this owl is able to rotate its head almost 270 degrees in both directions. The group was amazed to learn that while Great Horned Owls appear rather large, their feathers are so light that they typically weigh less than a guinea pig (around two pounds).
While the owls were returned to their cages, Ms. Schilmeister shared a few fun facts. For example, to better sneak up on their prey, owls have feathers with serrated edges that are specially built to fly silently. And did you know that owls don’t sweat? Instead, when they need to cool down, they pant like a dog.
Full of exciting, new owl knowledge, the students looked on in wonder as Ms. Schroeder carried out their final animal guest - North America’s only marsupial, the opossum. An omnivore that likes to scavenge, opossums are notorious for digging through people’s garbage cans. “Think of them as the waste management workers of the animal world,” Ms. Schilmeister said with a laugh. To demonstrate, Ms. Schroeder placed a selection of food in front of the animal, including squash, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and chicken meatloaf. After a few moments of pondering, much to the students’ amusement the opossum bypassed the veggies and went straight for the meatloaf. The group also learned that opossums have 50 teeth – the most of any mammal in North America – and that they involuntarily faint, or “play dead,” when faced with inescapable danger!
The Teatown visitors then gathered up their animal friends and said goodbye, leaving these Class 2 students with a wealth of new wildlife knowledge and a reminder of the responsibility we all have to respect and protect New York’s natural resources.
Click below to browse photos from the presentation: