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Student Finds Lizard in Organic Salad, Science Teacher Gets New Class Mascot

Photo credit: Mark Eastburn

Photo credit: Mark Eastburn

We’ll go out on a limb and assume you wouldn’t be thrilled to discover a lizard in your salad. But if you’re a student of Mark Eastburn, a teacher at Riverside Elementary School, you might have a different reaction. Eastburn, a science educator who holds a Master’s degree in biology from Villanova University, teaches his students to be excited by science and its creatures rather than frightened. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that when one of his kindergarten students found a lizard in her organic salad greens, she and her mother brought the three-inch reptile — now named Green Fruit Loop — to her teacher, Mr. Eastburn. Since then, the lizard has become something of a class mascot at the New Jersey elementary school.

This week, we caught up with Eastburn, who explained his path to education and how Green Fruit Loop survived its unlikely journey from a farm to a kindergartener’s lunchbox.

You’ve received quite a bit of buzz! Which subjects do you teach at Riverside Elementary School?

I teach hands-on, inquiry-based science, technology and engineering to students in prekindergarten through fifth grade.

What kind of lizard is Green Fruit Loop?

He is a Carolina anole, also called a green anole, which is native to the southeastern United States, from Florida to southern Virginia, and west to Texas.

How did the children initially react to having the lizard in class?

Children in this particular class were curious above all else, and many wanted to hold him (which I didn’t allow, since the lizard is delicate, and very fast-moving). These were kindergarten students, and I am a firm believer that revulsion and disgust to certain creatures are behaviors that have to be learned.

You’ve said that Green Fruit Loop was in a cold coma due to refrigeration. What kind of food processes do you think led to the lizard’s survival from harvest to packaging?

The tatsoi leaves were harvested on an organic farm in Florida and shipped to Whole Earth Center, an organic food store in Princeton, NJ. The leaves must have been gently harvested, and certainly weren’t handled roughly, or else the lizard would’ve been harmed. Once the leaves were harvested, they were refrigerated for the trip to NJ, but certainly never frozen, so the lizard was cooled to the point that he could no longer move, but didn’t suffer any permanent damage, which freezing would surely do. Since the leaves were grown on an organic farm, they weren’t sprayed with pesticides or other harmful chemicals, and the fact that the lizard could remain alive while wrapped up for several days in the leaves attests to the fact that they were high quality and safe for human consumption.

You have a Master’s degree in biology at Villanova. Did the coursework prepare you for your classroom lizard?

I originally decided to pursue a master’s in biology at Villanova because of Drs. Aaron Bauer and Todd Jackman’s work with lizards (primarily skinks and geckos, although Todd Jackman previously worked with Jonathan Losos of Harvard University studying anoles). I have always been a fan of lizards, and read extensively on anoles, but when it came time to choose the study subject for my thesis, I decided to work with Dr. Robert Curry on Bagheera kiplingi, the only plant-eating spider known to science. It was such a fascinating creature that I just couldn’t resist! Interestingly, I have been using a lot of the research that Jonathan Losos has done on the evolution of anoles on different Caribbean islands to inform my thesis on the evolution of Bagheera kiplingi along with another spider, Frigga crocuta, both of which show interesting plant associations.

What made you decide to become an educator?

When I graduated from college, I entered the Peace Corps and served in Panama, primarily because I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to take. While serving in a remote mountain village in central Panama, I started to realize that education was one of the best ways to affect change in the world, and decided upon the conclusion of my service to be a teacher. I taught Spanish prior to finding a job as a science teacher, but the job I currently have is the one I always wanted. I have chosen to stay at the elementary level because it allows me to work with the same children for six years (K-5), and gives me the best opportunity to infuse a lifelong interest in science, technology and engineering.

What’s next as far as classroom pets are concerned? Any plans to find Green Fruit Loop a friend?

For the past three years, my students and I have been studying a resident population of box turtles that have been living on our enclosed courtyard for as long as anyone can remember. I am in the process of building a website that features these native reptiles, and they have been the source of endless enthusiasm, as well as a great opportunity to collaborate with very accomplished scientists. We have recently completed the first round of a genetics study on our turtle population to determine the parentage of our juvenile and baby turtles, and we made Green Fruit Loop the mascot of our science lab because the green anole was the first reptile to have all of its DNA sequenced.

I do have four adult anoles in my classroom, but I am going to wait until Green Fruit Loop is bigger before I introduce them, since green anoles can be territorial, and I don’t want any harm coming to the world’s most famous lizard! We also have a collection of snakes, frogs, and two tarantulas in the Riverside School science laboratory.

For more information about pursuing a Master’s degree in Biology at Villanova University, click here.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length.