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Two weeks ago, graduate student Alexis Mychajliw and I came back from a six-week research adventure in the Dominican Republic. In the days before we flew down to the Caribbean in July, we had little idea of what the trip would bring, as neither of us had visited the area before. We traveled with a dual purpose: I was searching for people to interview for a podcast about solenodons, and Alexis was determined to find as many active solenodon burrows as humanly possible in six weeks.

Though the focus of our trip was on finding field sites, we found lots of fantastic opportunities for us to participate in science outreach. We found the first way to contribute on a sweltering afternoon at the Museo del hombre, the national archaeological museum. The museum is just a few blocks away from the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, the oldest European city in the Americas.

That day, as we looked through the museum’s fossil exhibit, we stumbled on a display of hutias and solenodons, the only two surviving endemic mammals on the island. The museum director loved Alexis’s idea of updating their exhibit, which was mislabeled and confusing. They said it hadn’t been touched since the museum’s opening in the 1970s!

Notice that the solenodon peeping out of a hole is missing a nose! We realized he had a well-preserved rear end, and tucked him facing into the hole instead of out.

Alexis cleaning up a rather disheveled specimen:

The finished exhibit:

We also set up an exhibit on fossils and extinct mammals of Hispaniola, with the help of The Paleontological Society.

While still in the capital we got in touch with the National Zoo, the only institution in the world to house live solenodons, though they’re not on exhibit yet. They’re mascot is a super cute, cartoonish solenodon!

Every summer, the zoo runs an ecocamp for children between ages five and twelve. It is an amazing program for the kids: Monday through Thursday they get to see what goes on behind the scenes at the zoo, and Fridays are for field trips to the local botanical garden, aquarium and natural history museum. We volunteered to give a class on the solenodon, and ultimately came back for talks on invasive species of Hispaniola, marine mammals and fossils.

Though the kids didn’t really know what to make of manatees and humpback whales, they were all excited about the solenodon. They wrote storybooks about the animal, and got really creative with it. Two boys wrote comics about “Super Solenodonte”, a hero who gets easily distracted by tasty insects. Many kids drew a story of the living fossil side by side with a dinosaur friend. Our biggest reward was hearing a little girl start the trend of saying the solenodon is now her favorite animal.

For me, this was an incredible part of our journey. I had never so much as tutored before, and I found that teaching children for the first time was just as loud and hectic as it was invigorating. I was blown away by how much they could take in and how much fun they had with learning.

The best part of this story is that these aren’t the only efforts on the island to encourage conservation among young people. In the town of Oviedo in the south of the Dominican Republic, an NGO called Grupo Jaragua started an ecocamp that over the last 17 years has grown to accommodate 100 children each year. The group teaches children about the ecosystems in nearby Jaragua National Park, and many of the educators told us that they themselves had participated in the event year after year as children, inspiring them to take up the baton and pay their knowledge forward.

With the prospect of spending hours editing interviews in the coming weeks, it definitely motivates me to think how the small efforts that Alexis and I were able to witness and participate in were able to fuel a new respect for conservation.

- Laura Cussen