Evolution is the name of the game at Twycross Zoo as pupils are encouraged to ponder the Earth's future. John Dabell reports
It's five million years from now and humans have abandoned planet Earth for more hospitable places to live. Global temperatures have dropped, extending the polar ice cap over most of North America and northern Europe. The ice is two miles deep and temperatures are - 60C and the Mediterranean has dried up. Carnivores with razor-sharp teeth, called snowstalkers, rule the tundra. These formidable predators, overgrown descendants of weasels, prey on the woolly shagrats - sheep-like animals evolved from burrowing marmots.
Welcome to the second Ice Age.
So, what else is left on Earth? Well, it's hard to imagine, but for time-travelling scientists from Austrey Church of England Primary School in Warwickshire, the Earth will be populated by post-historic fantasy creatures that would leave us - and David Attenborough - spellbound. In collaboration with the Future is Wild project, Evolution Week at Twycross Zoo aims to encourage children to think about how creatures will adapt to new surroundings as the Earth's climate changes.
Watch out for nine-year-old Matthew Gudgeon's supotco, a 12-legged, one-eyed beast that lives in swamps. "It's got one giant eye, its head can turn 360 degrees and it can shoot deadly ink from its face. It can eat anything and it's top of the food chain," says Matthew.
Harriet Mason, aged 10, describes her shakeraroo as "a tiger that has changed into a herbivore. Its teeth have shrunk and it doesn't have canines any more because it doesn't need them. It's two metres high and has grown a mane to keep warm. It has no predators and is friendly to all creatures."
The Earth's future is not just child's play though. The Future is Wild project has taken international experts in geology, marine biology, neurobiology, biomechanics, botany, insects, evolution and mass extinctions to create credible worlds millions of years from now, based on how the Earth looked in the past. Their ideas have been used by an award-winning team of natural history documentary-makers.
A chance meeting at the Education Show allowed the education team at Twycross Zoo to use the Future is Wild project in workshops at the zoo.
Joanne Buerling, one of the education officers at Twycross, says: "It makes the children think more about the animals around them and not just see them in one way. It forces them to use their imaginations and not take animals for granted. Some animals won't survive in the future. This project is a more interesting way of approaching extinction and adaptation."
But why go to a zoo? Well, children visiting Twycross are encouraged to tour the zoo and really get to know the animals. This is not standing and staring, but detailed analysing. Children look at the animals and consider what it is that makes them suited to their natural environment. Joanne introduces the children to a touchy-feely session in the lecture theatre with Max the chinchilla, a frog, a red-kneed tarantula and a hissing cockroach.
After this hands-on experience, children go around the zoo. They find an animal, give it a new name and wonder what adaptations it will need to survive in the icy tundra, salt flats, cold dry deserts or grasslands. The children then describe their animals of the future and draw them. They talk excitedly about food chains and webs, symbiosis, extinction, habitats, survival, environmental niches and species adaptation.
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