Nature Friendly: Help students learn about the sandhills
by Carol Carson
Sep 15, 2011 | 1739 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Want to help kids find a sea cow in the sand?

Deborah McArthur, the Education Manager at the Museum of Natural History, is hoping you will. If you have visited the museum, you have seen the replica of an extinct sea cow’s skeleton hanging from the ceiling.

The sea cow was once a denizen of the ancient sea which covered the Randall Morgan Preserve Sandhills in Scotts Valley, formerly the Geyer Quarry.

The Museum needs docents to help seventh graders become little Indiana Jones and other natural scientists in an outdoor classroom at the Preserve. Having created a miniature plywood model of the sea cow, the staff will show docents how to dismantle and hide the pieces in a fossil dig. The young paleontologists will find and assemble the skeleton

As McArthur, Executive Director Dan Harder, and Matt Miller, Educational Assistant, and I walked along the basin created by the quarrying of ancient seabed sand, we were joined by Tim Tourkakis of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, which owns the 189-acre Preserve. When we began our seed-collection expedition, which is done several times a year, Tourkakis, who is the Preserve Caretaker, warned, “It’s been warmer and it’s probably too early today, but we’ve had a grandfather rattlesnake out in this area who we’ve sighted, usually in the afternoons.”

Although I put on my Texas looking-for-snakes eyes to find one, the only reptilians were the lizards who ran across the path to hide under a cool rock.

Living close by, Tourkakis’ role is to protect the Preserve, and he has set up a camera monitor, not to get a shot of wild animals, but to keep out the two- legged types from causing more erosion with their off-road vehicles, mountain bikes, and horseback riding.

“Our goal is to restore the beauty and diversity of these sandhills, “McArthur said.

The Sandhills have been compared to the Galapagos Islands because of their unique habitat- at least seven species of plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world.

But wherever you find land disturbances, you find non-native and invasive plants like acacia and broom. “With grant money and help from the RCD (Resource Conservation District), the Land Trust had a forester come in and remove all the acacia with chain saws, but it’s a constant battle,” said Tourkakis.

In addition to the Fossil Dig, the Conservation Project will allow students to serve as stewards of the land by pulling weeds, planting seeds like the California poppy, and monitoring their success. “They’ll divide into two groups in competition to see who can dig out the most plants. Docents will teach them that these weeds were introduced from a different place,” McArthur said.

“French broom has become very successful because it can fling its seeds up to 12 feet. The seed pods open and they explode. They also can travel by animal, water and shoes, and the seeds can be dormant for up to five years,” she continued.

As part of the two-hour outdoor program, students will take an Exploration Hike up the Morgan Preserve to learn about plants and geological features.

“There are two Sandhills habitats- the Parkland, with its manzanita chaparral and the Woodland, which has more Ponderosa pines. Docents will give students photo species cards and have them identify plants as they walk along,” McArthur said.

“We’ve aligned the program with California State Content Standards for Life Sciences and Earth and Life History,” said McArthur.

The Santa Cruz Sandhills Exploration Program is free, thanks to funding from a generous local donor. To sign up for docent training on October 3rd or if you are a 7th grade teacher who wants more information, call Deborah McArthur at 420-1135.

Carol Carson, M.Ed., is a naturalist, writer, and educator. She writes an occasional nature column for the Press-Banner.
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