I saw a documentary this week that was both difficult to watch at times while inspiring at others. It was called Mission Blue, featuring the legendary American marine biologists Dr. Sylvia Earl. She has spent decades (she is now 85 and still diving!) exploring the ocean and advancing our knowledge of its importance.
Her research and experience have put her on a mission to save the ocean. Earl understands the devastating effect humans are having on our oceans and founded Mission Blue in an effort to raise awareness and increase the number of marine protected areas around the world. These protected areas are called Hope Spots. These spots are identified as ecosystems that are critical to the overall health of the ocean. Today only 6% of the ocean is protected (compared to 12% of land in the form of parks and reserves).
She also cautions us that everything is connected, including us. The ocean is the heart of the earth. She recently tweeted:
“The bottom-line answer to the question about why biodiversity matters is fairly simple: the rest of the living world can get along without us, but we can’t get along without them.”
In the documentary Earl shares the ocean’s beauty, reveals the ugly truth about what is happening to it, and yet offers hope. Together, we can create a network of marine protected areas that is large enough to save and restore the ocean.
For a while now I’ve been thinking about chickadees (long story). Then one flew into the house the other day…yep, right into the living room and up to the skylight. I managed to get the poor thing back outside without much ado, but took its visit as a sign to do a little investigative research.
Chickadees are often overlooked in the shadow of other remarkable, vibrant birds. They are common, so not considered extraordinary. Oh, but they are. These hardy little birds live across the northern half of North America. Thankfully, too, they don’t migrate, enlivening the quiet and stillness of the winter months. So how do they survive harsh winter temperatures? Controlled hypothermia. More scientifically, chickadees go into a state of torpor on very cold nights. They find a sheltered place, such as the hollow of a tree, fluff their feathers, and slow down their metabolism which lowers their body temperature by 10-20° F and conserves energy. In the morning they warm themselves up to go back to feeding. In addition, they gather and store food to help them through the winter. It gets better…the chickadee brain actually increases in size in the fall so they can remember where they stored the food!
Chickadees also have that signature cheery call, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. That’s not the only one, though. They have many other songs and calls. Apparently the language of chickadees is quite complex. Scientists studying them have identified well over a dozen different vocalizations that vary in pitch and length. As with all birds, the vocalizations are a means to communicate – to stay in touch with a mate, fend off a predator, or announce a food source. These calls communicate danger, too. With black-capped chickadees, their calls also communicate the level of danger. If you hear a chickadee call out chick-a-dee, followed by one or two more “dees” the danger level is low. But chickadees will add over 20 “dees” to their call if the threat level is high. I think I’m going to invest in a new bird feeder for winter and see what else I can learn.
It is sunflower season! They are brilliant, amazing flowers, especially if you are lucky enough to come across a whole field of them…a sea of color.
But if you look closer, closer, and closer still, you can appreciate the delicate complexity of these flowers. And in fact, each one is not actually a single flower, but 1000-2000 tiny individual flowers joined at the base. It’s almost as if each “single” flower is a microscopic garden itself. I also learned a new word as I delved deeper into the wonder of sunflowers – heliotropism. If you’ve ever noticed sunflowers, especially a field of them, you’ve probably noted that they are always facing the sun. The heads actually track the sun’s movement, known as heliotropism.
Unlike so many flowers we see in gardens today, sunflowers are native to the Americas. They were domesticated as early as 1000 BC, because they are a great food source; each “one” has thousands of seeds. Today the main use of sunflowers, though, is for oil. Another use I discovered? A bird feeder! Enjoy them while they are blooming, then harvest them for the birds.
A dragonfly visited me the other day, just outside my window. It was still in the garden when I went out for a better view. I moved closer, and closer, and closer. Minutes went by as I watched. Then I zoomed in for pictures. It was almost as if it turned to look me square in the eye and pose. Thank you, dragonfly.
These insects that have roamed the earth for over 300 million years and today there are more than 5,000 different species of them. They are symbols of joy, transformation, and adaptability, yet dragonflies are actually ferocious predators with sharp, teeth-like mandibles! Not only that, but they will nab unsuspecting prey right out of the air with the precision of a fighter jet. They catch their prey with their feet, rip off their wings with their sharp jaws so it can’t escape, and eat, all in mid-air. Needless to say, dragonflies have mad flying skills – they can fly forward, backward, and sideways, and can even hover like a hummingbird. Their hunting and flying skills are facilitated by their eyes, which seem to take up most of their head. Yet these aren’t just bug eyes; each one of their two compound eyes has 30,000 lenses. Because of this they have almost-360° vision (with the only exception being directly behind them). I already thought dragonflies were amazing, but of course, better understanding leads to greater respect.
Flatworms are generally unseen, un-celebrated critters. But there are more than 20,000 species of them and they are found just about everywhere there’s water. However, they can be hard to find because much of their life cycle is spent inside a host organism. That’s the yuck-factor (think tape-worm). Still, they are pretty fascinating.
The whoa-factor about flatworms was described to me by a young friend who shares my love of the natural world, especially the weirdly wonderful aspects of it. One evening this summer as we marveled at fireflies, she told me that most flatworms only have one opening in their body. Wait, what? It is true. These simple organisms only have a mouth. They eat with that mouth. Then their food moves through the simple digestive system. So…what happens to the stuff that isn’t digested? Well, it has to come out the mouth. Back to yuck. Other materials are also excreted through special cells called flame cells. Tapeworms, by the way, do not have a digestive system at all – they simply absorb the nutrients they need from their host.
