Moth or Butterfly?

Throughout the summer I’ve come across many moths and butterflies, each amazing in their own right. On one hike to a high alpine lake, a friend and I spent our lunch break watching a pair of moths with pale blue wings and dark spots. But were they moths? What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly anyway?

Generally speaking butterflies are thought of as colorful and, well, beautiful, while moths are thought of as drab. A quick bit of research reveals that moths actually come in a great variety of colors and can be just as beautiful as any butterfly. One of the true differences between the two, though, is that moths tend to be nocturnal, and butterflies are diurnal. In addition, when resting, moths will usually flatten their wings against their bodies; butterflies, on the other hand, fold their wings up over their backs. And, if you get up close and personal with these insects, you’ll find that moths have antennae that are comb-like or feathery and butterflies have thin antennae with club-shaped tips.

Another interesting thing about our encounter was that they were on the ground – not just for a quick second, but throughout our lunch. Shouldn’t they have been on a flower? There certainly were a lot to choose from. As it turns out, butterflies will also consume nutrients, like salt, which is probably what our pair was doing.

Obviously, we were wrong – we were watching butterflies. Extensive research has led me to conclude that our butterflies were spring azure butterflies. Probably. There are a lot of nuances to butterfly identification I’ve learned.

One last thing I learned: there are many more species of moths than butterflies. There are approximately 160,000 different species of moths while only 11,000 species of butterflies in the world.

The Boo-Hoo Flower

The boo-hoo flower is not it’s real name. But it is an appropriate nickname. The real name is Arctic gentian. It is a lovely goblet-shaped wildflower that grows in clusters, low to the ground in moist areas at or above tree line. It’s white with purple streaks and what I think of as freckles. Inside there are delicate pink stamen and a white stigma (yes, I had to look up “parts of a flower” to remember what all the parts are called!).

As with all wildflowers, I look forward to seeing them every year. People get their spiritual recharge in many places; I get mine on a summer hike to a high alpine lake surrounded by wildflowers. On a recent hike to a beautiful pair of lakes, we came across the Arctic gentian in full bloom.

The Arctic gentian, though, is a harbinger of what’s to come…winter. It is one of the summer season’s latest bloomers. Rangers nicknamed it the boo-hoo flower because it is a sign that the all-too-short alpine summer is almost over. So its sighting is bittersweet. But alas all good things must come to an end. It will make me even more grateful to see the first pasqueflowers and glacier lilies in the spring.

Splooting

I feel that I would be remiss if I did not give this word the attention it deserves. Years ago on a hot, hot summer day, I saw a squirrel splayed out on our picnic table in the shade…front legs forward, back legs backward, stomach flat on the table. My first thought was to wonder if it was okay. But then I guessed it was probably just hot and was likely just trying to stay cool.

I have now learned that there’s a word for that…splooting!

Animals stretch out like that on cool surfaces to try to reduce body heat. Some use the scientific term, “heat dumping” or “thermoregulation.” I prefer splooting. I have recently seen the neighborhood rabbits splooting (because it is STILL hot outside). According to the National Park Service, this is referred to as, “sploot season.”

Apparently marmots, bears, chipmunks, and other mammals sploot too. And splooting isn’t just for wild animals – pets sploot! Corgis are especially well-known for this (who knew?). Technically, if you were too sprawl out in an effort to cool off, you’d be splooting too. After all, it is sploot season.

Sand Crabs

A rite of passage for any kid on a sandy, ocean beach is digging for sand crabs. But you have to be in the right place. Wait in a spot where the waves will come in and wash gently over your feet. Then as the water washes back out, look for bubbles in the sand. When you see the bubbles, DIG! If you’re lucky, you’ll come up with a sand crab tickling the palm of your hand (it’s trying to burrow).

It turns out that area of breaking waves is called the swash zone. And this is where the sand crabs feed. They will move in and out with the tide, moving only backward (unlike other types of crabs that can move in any direction, these crabs can only move in one direction). Sand crabs use the claws on their hind legs, and their tails, to dig themselves into the sand backward. As a wave recedes, the crabs uncoil a set of antennae (they have two sets!). These antenna work like a net, filtering out microscopic plankton for them to eat.

Female sand crabs can lay up to 45,000 eggs (whoa!). She carries these eggs on her abdomen for 30 days until they hatch. After that she’s done, and the larvae drift off in ocean currents, which can distribute them far and wide. That may seem like a lot of offspring for one crab, but as both larvae and adults, they are food for many birds and fish.

