Growing Green Hands
Cape students learn how to protect their fragile coastal environment with hands-on activities.
When teacher Christine Fawkes’ first grade class gathers in the hollow of windswept dunes on Cape Cod’s Sandy Neck Beach one bright summer morning, it marks the culmination of a season’s worth of work. Since springtime, these students from Barnstable-West Barnstable Elementary School and others schools around the state have been working with the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary to rear endangered, thumbnail-sized eastern spadefoot toads. Today, these excited seven-year-olds reach into aquariums, gently scoop more than 230 of the species into their hands, and happily watch the little toads hop away into the sandy wilderness.
With its range of freshwater, marine, and upland habitats, Cape Cod provides a living classroom for students to study and learn about the fragility of this coastal environment. More and more, schools are teaming up with local science and nature organizations to encourage even the youngest children to be aware of the world around them, starting with their own backyard of Cape Cod. From partnerships with groups including the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Mass Audubon sanctuaries, and the Cape Cod National Seashore, innovative teachers are bringing science alive, forging lasting connections with the community and placing the local environment in greener hands.
Spadefoot toads, which are threatened in Massachusetts due to a significantly declining habitat, are known to be found in only 32 places around the state, including the Province Lands at the Cape Cod National Seashore, and on Sandy Neck. “They prefer a habitat they can burrow into,” says Ian Ives, director of both Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Cummaquid and the Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth. “They spend almost all of their existence under the sand.” Records of spadefoots also exist in the boggy Ashumet area, but the tiny toads haven’t been seen there for 15 to 20 years, according to Ives, who has studied the records at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Mass Audubon and its student partners are hoping to turn things around for the state’s rarest toads by reintroducing them to their native habitats. Ives says, “This is an opportunity to head-start the toads, learn how to raise them, and bring them back to their natural habitat.”
Ives says that working with the schools is a natural fit. The students feed the tadpoles fish, rabbit food, and bugs and create aquarium habitats with a pool and a mounded beach to match each stage of growth. For instance, the kids first give the herbivore tadpoles lots of water and fish flakes, but as soon as the tadpoles start metamorphosis, students add wingless fruit flies and ants to the amphibians’ habitat. “It got the kids thinking not just about the endangered toads, but it also opened their eyes to other endangered animals,” says Catherine Scibelli of Barnstable, whose daughter Alessandra took part in this project. “We live in such a beautiful spot; I think it’s great they become aware of everything they have around them and bring that into the classroom.”