Okeeheelee Nature Center, through the Friends of ONC, was recently honored to receive a grant from the Gopher Tortoise Council. The Donna J. Heinrich Environmental Education Grant was established to support organizations committed to developing educational projects about the gopher tortoise and the fascinating world in which it lives. Gopher tortoises are protected in Florida, and are considered a keystone species because the burrows they dig provide shelter to many other animals. Over 350 commensal species have been recorded in gopher tortoise burrows, especially during the periodic wildfires that are part of life in gopher tortoise habitats.
Protecting gopher tortoises, and teaching visitors about them, has always been an important part of ONC’s educational mission. Gopher tortoises have been living at Okeeheelee Nature Center since 1985, when 83 tortoises were relocated to the nature center’s pine flatwood forest from a retail construction site. Today, there are 90 to 100 gopher tortoises living in ONC’s preserve, including many of the original tortoises from the 1980s. They are commonly encountered by hikers and other nature center visitors, so education is key to ensuring that the tortoises and their habitat are respected.
Alex Melligon has been an Assistant Naturalist at Okeeheelee Nature Center since February of 2019. Her regular duties include animal care, teaching school and public programs, creating educational content, and interacting with visitors. When asked what she likes best about her job, Alex said, “I like that we can follow our curiosity. If we have an idea for a program or project, we are able to use our talents and creativity to explore, incorporate our interests and reach new audiences.” Since COVID-19 has put ONC’s in-person programming on hiatus and closed the nature center building, special project work has become the focus.
As luck would have it, the proposal for the Gopher Tortoise Council grant included two projects that were planned with Alex’s special talents in mind. You see, in addition to her skills as a naturalist, Alex is also a gifted artist! Since childhood, she has been interested in arts and crafts, including drawing, jewelry making, ceramics, and textiles. Alex explained, “To me, art is a fun way to express myself, and it’s a good feeling to create something with my hands, especially if it’s something useful.”
The first grant-funded project Alex took on was to design an educational gopher tortoise booklet for children. The ONC team helped brainstorm ideas for activities and content, and then Alex researched tortoise facts, wrote the text and drew all of the pages by hand. Through puzzles, games, reading, and coloring, the booklet helps children learn about the importance of gopher tortoises and how they can help protect them.
When asked what aspect of the project she was most proud of, Alex said, “I think the best part of the activity book is that it gives simple, concrete things for people to do to help tortoises, while also providing the whys behind it, and still being fun and engaging for kids.” The activity book will be available to children visiting the nature center and participating in any special programs that focus on gopher tortoises.
Alex’s second artistic endeavor took her a bit further out of her comfort zone. Another component of the grant was to create a 10 x 4.5 foot mural depicting life inside a gopher tortoise burrow. Alex said it was a challenge because, although she has always loved doing art, “I didn’t really consider myself a painter, and I had certainly never attempted a large mural.” However, she still remembers being fascinated by the beautiful ecosystem murals at her local nature center while growing up in New Jersey, so she was hopeful that she could create art that would have a similar lasting impact on Okeeheelee’s visitors.
Looking at how well the project turned out, no one would ever guess that this was her first attempt at a large scale painting! The mural features a tortoise at the entrance of a burrow that is opened in cross-section to show the burrow structure. It also highlights key features of tortoise habitat, including beneficial native plant species, and shows several commensal animal species that can be found inside tortoise burrows.
The mural provides a unique glimpse into the underground life of a gopher tortoise and the ecosystem it helps support. Since it is a visual education piece, it will spark curiosity and convey information to all ages and all types of learners. It will be displayed in ONC’s Children’s Discovery Zone, but it will also be mobile so it can be featured during programs and special events.
Alex explains that, “Teaching children about nature is important to me because I believe it is our best chance to keep our environment safe and maybe even make it better in the future.” She hopes these gopher tortoise projects inspire the next generation of young artists and conservationists in the same way she was inspired by the murals she saw as a child. Alex brings so much passion for the environment to Okeeheelee Nature Center, whether she is teaching, caring for animals, supporting operations, or contributing through her artistic talents.
All of her coworkers and volunteers feel very fortunate to have her as part of the ONC team!
Submitted by: Heather Moody, Okeeheelee Nature Center Manager