One last thing – if you collect sand crabs in a bucket of sand, don’t leave them there too long. The sand and water heat up, which isn’t good for the crabs. Let the sand crabs go in the swash zone and watch them burrow into the sand backwards (in 1.5 seconds, apparently).

Tides

On my summer trip to Maine we spent all of our time on the coat, enjoying the ocean, the rocky shoreline, and the tidepools. Among the state’s many wonders, I was awed by how great the tidal ranges were there; the difference between high and low tide was on average between 8-12 feet, and even higher in the more northern parts of Maine. I grew up on the east coast, experiencing tide ranges of only 2-3 feet on the Maryland shore. Which made me wonder, why is the tidal range so much greater in some places? I reasoned, incorrectly, that the range of tide increased with latitude.

A bit of research revealed that the tidal range experienced in any one location has nothing to do with latitude or longitude, but is instead affected by several other factors. To start, tidal range is affected by the shape and geometry of a coastline. Coastlines with more curves (inlets, bays, peninsulas, etc.), such as that of Maine, will have a greater tidal swing than coastlines that are straighter and less varied.

In addition, in the northern hemisphere, the continents are closer together in the higher latitudes, thus constricting the ocean and creating higher tidal ranges – the water has to go somewhere! However, in the southern hemisphere, the continents are not as close together in the higher latitudes and therefore this region does not experience the same tidal range as their northern counterpart.

Finally, continental shelves affect the tides. In places where the continental shelf just off the coast is shallow and wide, the greater the tidal range. And conversely, in places where there is no continental shelf and the water offshore is deeper, the less tidal range there will be, as in Hawaii – something I’ve also wondered about!

For even more information about tides, watch this video with Neil deGrasse Tyson!

 

Footsteps in the Forest: Biome Explorers

Our last biome journey is into the world’s forests. Did you know that there are more than 60,000 different species of trees in the world? They also cover one third of Earth’s land, totaling more than three trillion trees! In Footsteps in the Forests we’ll take a walk on a rainforest canopy walkway, sit quietly to observe temperate forest wildlife, and bundle up to visit a chilly boreal forest.

First stop – the Amazon rainforest! There we’ll see an amazing variety of biodiversity in each of the four layers of the rainforest: the forest floor, the understory, the canopy, and the emergent layer. Hopefully we’ll see monkeys swinging from tree to tree, toucans tossing fruit to one another, and leafcutter ants marching one by one – HURRAH!

The next stop on the journey is a temperate forest in North America, home to both deciduous and coniferous trees. Other plants include ferns, mushrooms, mosses, and wildflowers. These forests are also home to many kinds of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds. As we sit and listen we may hear squirrels chittering, and woodpeckers peck, peck, pecking away.

For our last stop, in the boreal forest of Canada, grab a coat because even in the summertime, it doesn’t get very warm. Summers are also short in the boreal forest, which is why most of the trees are coniferous; since their needles don’t fall off before winter, they are able to soak up sunlight all year! Many animals here are only part-time residents, but full-time residents like snowshoe hares, lynx, and moose are well-adapted to survive in the cold and snow. Or, you could make like a bear and hibernate, sleeping away the winter!

No matter where you travel, there’s lots to see and learn, and lots of exploring to do!

Tour the Tundra: Biome Explorers

Grab a coat – on our next biome exploration we will Tour the Tundra to discover the plants and animals that inhabit the Arctic, the Antarctic, and alpine tundra. This biome is vast, treeless, and mostly frozen – it’s also the coldest of all biomes and gets roughly the same amount of precipitation as deserts. Despite this, there are amazing plants and animals that call the tundra home.

We’ll see herds of caribou and millions of birds that have migrated hundreds of miles to take advantage of the short summer in the Arctic. There are also Arctic fox and hares. These hardy animals are year-round residents who change their coats each season to camouflage themselves – white in the winter and brown in the summer. There are hardy plants there, too – over 1,700 types!

In the Antarctic there is less biodiversity, but still some plants and animals thrive. Most of the region stays covered in ice all year but look closely in the few ice-free spots and you’ll see moss and lichen; there are even two species of flowering plants in the Antarctic. Most of the animals we’ll see are just temporary summertime residents living on the coast and in the ocean, including lots of penguins!

Finally, we’ll hike up to the alpine tundra of Colorado – one of my favorite places to visit in the summer. What might we see? Marmots, pika, moose, elk, deer, bear, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and more. We’ll also see dozens of different species of wildflowers, even in this environment with wind, cold, intense sun, and a short growing season. Remember, though, that these tundra biomes are fragile so watch where you step and stay on the trail!

