white sands institute lizard camp 
at the White Sands National Monument

In 2009 and 2010 our field team ran a day-long outreach program for Alamogordo locals at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Here we taught the 
participants how to spot lizards and 
catch them with a pole and noose. For the last 
four years (2011 - 
2014), I took over the event and we changed the target audience to children aged 8 - 15 and held two outreach days per year. With help of my field assistants, I taught the kids about the biology of lizards in White Sands, focusing on the subjects of ecology and evolution.

evolution: natural selection game

When we take the kids out to the dunes, we lead them in a natural selection game in a small enclosed interdune in the White Sands National Monument. First we ask ~20% of the group to volunteer to be "roadrunners" (predators). The others, we say, will be "lizards" (prey). We give each of the "lizards" one white lizard model and two brown lizard models. While the "roadrunners" close their eyes, we ask the "lizards" to hide (in plain site) their models and ask them to remember where they place them. During the "predation" stage of the game, the "roadrunners" have ~1 minute to "eat" (collect) as many lizard models as they can. 

During the "next generation," we ask the "lizards" to go see which models they have left, and we give them a model of the same colour for every one that they have left to represent the "offspring". While the "roadrunners" close their eyes again, we ask the "lizards" to go hide the "offspring." We have usually have one more "predation" stage, before we ask all the participants to go collect all the models that are left and bring them back. We then line up and count the number of white and brown models that "survived" selection. Every time that we have played the game, the proportion of white models has increased from the initial 1/3. Most of the kids already know about camouflage and realize that this is an adaptation for avoiding predation. Finally, we stress that not all the brown lizards are "selected" against and eaten right away - natural selection takes time and lizards did not adapt to White Sands over just a couple generations!

ecology: nature walks

After the natural selection game, we split up into groups of 4 - 5, each with a leader (myself or a field assistant). Here, we take the kids on a short walk in White Sands and try to catch one of each of the three species of lizards. We ask the kids to note what the lizard is doing when we first spot him or her, and show them how to identify the males and females, and the different species. Although we do not let the kids catch the lizards themselves, they do help us spot them and corner them so that we can noose! We take this walk as an opportunity to tell the kids about the ecology of the lizards: what they eat and how, what predates on them, and where they spend most of their time. We also try to instill a sense of respect for the animals and the monument and inform them that we flag the area where we caught each lizard so we can return them back to where they were from.

We thank the White Sands National Monument and New Mexico State University for hosting and organizing the advertising for our outreach events. Our classes regularly fill up to capacity and we often have several kids who have returned again year after year!

the material on this site is the intellectual property of Simone Des Roches 2010
this page was last updated 07-August-2014