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Students research, teach on Indiana’s endangered, extinct animals

May 5, 2020
Screenshot of people in a Zoom meeting and an informational slide about bats
Screenshot of people in a Zoom meeting and an informational slide about bats

KOKOMO, Ind. – What do the copperbelly water snake, rusty patched bumble bee, Eastern elk, red wolf, passenger pigeon, and Indiana bat have in common?

All were once common in Indiana — and all of them are either endangered or extinct.

Students in Lina Rifai’s evolution and diversity of life class at Indiana University Kokomo learned about these animals and more, then prepared group presentations to teach about them.

“I like that they get to be the experts and tell us about them, rather than the other way around,” said Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology. “The project is meant to put together everything we learned during the semester, about how populations evolve, how their adaptations allowed them to be successful in their environment, and how we are not only part of nature and can affect it, but also what roles the animals they chose play in our ecosystem.

“They look at how it affects the ecosystem when they disappear, and why it matters that we are losing so many species at such a fast rate,” she added.

The class usually includes a field trip to a wildlife rehabilitation center, where students make their presentations for the people who work there, receive critiques, and present again for their class. With the change to remote learning because of the Covid-19 pandemic, this time she invited faculty and staff to attend presentations through Zoom. More than a dozen accepted the invitation, viewing the talks and asking questions.

Biology major Quincy Young admitted she was nervous at first, but was glad people attended.

“It was nice to have people who weren’t part of the class and don’t have a background in the sciences, for the most part,” she said. “It was good to have a variety of people to share the information we worked so hard to present.”

Her group discussed the passenger pigeon, which went extinct in September 1914 when the last known bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Once the most abundant bird in North America, they were hunted out of existence.

All the presentations included the animal’s classification and evolution, habitat and range, history, relatives, cool facts, and its status as endangered or extinct, and threats to those on the endangered list.

“I didn’t know Indiana had so many passenger pigeons before,” Young said. “It’s important for people to know that they existed, where they lived, and where their land used to be. We need to know that we have affected wild animals, and what we can do to stop losing them. It gives us a good look at how the world around us is evolving and changing and how we’re playing a factor in it.”

Christian Bunce’s group presented about the copperbelly water snake, an endangered species found in northern Indiana. Their assignment was to pick one species that had to be either endangered or extinct, that lives or lived in Indiana. She was surprised by the numbers.

“You don’t think of Indiana as having a big diversity of animals, or exotic animals,” Bunce said.

Her team completed their project through a group chat, with a sharing option on PowerPoint so everyone could do their part at the same time. While it was challenging, there was an unexpected benefit.

“We’ve been able to become friends, and not just team members in a class,” she said.

Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.

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