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Is it a Bird? A Whale? Oh Wait, it’s Both!

Students Imagine New Creatures in Studying Biological Adaptation


“Dear John Ball Zoo Committee,” fourth-grader Neil Myers read aloud to his classmates. “I am Professor Neil. It has come to my attention that I contact you about what events I have witnessed.”

He continued with a fish story — a real whopper. But that was just right for a class project where students imagined new creatures for the zoo.

While sailing the Bermuda Triangle, Professor Neil said, he spotted a creature with the wings and beak of a hummingbird, but the body of an orca whale. As it was hunting flying fish, the professor instructed his crew to capture the creature using a crane. Then, in the lab, the SRC — Sea Research Committee — determined they had discovered a new species.

Kylynn Shoemaker makes her pitch to the John Ball Zoo committee for her recently discovered “loju,” a half-jungle cat, half-bird creature
Kylynn Shoemaker makes her pitch to the John Ball Zoo committee for her recently discovered “loju,” a half-jungle cat, half-bird creature

The “hummorca,” Neil declared, is a perfect fit for John Ball Zoo. “It’s extremely friendly,” he assured the class. “It can’t harm you. It’s intelligent. It knows humans from food.”

Mary Clare Christensen’s fourth-graders all made their own imaginary discoveries recently, researching the physical adaptations of two species and combining their characteristics to form one creature. Each described his or her encounter with the creature in the field, and made dioramas depicting the habitat that creature would need to live happily in the zoo.

In persuasive essays, they made their plea to their classmates — John Ball Zoo Committee for the day — why the zoo should include these new creatures in its collection.

“Don’t worry, I studied it,” Victoria Drent said of the “cheetowl,” a half-cheetah, half-owl animal that hunts mice and antelope. “It will get you big bucks.”

How Would They Survive Without People?

Although the creatures they came up with are fictional, students delved into the adaptations of both real-life creatures to create the new one, Christensen said.

“They had to combine those and scientifically make sense out of the whole thing,” Christensen explained. “How does an organism survive in its habitat? They had to figure that out first.

“I tell them to think about it as if humans don’t exist,” she added. “How could they survive without humans feeding them?”

Victoria Drent shows off her half-owl, half-cheetah (“cheetowl”) creature, midflight inside its diorama habitat
Victoria Drent shows off her half-owl, half-cheetah (“cheetowl”) creature, midflight inside its diorama habitat

Christensen said the project allows students to demonstrate several skills at once, including public speaking. As an icebreaker before their speeches, she first asked them about the materials they used in their dioramas and who helped make them.

“They are forever going to have to be presenting things in front of people,” she said. “This just gives them the confidence because they’ve never done it before.”

It also involves their creative and persuasive writing skills, she added, and occasional math, as when Neil Myers estimated the dimensions of a hummorca enclosure.

On a recent Friday, Christensen’s class followed up their animal adaptations projects by visiting Howard Christensen Nature Center to see their classroom learning come to life.

From lichen growing on trees to squirrels foraging acorns, students were given a real-world lesson. Employees of the nature center use taxidermied animals to demonstrate adaptations such as fur for warmth.

“It’s all the things I’ve been teaching about,” Christensen said. “Food chains, food webs, habitats and adaptations.”

Details of her class’s adventures can be found at Christensen’s website.

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MaryClare Christensen’s class website

Howard Christensen Nature Center

Mary Clare Christensen’s class visited Howard Christensen Nature Center, where they learned how adaptations apply to local plants and animals during fall
Mary Clare Christensen’s class visited Howard Christensen Nature Center, where they learned how adaptations apply to local plants and animals during fall

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