W von Papinešu
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ST PETERSBURG TIMES (Florida) 19 May 05 Cool critters share wetlands secrets - J.D. Floyd Elementary students get close to wildlife during a demonstration at the school. (Beth N. Gray)
Photo: Jeff Ewelt, vultures manager at Lowry Park Zoo, shows students a boa constrictor Wednesday morning at J.D. Floyd Elementary. The zoo sent a selection of animals and reptiles to the school for a lecture and demonstration. (Maurice Rivenbark)
Spring Hill: Some slithery creatures, some invasive intruders, some feathered friends and a decidedly unfriendly mammal shared their secrets with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at J.D. Floyd Elementary School on Wednesday.
The critters and their keepers at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa visited as part of the school's environmental science curriculum and center. This year, students have been studying disappearing wetlands.
Jeff Ewelt, vultures manager at the zoo, told students that all the animals he introduced call the wetlands home.
"All of the animals are important to us in some way," said Ewelt. Some are significant in a negative way. As Ewelt paced the room with a bug-eyed, softball-sized marine toad, 10-year-old Lane Martin, gasped, "Whoa, cool!"
The fourth-grader reconsidered when he heard that the toad is poisonous.
"Don't touch," cautioned co-presenter Melinda Mendolusky, vultures supervisor at the zoo. "If you forgot you touched it and later maybe licked your finger or bit a fingernail, it would make you sick," Mendolusky said. "If you see one in your back yard, tell mom and dad."
The story of the toad is a lesson in messing with nature, presenters said. It is not native to Florida but was introduced to eat the cane beetle, which feeds on sugar cane.
"It backfired," Mendolusky said. "It ate other beetles and toads."
Neither is the boa constrictor a native reptile. But it occupies the world's most expansive wetland, the Everglades, and similar swamps, Mendolusky said.
The students expressed awe as Ewelt stepped from behind the stage curtain bearing 25 pounds of twining serpent.
People buy snakes as pets, and the bigger the better, Mendolusky said. But when they grow too big, irresponsible owners release them into the wild, which is how they established themselves in the Florida wilderness. Boa constrictors devour native animal species of the wetlands and can swallow a rabbit whole, she noted.
Alyssa Olson, 10, raised her hand when Mendolusky asked if anyone was afraid of snakes. The fourth-grader drew back with a grimace as Ewelt passed by clutching the reptile to his chest.
Alyssa said she'd once touched a snake in science class. She declared it "slimy."
But Mendolusky said snakes aren't slimy.
"Their skin is actually smooth" and, as such, are in demand for making such goods as shoes and handbags, she added.
Mendolusky introduced the students to a 2-foot-plus alligator, which intrigued rather than frightened with its toothy sort of smile. Ewelt said an alligator's size can be estimated by the length from its nose to its eyes in inches, then translating that to feet.
But do your spying with binoculars, Ewelt warned. Adult gators can run on land at 25 mph, as fast as a human, he said, and they bring down prey with a whip of their tail.
Samantha Rosario, 9, reached out to pet a Virginia opossum. She said she sees them frequently around the woods near her home and always wondered if their coat felt spiky. Mendolusky said no.
But listening to the opossum's credentials, the fourth-grader was impressed. "I'm never going to touch a possum, ever," Samantha said. "They've got 50 teeth. And sharp claws."
A more benign red-tailed owl captivated sixth-grader Keyonna Cole, 13. "I liked that the owl could turn its head 270 degrees," Keyonna said.
An owl's eyes are so big, Ewelt said, there's no room in its head for muscles to move the eyes. So, the neck turns instead to give the bird a wide-angled view.
Cole was likewise impressed that efforts are being made "to take the Everglades back."
This year, sixth-graders enrolled in the environmental science curriculum spent three days and two nights at the education center in Everglades National Park.
The field trip enabled students to interact with researchers who are helping to solve environmental problems, said science teacher Adam Wolford.
Next year's fifth-graders will embark on a study, Rainforest at the Crossroads. They'll spend an overnight at the Lowry Park Zoo, getting a behind-the-scenes tour with keepers and dietitians, witnessing the activity of exotic nocturnal animals in the zoo's rainforest section and waking up to the roars of lions and tigers, Wolford said.
Wednesday's program was aimed at introducing students to some native animals and invasive animals, and to tell the difference between the two, said environmental science teacher Chuck Barrett.
And it could attract more students to environmental studies, as well as introduce them to career options involving the pursuits.
Ewelt, 28, and Mendolusky, 29, both have been at the Lowry Park Zoo for about five years. He has a college degree in environmental communications, she in zoology. They present about 200 outreach programs a year. They are part of the Zoo Ventures Team, which also conducts regular lecture-demonstrations on site.
For more information on J.D. Floyd Elementary School's environmental program, call 797-7055.
J.D. Floyd Elementary students get close to wildlife
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