The days may be getting shorter, but now is the best time to get outside and explore the great outdoors. With the weather cooling and animals busily getting ready for winter, enjoy connecting your students to what is happening outside their windows. Depending on the grade level, students can explore with their families or make individual observations that they bring back and share to a larger group.
At Zoo Atlanta, we are all about observing the natural world and finding ways in which we can help save wildlife and wild places. In order to save animals, we first have to know what we are saving. We do this in two ways – gathering baseline data about a species and understanding their behaviors. These two methods can be applied across grade levels to introduce your students to research and conservation.
For over 50 years, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has been studying mountain gorillas in the wild. Teams set out daily to make observations about individuals in troops, ranging patterns, troop sizes, social interactions, and health. In conjunction with a tool called an ethogram, they then use this information to paint a picture over time with regard to how populations are doing. An ethogram is a list of behaviors exhibited by a certain species that a researcher would then reference when making observations. Over time, this collection of observed behaviors allows scientists to see trends in behaviors and provides a foundation by which we can begin to understand a species.
There are four subspecies of gorilla, with three listed as Critically Endangered and one listed as Endangered. By gathering data over time, we know what historical population sizes were and if populations are increasing or decreasing over time. Scientists can make suggestions about policies and regulations that are driven by the data. And we know that these observations and data collection make a difference because mountain gorillas, which were listed as Critically Endangered, were reassessed to Endangered in 2018 because of the great efforts to create policies and protect resources that directly benefit mountain gorillas.
At home, have your students start by making observations about animals they see in their backyard. This can start as a simple nature journal. Have them spend five to 10 minutes at the same time every day writing down what they notice. They should include the date, time, weather, temperature, and any other notes that might be important. Over the days and weeks, ask students to look back at their notes and see if they notice any trends or if they are surprised by something that they observed. Making these daily observations is a great first step at understanding nature around us and honing our research skills. For older students, ask them to choose a species that they observe regularly. Once they have decided on a species, they should research different types of behaviors that this animal is known to exhibit. For example, if they choose squirrels, they might list eating, climbing, and resting as a few examples. Ask them to create an ethogram and incorporate it into their daily observations. If possible, continue this research project throughout the school year and ask students to submit a final report of their observations, including any recommendations that they might make to improve the conditions of their yard for wildlife. Examples include adding bird feeders or altering the time of day that they let their dogs outside based on when wildlife is most active.
And for those looking for inspiration outside the constraints of their home and local park, utilize Zoo Atlanta’s live camera to make observations on pandas.
If we can appreciate the nature that is around us, we can apply that same appreciation to wildlife and wild places across the globe. Using our backyards and parks nearby gives us the greatest opportunity to practice these observation and research skills that we can carry forward to help save species.
Have a great fall and get outside!