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NextGen Science: Tracking Endangered Species

What does it take to save endangered species? A mix of creativity, engineering and collaboration! As part of the Explorations in Engineering program at Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, students had a rare opportunity to help Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists save two critically endangered species: pangolins and scimitar-horned oryx.

With guidance from SCBI ecologist Jared Stabach, 11 students worked together to design and develop replicas of scales and horns. Scientists can use these models to test GPS devices that track animal movements, which could one day help mitigate poaching and other threats to species’ survival. Two students, Lily Fortsch and Grace MacDonald, share highlights from their projects in the update below.

Pangolin Scales Team

Lily Fortsch, senior, Foxcroft School

Pangolin scale repilicas in a student's hand

Photo courtesy of Foxcroft School.

Before we began this project, I did not know what a pangolin was! It turns out that they are one of the most endangered species in the world. Poachers smuggle them for their scales. I was not surprised to hear that the scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute use technology to save species, but it was interesting to learn how tracking devices can help stop the illegal trade of pangolin scales. Dr. Stabach and our teacher, Dr. Maria Evans, tasked us with making a model pangolin scale that SCBI scientists could use as a device to follow pangolins’ movements and stop poachers.

We did a lot of research on pangolins; still, the scales were a lot smaller and thinner than we thought they would be. We created the form mold from plaster and used seashells as our test “scale” so that we would not damage the actual scale, lent to us by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It took a lot of trial and error to find the best materials for the model itself. We tried clear casting, but could not get the shell out of the mold.

Liquid plastic did not work, nor did hot glue or liquid latex. Natural clay was difficult to work with, and air-dried clay broke. In the end, we used WD-40 and fiberglass resin. We placed the scale in the mold to get the shape, and then we sanded the model and painted it brown on one side to get the color right.

It helped to collaborate and work as a team because my classmates brought different ideas and solutions to the table. Because the oryx team used many of the same materials we used, we were able to share ideas and help each other.

I hope that the ideas that went into creating our devices will bring SCBI scientists and others one step closer to saving the pangolin. It is exciting to think that scientists can use our work to make their own sophisticated devices, and that with this project, we are making a difference in the world.

Scimitar-Horned Oryx Team

Grace MacDonald, senior, Foxcroft School

A female student at Foxcroft School building a prototype on a dust and paint covered table in a workshop

Photo courtesy of Foxcroft School.

I had not heard of scimitar-horned oryx before this project, but it is really cool that a semester of our work could help save these animals’ lives in the wild. It was fun to build a replica horn that the SCBI scientists can use to test different GPS devices.

This project was like a puzzle. Even Dr. Evans did not know all the answers, and she learned with us through this process. Like the pangolin team, we tried numerous materials and methods that did not work, but we kept trying.

We made a mold of an actual scimitar-horned oryx horn out of air-dried clay. We tried many different materials but, eventually, filled the mold with a mixture of fiberglass resin and sand. Those materials ended up working the best because of their durability.

I would definitely recommend students participate in these hands-on projects because it was a neat experience, and we had an opportunity to meet SCBI scientists who are very passionate about animal conservation.  

This article appears in the October 2018 issue of National Zoo News. This project was part of Foxcroft's Explorations in Engineering class using the Purdue University EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) curriculum.