Brevard County student discovers 'rain dance' of endangered tortoises


BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – A 14-year-old Brevard County student found that a species of endangered tortoises do an apparent "rain dance" while visiting a Florida Tech facility.

Local 6 news partner Florida Today reports West Shore Jr./Sr. High School student River Grace noticed when it rained, certain tortoises appeared to dance. Intrigued, he decided to study the behavior for the science fair last spring.

His project, titled "Rain Dance of the Radiata: Behavior of the Endangered Radiated Tortoise and Related Species," was recently chosen as one of 30 finalists in the national Broadcom MASTERS competition.

The prestigious science competition for middle school students is designed to recognize and engage young researchers; winners of state or regional science fairs are invited to participate.

"I couldn't believe I had gotten this," said River, now a high school freshman. "As soon as I got over the shock, I was delighted."

As a finalist, River receives an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the Broadcom MASTERS Finals from Sept. 27-Oct. 1.

There, he'll showcase his project and compete in hands-on activities in science, technology engineering and math. He'll be in the running for more than $100,000 in prizes.

While researching the Radiated Tortoise, River realized that not much is known about the species, which is only found in southern Madagascar. It's critically endangered, and scientists estimate it could be extinct in the next 20 years.

River developed a better understanding of the species while completing his project at Florida Tech, where his father Michael is a professor, and at the Brevard Zoo. The project was done under the direction of West Shore Teacher Mary Anderson.

In some experiments, River simulated rain by using a water sprinkler and watching to see if males reacted differently than females, or if hatchlings reacted differently than adults. He found that gender did not play a role, but age did.

In addition, he tested six other species of tortoises, from other parts of the world. They did not behave the same way in the rain.

River believes the dance may be a cleaning routine, which he wants to study further.

He's also interested in conservation research that could help the species survive.

"We don't know much about them, and of the scientific papers and all the information I could find, there's hardly anything," he said.