I will admit that, until very recently, whenever someone said “scallops” I immediately thought of a delicious meal. But as is often the case, with a closer look and a little research, I now have a new appreciation for those bivalve mollusks.

Let’s start with the fact that I didn’t even know what I was seeing on the beach was a scallop in the first place. But yes, scallops are those fan-shaped, corrugated shells. The corrugations, called ribs, make the shell strong and hard to break. In addition, the corrugations make the shells great places for other plants and animals to grow, which in turn helps to camouflage the scallop. If the camouflage doesn’t work and a predator nears, though, scallops will swim away! No kidding. By clapping their shells together, scallops can actually move quite quickly!

This scallop was very much alive (clapping its shells together!) and was returned to the ocean.

The scallops open and close their hinged shells using the whitish muscle inside the shell (visible in the photo). That muscle, by the way, is the part harvested for the aforementioned meal! There’s also a bright orange section inside the shell, called a coral. Scallops eat plankton; when water enters their shells, mucus traps the small organisms and cilia moves the meal to the scallop’s mouth. But perhaps the best scallop fact of all is that they have up to 200 eyes! They line the edge of their mantle and can be black to bright blue (look closely at the picture…there they are!). The pupils of these eyes dilate in response to light and the retinas focus light, but scientists are still learning about the dynamics of scallop eyes.

So now the question is, what will you think of the next time you hear someone say, “scallops”?


Sand Dollars

Most people probably think of sand dollars as treasures found on a beach. They are usually white with an amazing and intricate five-point shape on the back that looks like petals of a flower (also known as a petaloid ambulacra). These white sand dollars are no longer alive. Which brings up the question, what are they like when they are alive?

Living sand dollars, relatives of sea stars and sea urchins, dwell on the seafloor and are greyish purple. They are covered in tiny hairs and spines called cilia that serve a number of purposes. For starters, sand dollars use the cilia to move along the sea floor – who knew that a sand dollar had a form of locomotion! Not only that, but sand dollars only lie flat on the bottom of the ocean when the water is rough or fast moving. Most of the time they use the cilia to stand themselves up on edge, with one end partly buried in the sand. The spines on the upper half of a sand dollar also serve as gills.

But wait, there’s more. The cilia are used to transport food particles towards the sand dollar’s mouth on the bottom, center of its body. They are considered carnivores because they eat plankton, crab larvae, and small bits of animals, in addition to algae. Inside the sand dollar’s mouth, there’s a jaw with five teethlike sections, used to grind up their food! These creatures chew for up to 15 minutes before swallowing. Food takes up to two days to fully digest.

When you find a sand dollar on the beach, there are probably others nearby because, when alive, sand dollars live in colonies! Whether or not this makes them “social” creatures is up for debate, but they do gather together in groups that can exceed 600 sand dollars in a square yard. These packed crowds may aid in reproduction because sand dollars don’t mate in a traditional sense. Instead, both males and females “broadcast” sperm and eggs into the water. The more closely packed they are, the higher the chance sperm and eggs will meet.

So the next time you find the exoskeleton of a sand dollar, it is indeed a treasure but one with a long and interesting life history before it landed at your feet!


Puss Caterpillar

This caterpillar was given its name because of its resemblance to a cuddly cat. It is furry and only about an inch long, giving it a mostly adorable appearance. But don’t touch it! The furry puss caterpillar is one of the deadliest caterpillars in the United States.

Photo by Brett Hondow, 2013

Their outer furry hairs hide tiny, toxic spines. If you come into contact with them, the spines will stick in your skin. The stings can be incredibly painful, like a bee sting, but worse. And, the pain worsens over times and radiates through the body. Some people have reported that the stings make their bones hurt. Luckily, most people recover by removing the spines, then treating with ice and antihistamines.

Now the story of the puss caterpillar doesn’t end there. This furry, adorable, toxic caterpillar turns into a poop flinging moth. You can’t make this stuff up. As adults, the puss caterpillars turn into flannel moths. According to National Geographic, female flannel moths fling poop away from their bodies. Scientists believe the reason for this is to keep away parasites that are attracted to poop and may harm the caterpillars.


I’ve been thinking a lot about water lately. Maybe it’s because we didn’t have much precipitation for months and months and now the snow just keeps coming. Or maybe it’s because more than 70% of Earth is covered in it, but only 3% of that is freshwater. Or maybe it’s because I just finished a month of brainstorming picture book ideas (Storystorm!) and so my “idea brain” is on full alert. But no matter, today my musings are about water.

The water cycle is an amazing process, but that’s not what’s been on my brain. Instead, I’ve been thinking about all the places we might find water and all the forms it takes. Let’s start easy: water is rain, snow, and sleet; oceans, lakes, and rivers are water. But water is also the puddle we slosh through, on the hill we sled down, and the ice we slide on. It’s the pool we swim in, the ice cubes in our drinks, and the shower we take.

But if we dig deeper, there’s so much more. Like a dew drop reflecting the sun. It can take the form of team rising off a hot cup of tea. It’s evident in the exhalation of whale. It’s curlicue icicles and glaciers and permafrost. It’s geysers and hot springs and ancient aquifers of water that rained on the backs of dinosaurs. Water takes the form of fog and clouds and humidity. It’s the sweat on our skin. When we see our breath, we’re seeing the moisture from our warm breath condense into tiny visible droplets in the cool air. The adult body itself is actually 60% water!

So I challenge you. As you go about your day, think about water. Notice water all around you, both visible and hidden. Think about all the forms it takes. Does it make you think differently about water? I hope so!