Another interesting aspect of flatworms? Some species are actually quite pretty. Nonetheless, I think I still rather not be a host.
I recently came across a video called “Everything You Wanted to Know About Animal Farts.” Of course, I had to watch it. This is not something I’ve spent any time thinking about before, but I was immediately intrigued. I suppose I just assumed that all animals fart. Guess what? Not all animals do!
Big fact I learned: birds don’t fart! What??? The reason is that they do not have the bacteria in their guts that produces gas and food passes through their bodies quickly enough that gas doesn’t build up. Whoa! Octopuses don’t fart either. Nor do sea cucumbers. Some fish do fart, others don’t. Sloths don’t fart either, making them possibly the only mammal that doesn’t. The only other possible no-farting-mammals are bats; but scientists just don’t have a definitive answer to date.
I also learned that farts are used in a variety of ways, not just to pass gas. One species of lacewing, for example, actually stuns and kills its prey (termites) by farting on them! The Sonoran coral snake, on the other hand, uses its farts (more scientifically, cloacal pops) to scare away predators when threatened. Manatees use farts to control buoyancy. And the list of amazing fart facts goes on. See? Intrigued!
The zoologist referenced in the video, Dani Rabaiotti, also co-authored a book titled Does It Fart? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence. Yes, I checked it out of the library. And so should you.
The fifth and final creature feature before the picture book science series is published on August 13, is the sidewinder snake. As I researched and wrote Water-Walking, Sidewinding, and other Remarkable Reptile Adaptations (Nomad Press, August 2020), I discovered why sidewinders move the way they do – of course, it’s an adaptation!
When these snakes move, only two parts of the snake are on the ground at the same time. This allows the snake to use their head and tail to thrust their body forward; it is a great way to gain traction and move across loose sand (up to speeds of 18 miles per hour!). Not only that, sidewinding keeps most of their body off the hot surface of the desert. No one wants a burned belly…not even a snake.
Despite their speed and agility on the loose sand, sidewinders do not use their unique mode of locomotion to chase down prey. Instead they wiggle into the sand, leaving only their eyes above the surface. Then they wait. When an unsuspecting lizard or small rodent happens by, ZAP! It’s dinner time.
My appreciation of fish was, before I wrote the picture book series about animal adaptations, limited to the beautiful tropical fish I see while snorkeling. Yet as research has shown me time and time again, there is so much more to appreciate! In Antifreeze, Leaf Costumes, and Other Fabulous Fish Adaptations (Nomad Press, August 2020), you can read about some of the fabulous fish adaptations I discovered.
For example, one might think that fish don’t use tools. Ah, think again! If you were a fish and you wanted to get a clam shell open (yum!), what would you do? Like the blackspot tuskfish, you’d use a rock. The fish doesn’t pick up the rock, though. Instead, it bashes the clam shell against the rock over and over again until it breaks! It’s genius. Then, they use their tusk-like front teeth to get the fleshy part out of the shell.It gets better.
Scientists and divers have discovered broken shells littered around a single rock on the ocean floor. This suggests that when a tuskfish finds a rock they like they use it many times! Observation of the fish bashing a shell against a rock also reveals the precision and skill with which the fish delivers the perfect blow to its desired meal.
Sunscreen, Frogsicles, and Other Amazing Amphibian Adaptations (Nomad Press, August 2020), book 3 in the picture book science series, features the bizarre adaptations of amphibians. Like with the other books, it was difficult to decide which amphibians to include because there were so many amphibian adaptations that amazed me (and also quite a few that are truly gross).
Among those that made it into the book is the waxy monkey tree frog. These large frogs live in the treetops of dry South American forests. So the question becomes, how do waxy monkey tree frogs protect their skin from the sun? Sunscreen!
Of course, that brings up another question…how does a frog get sunscreen? Their bodies produce a waxy substance that they rub all over their bodies. They have extremely flexible arms and legs and joints so they can reach all the tricky parts. For waxy monkey tree frogs, though, they are not just protecting themselves against sunburn. They use the sunscreen to keep their skin from drying out. Check out the video – it’s funny.
Another animal adaptations book in my picture book science series is about birds: Spit Nests, Puke Power, and Other Brilliant Bird Adaptations (Nomad Press, August 2020). While I’ve always liked birds, doing the research for the book gave me an entirely new appreciation. Take toucans, for example.
They are known for their large, colorful beaks. But did you know how amazing those beaks really are? I didn’t. To start, those oversized beaks help toucans stay cool in the tropics because the beaks are laced with blood vessels; as blood pumps into the bill, excess body heat can escape. Toucans also use their bills to pluck fruit from trees or to reach into tree cavities to steal eggs from other birds. Their bills are also useful for digging out a hole in a tree for a nest. And, best of all, toucans use their beaks to play catch during mating season, tossing fruit back and forth to each other!
One last thing – even though their bills are huge (sometimes as much as 4 times the size of their head and almost as long as their body), they are lightweight because they are made out of keratin, the same material as our hair and fingernails are made of.