Kay Frydenborg on The Wild Horse Scientists and Science in a Salt Marsh:
I’d always wanted to write about the wild horses of Assateague, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia—at least since being captivated by the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague published by Marguerite Henry in 1947. It was based on accounts of real children and ponies, and read by this horse-crazy girl in Florida a decade or so later.
That girl grew up to be a horse-loving writer of books, moved to Pennsylvania, and finally managed to visit Assateague and nearby Chincoteague at the most exciting time of the year: the day in July when, for at least 90 years, wild “ponies” (actually small horses) are rounded up on the Virginia side of Assateague Island and herded across a narrow channel to Chincoteague, then rested in a large, shady pen there overnight before most of the foals are auctioned off to the public the following day.
But even after experiencing all the excitement, the adorable foals, the crowds (and voracious biting insects!) of Chincoteague in July, I didn’t know the book I’d one day write would be about science—much less that it would take me well over a decade to write it.
One of the wild horses of Assateague Island. Photo Credit: Amy Jacobs. Used with permission.
When I visited Assateague Island in the early 1990s, I saw firsthand that there was another side to this place—a quieter, wilder side—on the Maryland half of the state border that crosses the island. Sometimes, when you go there, it’s not easy to spot the horses unless you know where to look. Gazing out over a salt marsh on that first visit, I finally saw a lone chestnut in the distance. I wondered how this horse could survive the harsh days of winter. I wondered where it could find fresh water to drink, and enough food to eat. And where would horses go when fierce storms raged over the island, as they often did? I read everything I could find about the wild horses, but many of my questions remained unanswered.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I finally understood what my book was really about, and started researching and writing that book—the book that would become Wild Horse Scientists two years later. Not only did I find answers to my questions of that earlier visit, I learned much, much more that I hadn’t even known to ask.
I met an animal behaviorist who had observed the way these horses lived for decades, a National Park Service wildlife specialist who knew each of the more than 100 wild horses on sight, and a biologist who had developed and tested a vaccine to control the rapidly-multiplying population of horses on Assateague after long, difficult years of trial and error. I spent a day tromping through sand and salt marshes and piney woods with them, tracking the last several horses in line to be darted that year, experiencing first-hand how exhausting it could be to find wild horses who didn’t especially want to be found—even though the darts are painless and humane. I had the great privilege of reading the biologist’s personal diary of his many years spent on Assateague, detailing the highs and the lows of a scientist working in the field in all kinds of weather, through great disappointments and stunning success.
I learned that science is all about life: the intertwined lives of people and animals in the natural world—and that it can be at least as exciting, and sometimes as emotional, as any made-up story I can imagine.
Kay Frydenborg is the author of several books for young readers including Wild Horse Scientists, winner of the 2012 Riverby Award for excellence in natural history books for young readers, as well as a 2014 finalist for the AAAS/Suburu SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science in the children’s middle grade book category; Chocolate: Sweet Science and Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat (2015), and A Dog in the Cave: Coevolution and the Wolves Who Made Us Human (coming in 2017).
Kay has always loved to write and especially enjoys writing (and reading!) both nonfiction and fiction about animals, but it wasn’t until she finished school with degrees in English and creative writing that she realized how much she also loves history, science, and research. Luckily, she gets to indulge all of these interests in writing books for young people. She lives and writes in a pre-Civil War-era Pennsylvania farmhouse made of stone that she shares with her husband and two dogs, and also enjoys spending time with her horse. A perfect day is one in which she can do all of these things!
Her book, Wild Horse Scientists, was a finalist for the 2014 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Middle School Science Book category.
- Book/Author Resources
- You can visit Kay's site to learn more about her and her books.
- Kay's book focuses on two scientists: Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick and Dr. Ron Keiper. Dr. Keiper, animal behaviorist and professor of biology at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, spent several decades extensively studying the herds of wild horses of Assateague Island. He is the author of The Assateague Ponies and Windy of Chincoteague and co-author of The Island Ponies. Dr. Kirkpatrick, director of the Science and Conservation Center (SCC) in Billings, Montana, developed and tested the vaccine used to help control the wild horse population on Assateague. He is the author of Into the Wind: Wild Horses of North America. You can watch a video of Dr. Kirkpatrick talking about the SCC here.
- Wild Horse Scientists is part of a series of books called Scientists in the Field. If you liked this book, you should check out some of the other ones.
- Misty of Chincoteague is a famous children's book about the wild horses that live on Assateague Island. You can learn more about the book and its author, Marguerite Henry, and illustrator, Wesley Dennis, here.
- The New York Times published a video called Wild Horses: No Home on the Range that Kay recommends as a good background piece.
- Learn more about the Assateague and Chincoteague herds on Assateague Island.
- In this Science Update podcast, you can hear how studying horses may help engineers improve human flight in air and space.
- Animal Populations and Invasive Species
- Eliminating bears, wolves, and other top predators has far-reaching consequences, not just on herbivores (like deer and wild horses), but also on plants. Learn more in this Science Update podcast.
- Giant East African land snails are wreaking havoc in South Florida. Listen to this Science Update podcast to hear how they're eating plants—and houses.
- In other invasive snail news out of Florida, listen to this podcast to hear about invasive, disease-carrying tiger mosquitoes that are breeding in the shells of the apple snail.
- Again out of Florida, invasive Burmese pythons are feasting on native birds in the Everglades.
- When invasive plants threaten to upset critical natural habitat, who can you call? Jamie Evans, National Park Service biologist at Rocky Mountain National Park talks to Bob Hirshon in this video from the 2012 BioBlitz.
Related Educator Resources
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has a discussion and activity guide (pdf) with Common Core connections for the book.
- The Growing with Science blog suggests some activities to accompany the reading of Wild Horse Scientists.
- The Fossils 1: Fossils and Dinosaurs lesson focuses on what we have learned and can learn from fossils, as well as the difference between fact and theory. The lesson involves comparing what we know about horses versus what we know about the Stegosaurus.
- We have resources for some of the other Scientists in the Field series titles: The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America's Lost Grasslands and The Frog Scientist (introduction and investigation). Sy Montgomery, April Pulley Sayre, and Loree Griffin Burns also have published books in the series.
- One of the reasons PZP is considered a successful contraception option for animal populations is because it does not interfere with the animal's endocrine system. Advanced students may be interested in learning more about endocrine disruptors.
- The Assateague Island horses are overseen by the National Park Service. Learn more about our national parks with this collection of resources.
- This lesson uses the conflict between ranchers and wolves to explore the relationships between living things and their environments, and the effects of physical and human forces on the natural world.