Skinks & EE
Skinks & EE
Science Research as Environmental Education
Rowena Teal is in the final stages of writing up her MSc thesis after two seasons of fieldwork off the Napier-Taihape road in the general area of Erewhon and Otupae Stations. The area is at about 700m above sea level with extreme winter conditions and is home to the Small-scaled skink ( Oligosoma microlepis). This little lizard grows up to 67mm in length from nose to 'vent' (they are measured like this because they can drop their tails when threatened) but may have a tail of about the same length, and these endangered animals are the subject of Rowena's research.
What is especially interesting about her research from an environmental education perspective is that the whole project was conceived as both research and education occurring concurrently. Rowena's approach to her degree has been a little unorthodox in that she undertook a Post Graduate paper in environmental education within the structure of a Science programme. She began planning the project with the thought of developing an education resource at the end of the research in order to tell the local community about her findings. In seeking advice on this, the idea of viewing the whole research project as an educational opportunity crystallised.
Imagine the situation. An enthusiastic researcher enters an isolated rural community, visits all the local Stations, wants to stay for four months, and plans to roam far and wide looking for lizards. Everyone is going to want to know about the project. In the light of this scenario, the idea that every interaction with the local community was an educational opportunity developed. This was seen as two way, not only serving to inform people about the project, but also involving them in it since their knowledge of the area and of the lizards could be of considerable assistance. Conceiving a science research project as education has to our knowledge, never before been utilised in New Zealand.
Rowena's work is good science. O. microlepis is a daytime basking lizard that inhabits rock outcrops and moving scree slopes, and prior to her research, there were only 25 known populations of the species. Largely as a result of her community work, in this case talking to children who had seen lizards while playing, Rowena has documented two new populations and discovered animals at one existing site where they have not been observed for five years. The previous best sighting record has been 20 animals at one site. Rowena has observed 65 animals at this site and has a number of ideas about this. The amount of time involved in the research has made her pretty expert in spotting animals, but more importantly, she has gained a number of insights about when the animals are likely to be seen basking. In response, she is beginning to quantify the time, temperature, wind and cloud conditions that are optimum, and as well, to what degree the distance and colour of the observer might influence the appearance of animals. The purpose is to be able to identify conditions in which if the animals are present, they will be seen. It is a waste of time looking on a rainy day.
There have been some surprising findings. O. microlepis does not appear to like lichen on its basking rocks and prefers sites on which the rock is mobile enough to remain clean. Since many rock-falls and scree slopes are eventually healed by plant colonisation, O. microlepis' occupation of any particular site may not be permanent and there is much to be learned about the dispersal of young animals from established territories and how they migrate to new sites. It is on highly modified sites that the animals occur in the highest numbers. These sites are open to stock and are heavily grazed and fertilised. Although statistical analysis is not complete, Rowena suggests that stock keep the rock moving at the 'slow erosion' rate that keeps it clean, and also graze down colonising plant species, thus maintaining conditions that suit O. microlepis.
While some plants like wiry and bushy divaricating Coprosma species do seem to provide essential cover in bare rock outcrop sites, in general, trees in the near vicinity provide perches for predatory birds such as kotare, the kingfisher. Sites in highly grazed open pasture do no present this danger. These kinds of discoveries emphasise the importance of the educational component of the project. The most populous site seemed very innocuous to my eye. The main scree area seemed about the size of two dining tables and occupied a slight depression in an otherwise uninteresting paddock sloping at an average 22 degrees. But while O. microlepis can cope with close grazing by stock, should a landowner take a couple of scoops of rock for track maintenance from this unremarkable site, the results could be devastating.
Because of the way Rowena has undertaken her research, the farming community has become aware of these things as she has. There is a big difference between developing an understanding of the needs of these little creatures, and being told "you cannot take rock from the old quarry". On my visit, I sensed a both certain pride in having these animals on ones property, and also a community interest in the sites regardless of whose patch they were on. This all seems very good for the lizards.
It was great for example, that the children showed Rowena the two previously undocumented sites. It is also interesting that one station is exploring placing a covenant over some of its land, that Rowena has been allowed access to a large area that has previously been off limits and enjoyed particularly cordial relations with the local hapu, Ngati Whitikaupeka of Mokai Patea. While this is all undoubtedly a reflection Rowena's personality and the way she has gone about things, it also suggests that the notion of approaching research of this kind as an educative process as well as a scientific one is a fruitful one.
The primary goal of environmental education is to change behaviour. As a result of Rowena's work, the small scaled skink seems to have grown in stature as a valued member of the local community, to be treasured and protected. While the educational booklet is still planned, it seems unlikely that on its own it would have had the impact of the approach that Rowena has taken. Rowena will be reporting on her work in more detail at the Association's conference in January 2006.
Rowena's research has been supervised by Dr Doug Armstrong and Dr Mike Joy of the Ecology Department, Institute of Natural Resources, and Dr David Chapman from the College of Education, all at Massey University. Funding for research was provided by the Forest and Bird JS Watson Trust and Julie Alley Bursary Scholarship.