Registered: December 2015
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For many years, I have been interested in ecology. In middle school, I was a student leader who conducted water quality assessments and macroinvertebrate diversity assays in a freshwater stream less than a mile from my house, and trained other students in my Earth Science class to do the same. Only a few months later, my family relocated to Florida, where I became attuned to the new and unique environment.
After attending an environmental seminar between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I learned of the disappearance of limpkins and their prey items, Florida apple snails, in northern Florida, as a result of agricultural pollution. I have always been interested in birds, and the dynamics of the resident birds in my new state greatly intrigued me. With this experience, I began independent research on water quality and its effects on native apple snails in Florida, as well as the role of native apple snails in the Everglades ecosystems.
I was selected for a fellowship at Florida Atlantic University Pine Jog Environmental Education Center, where I began working on an environmental stewardship project to restore habitat on my school campus. Simultaneously, I was conducting another iteration of my independent research, studying how fertilizer compounds affected the behavior and development of Florida apple snails, and what the consequences of increased inputs were in ecological contexts. Florida apple snails currently face threats from low water quality and quantity and competing invasive snails, and so efforts to increase their populations are critical in preserving the diversity of the Everglades. This is because the native snails are a keystone species, serving as prey items for many, including state-listed limpkins and federally-endangered snail kites in the Greater Everglades. When ecosystems are infiltrated by invasive snails, the water quality decreases and emerging vegetation is at risk of being consumed at an unsustainable rate. The invasive snails have also been shown to be vectors for diseases that devastate birds and people, including causative pathogens for eosinophilic meningitis and avian vacuolar myelopathy, where birds lose control of motor neurons and develop lesions on the spinal cord and brain.
The staff at Pine Jog showed an interest in my independent research, and offered an internship. Together, we decided on the goal of creating an academic outreach program that would focus on training students, teachers, and organizations the importance of conserving the native populations of apple snails, and how to rear more snails for release in designated habitats where there are currently nesting snail kites. Over the course of the summer, I obtained native apple snails for raising in a laboratory in order to develop a stock of snails, and I maintained the tanks the snails were in.
Of course, the snails needed a purpose. I also spent the summer composing the most significant part of the project, the curriculum to be taught in schools. In total, I created seven lesson plans to be taught over the course of two months. These incorporated teaching students and staff about how the Everglades impact everyday life in Florida by providing drinking water and flood control, how humans have altered the flow of water in the Everglades in the past two centuries, water chemistry and its importance to organisms in the Everglades, and the lifecycle and ecological role of Florida apple snails in the Everglades. Five schools across Palm Beach County were recruited to serve as pilot schools for this curriculum and as locations where native snails are being reared before being released into Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge and Grassy Waters Nature Preserve. These two locations are both substantial portions of the flood control in the county, and Grassy Waters provides drinking water to West Palm Beach. Both of these locations are also known as nesting grounds for snail kites, which depend solely on apple snails as food, and have a specialist relationship with the native apple snails.
The curriculum is currently being taught to 500 students in the five schools in the county, and the native snails are set to be released early in the spring. In addition, pond apple and cypress are being planted by students, and invasive snails removed from 50 acres of wetland habitat in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
While the program is only in its first year, long-term goals have been established, and the program will continue to be extended to at least 5,000 students across South Florida schools districts by 2022. It is also an objective of this project that the curriculum materials be posted online and made accessible to any teacher who wishes to use them.
These lessons allow students to understand how humans have affected the Everglades ecosystem, a stronghold of biodiversity and critical habitat for rare species like the snail kite, a habitat that filters and stores water, recharges aquifers, and a significant affecter in the culture and economy of Florida. The students are also able to see the importance of the apple snails in the environment, and how the native mollusks bolster native populations and preserve water quality, and how exotic snails can harm native populations and lead to a decline in water quality.
I have learned that an educational perspective on conservation is just as important as a scientific one. Making the public aware of what small changes they can make to prevent the spread of invasive species and promote the growth of native populations is critical in efforts to restore the Everglades. While scientific methods, like biochemical controls, can be effective at reducing populations, it is the cooperation of the public that can best help in efforts to restore the Everglades and prevent future degradation. A lack of visibility of the issue of apple snails in the public will lead to the same incidents that placed exotic snails in the environment in the first place, like dumping of aquarium pets and unknowingly transporting hitchhiking invasives to new locations. The curriculum that I designed has the ability to disseminate this knowledge to many, and train a new generation of young people in being stewards of the environment and spokespeople for its issues.
My passion for the environment does not end with this curriculum, or even this project. I am planning on attending Florida Atlantic University for college, where I am able to continue my work on this program and on providing curriculum about the importance of the Everglades and its molluscian inhabitants to the people of South Florida.