Kids go wild about learning at local libraries

Friday, July 1, 2016
Dominic, an 8-month-old kangaroo, is a bit shy as he is introduced to a room full of children at the Berryville Library. His human friend is wildlife programer Shawna Adams. (Photo by David Bell/Carroll County News)

A few exotic animals found their way into local libraries this week, and Carroll County kids could not have been more excited.

The National History Educational Program of the Mid-South partnered with all three Carroll County libraries to present a wildlife program titled "Climbing, Jumping, Soaring" to kids in the area. The pint-sized zoo visited the Green Forest Public Library Wednesday morning, moved to the Berryville Public Library after lunch and made its final stop at the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library in the afternoon.

Julie Hall, director of the Berryville Public Library, said the event was part of the library's Wednesday Workout, a weekly program where kids work out their minds and bodies.

"This is kind of a combination," she said, "but you don't have to move your body today."

The "Climbing, Jumping, Soaring" wildlife program, Hall said, looks at how animals move and allows kids to compare that to how they move. She encouraged the kids in attendance to get some good ideas for the program to use at the library's field day next Wednesday.

"We will be at the Berryville Community Center and have a whole hour at 1 p.m. for races and fun. We'll need some climbing, jumping and soaring of a different sort," Hall said.

Shawna Adams, a wildlife programmer and high school science teacher, told the kids she keeps a variety of animals in enclosures around her home in Tennessee and had brought a few of them with her. She asked the children to stay seated and quiet so the animals would not get nervous.

"As we look at each animal, we'll see how an animal's common name refers to a particular characteristic about that animal and look at the unique adaptations each animal has that allows them to be successful in their native habitats," Adams said.

The first animal she showed the children was a blue-tongued skink. The reptile got his name, Adams, said because it has a blue tongue that makes it look like it has been eating blueberries. She said bright colors, such as blue, usually serve as warning signs in nature.

"When something frightens him, he flashes open his mouth to show the bright pink lining and that blue tongue," Adams said. "It's his way of saying 'Warning: You don't want to eat me. I'm bad for you.' "

She said the blue-tongued skink is great at digging and uses that skill to get under things and hide from predators. If that does not work, Adams said, the reptile has a unique trick up its sleeve to escape.

"When a predator grabs the skink's tail and scares him, he can constrict and contract the muscles in the tail really tightly until it falls off," she said. "So the predator is left eating the tail, and he can make his getaway."

Adams said her next animal, a black-tailed prairie dog, is also a master of digging. Prairie dogs are social animals that live in large families in the Midwest, she said. Adams explained that prairie dogs make a huge impact on the environment with the way they move. They dig tunnels to live in with their sharp claws, she said, and churn the soil while doing so.

"When they churn the soil, they enable it to absorb more water and grow more plant life. This is important for herbivores, plant-eaters like deer and bison," she said.

Adams continued, "Prairie dogs are so important they're called a 'keystone species.' If you take them out of their ecosystem, the ecosystem changes. She's a crucial part of the food chain."

Prairie dogs also warn each other of danger with different calls, she said. Each chirp is very descriptive, Adams said, and can mean that specific predators, such as black-footed ferrets or owls, are nearby or mean that a prairie dog that does not belong to the family is in the area.

"Not only can they tell each something is there, they can also be descriptive. They could say it's a tall person wearing the color blue," she said. "It's amazing to me that a rodent has that complex a vocabulary."

Adams got the prairie dog to make a few chirps and said it would sometimes answer her high school students when they coughed. The children at the library began coughing to see if they could get the prairie dog to answer.

Adams put a sock and glove on her arm for her next two animals. She first brought out an African straw-colored fruit bat. The animal is named for the little yellow patch under his neck, Adams said, and because he eats fruit.

She said the teak tree, valued for its wood, depends on the fruit bat to survive. The bat eats the fruit from the tree, Adams said, and breaks down the hardy seed coat with the digestive enzymes in its stomach, dispersing the seeds to new locations. She said research shows that 98 percent of teak tree seeds travel through the bat's digestive system.

"This process also makes the tree more disease-resistant," Adams said. "It's a bit of co-evolution. The bat gets the food it needs from the tree, and the tree's seeds get dispersed by the bat."

As a result, she said, if the fruit bat goes extinct then the teak tree will, too. Adams said bats in North America are also extremely important to the ecosystem because they help with insect control.

"One brown bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes in an hour, and they live in large colonies. Imagine how many insects are eaten by bats each night," she said. "They help prevent the spread of disease by mosquitoes."

Adams' next animal was a male Eurasian eagle owl. With a wingspan of four feet, it is the largest owl in the world, she said. Females are even larger, Adams said, with a wingspan of six feet.

The Eurasian eagle owl has several traits that make it an awesome hunter, she said. Its big orange eyes provide excellent vision, Adams said, and let the owl see far away objects better than close ones. However, she said, its eyes are locked forward at all times.

"He does not have muscles allowing him to move his eyes and see around him like we do," she said. "Instead, he has to turn his head to see. That's why people think owls can turn their heads all the way around."

Adams continued, "They can't go all the way, just 270 degrees. If we did that, we would die because it would kink off an artery in our neck that supplies blood and oxygen to the brain."

She said owls have special vertebrae in their necks that allow them to turn their heads without losing the blood supply. The owl also has ears positioned at different heights on each side of its head, Adams said, so it can pinpoint the location of sounds.

"He can see and hear a mouse from high up in a tree," she said, "but that's not even his coolest ability."

The owl's prey never hears the bird coming, Adams said, because it does not make noise when it flies. She shifted the arm the owl was sitting on to demonstrate this trait to the kids. The owl flapped its wings to regain balance, but the kids could not hear anything.

"He's like a ninja," Adams said. "His wings don't make noise because of the way the feathers are shaped."

The leading edge of the feather is serrated, she said, meaning it breaks up air resistance when the owl swoops down. The back end of the feathers have soft fluffy down that acts as a sort of sponge to soak up air waves, Adams said.

"His prey never hears him coming," she said.

The final animal was a baby red kangaroo named Dominic. He was wearing a diaper, Adams said, because he is not potty-trained.

She said a non-neutered red kangaroo can grow over six feet tall and weigh about 200 pounds. The animals can jump as high as they are tall, Adams said, and jump about 30 feet horizontally. She said they move at speeds of about 35 miles per hour and use their thick muscular tails like rudders to keep their balance when jumping and moving at high speeds.

Kangaroos are marsupials, Adams said, which means females have pouches to carry and nurse babies inside. Because of this, she said she has to carry a large bag around with her to hold Dominic.

"He gets really stressed out if there's not a parent around, so he has to go everywhere I go, even the store," Adams said. "It looks like I just have a big ugly purse, but I've actually got a baby kangaroo sleeping upside down inside it."

The kids who attended said they loved getting to see all the different animals.

Jachin Houghton said the Eurasian eagle owl was his favorite.

"It's so big, but it moves so quietly," he said. "That's really cool."

His brother, Malachi Houghton, was more excited to see the African straw-colored fruit bat.

"I like the fruit bat because it's awake at night," he said.

"My favorite was the kangaroo," Jordy Casey said, "because she said he'll be red when he grows up. I really like that color."

Hall reminded the children that the library would go to the Berryville Community Center at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 6, for a field day where they would climb, jump and soar like the animals Adams had shown them.

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