Grassland Globetrotting: Biome Explorers

Book #3 in my upcoming picture book series is Grassland Globetrotting. In this book we journey across grasslands – wide open spaces of grasses, grazing animals, and frequent wildfires. They are places where there’s enough precipitation for grasses and flowers to grow, but not trees, and cover about 20% of Earth’s land area. The plants there are well adapted to this climate, with underground stems where new growth can begin and strong, deep roots that act like an anchor for the plant and can store water, energy, and sugar. The grasses also have narrow leaves so less water is lost to evaporation.

The first stop in the book is to the temperate grassland of North America’s Great Plains. Looking out across the sea of grass you might be able to see bison, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets, or a male greater prairie-chicken strut, strut, strutting his stuff trying to find a mate! The rich soil also hosts hundreds of different species of grasses and wildflowers, including milkweed which monarch butterflies depend on as they migrate.

The second half of our grassland journey takes us to a tropical savanna in Africa. This is where one of the greatest migrations on Earth occurs with over a million wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles moving across the savanna in search of water. This savanna is also home to lions, giraffes, elephants, and more.

On this journey you’ll also learn how fire is important to grasslands, and how about how the grazing and trampling of all those hooved herbivores is beneficial to the grassland plants. No spoilers here…you’ll have to read the book!

Aquatic Adventures: Biome Explorers

Another book in my upcoming picture book science series explores Earth’s largest biome: water. Approximately 71 percent of the planet covered in it. And of all the water on Earth, over 96 percent is in the oceans.

In Aquatic Adventures: Biome Explorers, we start on the freshwater of the Mississippi River, fed by a huge basin that covers 32 US states and 2 Canadian provinces. Floating downstream we can watch for hundreds of different species of birds. The reason for this is that the Mississippi flyway is an important migration route. In fact, one third of all North American birds migrate along the Mississippi River!

Sanibel Florida

Once our journey reaches the delta, where the river meets the ocean, we head out to the Caribbean where it’s flip-flop season all year round. In the shallow coastal waters we might see Atlantic spotted dolphin, Bahama sea star, stingrays, Nassau grouper, spiny lobster, queen conch, and so much more. As we snorkel with the sea turtles we can explore the coral reefs, which support so much biodiversity they are often called the rainforests of the sea. Of all marine creatures, 90 percent live in these coastal waters.

Afterwards we head further out to sea where there is less biodiversity but still, beneath the surface there might be piglet squid, sea angels, northern comb jellyfish, or spoonarm octopus. And if we are lucky, we might see migrating whales.

For this adventure you’ll need a swimsuit, life jacket, and that sunscreen. Ahoy!

Destination Desert: Biome Explorers

Coming soon! In less than a month my latest picture book science series (Nomad Press) will hit the shelves. Before I started writing this series, I spent a great deal of time considering the format and tone of the books. After lots of notetaking and reading mentor texts, I decided that biomes deserve to be explored and experienced. The end result is that each book takes readers on a journey to visit the different types of a specific biome.

For example, did you know that there are four different types of deserts around the world? There are hot and dry deserts, semi-arid deserts, coastal deserts, and cold deserts. In Destination Desert: Biome Explorers we start in the Sahara, a hot, dry desert that gets less than three inches of rain per year and where temperatures regularly reach 110° F. Despite this, life thrives here – Dromedary camels, fennec foxes, deathstalker scorpions, ostriches, dung beetles, Sahara lovegrass, tamarisk shrubs, and much, much more. Each species of plant and animal is extremely well-adapted to the climate, and each has special ways to absorb and hold water.

A type of desert closer to home is the semi-arid desert of Utah with even more diversity of life, including jack rabbits, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats, bats, skunks, and owls. It is slightly cooler there and there’s more precipitation. Still, like in the Sahara, most life is nocturnal.

I think the most interesting desert we visit in Destination Desert is the coastal desert of the Atacama where almost zero rain falls. Parts of it are so dry and barren, even bacteria struggle to survive. But here along the coast, there are cacti and guanacos eating the flowers off the cacti! This region is called a fog oasis. The fog drifts inland from over the ocean and when it condenses on the cactus spines dew collects. Animals can get moisture by lapping the dew off the plants or by eating the parts of the plant that aren’t prickly. Imagine drinking fog to stay hydrated!

The last destination in the book is the cold Gobi Desert of Asia. It’s very different from what you might imagine a desert to be because it gets so very cold in the winter. But it does get hot in the summer, and it is very dry. Still, like in the other deserts, live thrives here. You’d find grasses, herb meadows, wild onion, Bactrian camels, gazelles, jerboas, polecats, and even a bear – the rare Gobi bear!

So, pack up a hat, sunscreen, and a full water bottle and let’s go exploring!