Armadillos in action

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Wide World of Animals. Published by Creative WondersElectronic Arts. CD-Rom for PCMac Pounds 39.99. Age range 14+

Electronic Arts Tel: 01753 549442 Internet Web site address: http:www.cwonders.com

Roger Frost reviews a CD-Rom that focuses on animal diversity and habitat

There are countless CD-Roms about "animals" but this one, which collects together facts about 700 vertebrates feels special. On the surface, it is straightforward - if you want to know what a vole, a skink or wolverine looks like, you'll find out here. Or if you want to see an emu, armadillo, or cassowary in action - by today's standards 150 clips of film is enough to be going on with.

The package explains the animals' origins, how they live, breed, and what class they belong to. A globe shows where they live, while a key words feature points out useful facts, for instance that emus are flightless, solitary, diurnal and oviparous. As you'd insist, you can click on "diurnal" and find out it means being active in the daytime. But this package also lists other creatures that are diurnal. And when you click on "flightless", you find emus share the characteristic with penguins, kiwis and the cassowary - one of the same family.

This CD-Rom fulfils the promise of the medium - it cross-references facts and helps look for patterns. You can look at animals in other useful ways. You can choose to look only at fish, birds or mammals. You can select creatures by country, habitat or taxa (class). The taxonomy tree helps unravel biology's classification hierarchy. So imagine headings such as class, order, family and genus across the screen. As you click on mammals, then marsupials, then kangaroos, the taxonomy tree branches until you get to say, the wallaby genus and species. If you want it in Latin, it is "ici".

The detail is close to retentive - you can see all the animals listed by how many teeth they have, how much they weigh, or how long they live. You can see that turtles have hundreds of offspring a year, an eagle has one, and all can be shown on a sort of bar chart.

Some facts are obscure but interesting. An emu's foot has three toes, the male incubates the eggs, and his sex organ is retractable - honest. It also tells you the emu of Kangaroo Island is extinct and, usefully, a click of the mouse shows other creatures that have shared its fate.

There's a fairly unusual geographical slant. Information covers each country - not just population and death rates, but also how much waste it produces, its forest coverage and more. If you want to compare the net exports of live birds, cat skins, and primates from Belize, Britain or anywhere else, you can. These are plotted on various kinds of bar and scattergraph.

In fact there are many bits and bobs in this. Time-lapse sequences show the migration of the arctic tern. Video clips with American commentary give a taster of camouflage, competition and adaptation. Most useful for younger learners, are a dozen "bioramas" which provide a scrolling landscape picture of mountain, rainforest or desert habitats. Each is stocked with wildlife you can pick on and read about.

This resource deserves a non-retractable "Wow", because it has a wide range of uses - it is a bank of reference data presented with flair and without gimmick, and it gives learners a good opportunity to seek out patterns in geography and biology.

Before the two departments start fighting over the package, one caveat is that although this is a "database", it is easy to get greedy and expect it to do everything. But of course, it is not up to that, any more than it can cover every vertebrate.

However, if you like your biology with numbers, and appreciate the need for some teaching materials to get pupils working, it can cover nice curriculum chunks on diversity and habitat.

Biologists ought to win that fight, and geographers ought to take a look.

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