As a marine biology major with a minor in marine ecology, Shannon Aldridge (class of 2015) now shares that message with younger generations through her self-published book, Lucy the Gopher Tortoise, a children's story about a gopher tortoise whose burrow offers shelter and protection to other animals. The story highlights the importance of gopher tortoises to certain habitats throughout Florida.
Aldridge read her book to pre-kindergarten students at Welleby Elementary School in Sunrise. "The kids were very excited. They were so interested in the book. They wanted to help save Lucy. It was very rewarding.
"I decided to write a children's book because educating future generations is key for the maintenance of all the wonderful habitats we have throughout Florida," said Aldridge, a sophomore and member of NSU's Undergraduate Honors Program.
"We're trying to teach the public that conservation is important in Florida," she said. "Gopher tortoises caught my attention because of their importance to Florida. They are a keystone species in upland habitats—meaning that without them, the habitat would not function properly."
Aldridge created the book as an assignment for ENVS 1500 Natural History of South Florida, a course taught by Paul Arena, Ph.D., assistant professor at NSU. "An option for students taking my course is becoming certified as a Florida Master Naturalist," Arena said. "The program is designed to educate educators about the ecology of our local environment. The course requires a public outreach project related to the material they are learning in class and in the field for each of the three areas of focus—uplands, wetlands, and coastal ecosystems in Florida.
"The students are encouraged to be creative, and projects are very diverse and impressive. Some examples include talks at NSU's Lifelong Learning Institute, presentations at local schools, writing articles for community newspapers, developing kiosks and brochures for our local natural areas, planning and implementing local cleanup events, as well as writing and publishing children's books.
"Shannon's project was a great example of how my students are passing their newly acquired knowledge to citizens of all ages," Arena said. "Her creativity and independent perseverance is a great example of the impact NSU students can have on the community...and [how they can] use local species to engage young children and encourage them to get out and explore nature."
Born in Canada and raised in a rural community in New York, Aldridge's goal as a child was to study in a tropical climate where she could focus on marine biology and marine mammals. That focus, and her desire to participate in various travel-study courses, brought her to NSU.
"Marine biology always intrigued me," she said. "In fifth grade, I drew a picture of myself swimming with a whale even though I'd never seen one. As a kid, I was always taught the things I could do to help the environment: recycle, leave a hiking trail as you found it, and don't disturb the environment. If you keep reinforcing this kind of teaching, kids will grow to care about the environment."
In Aldridge's book, Lucy the gopher tortoise shares her burrow with about 360 different species, including a mouse, rabbit, and skunk. With its powerful legs, the gopher tortoise can build a burrow that stretches 40 feet long and 10 feet deep. The burrow provides insulation and refuge during extreme cold, heat, or fire. The loss of Florida's scrub habitat largely due to development puts these burrows and animal species at risk, Aldridge said.
"The course inspired me to preserve as much as I can," she said. "Now, I am able to recognize wild flowers or find a gopher tortoise burrow, or identify invasive and exotic species."
Through NSU Travel Study courses, Aldridge has studied the environment in Alaska and manatees in Crystal River, Florida. Her next trip is to the Galapagos Islands.
Aldridge plans to earn a graduate degree in marine biology and pursue a career working with marine mammals. "I want to do research, rescue, and rehabilitation of these mammals," she said.