Last year I was given the incredible honor of writing a series of five nonfiction picture books for Nomad Press about animal adaptations (they will be published in August 2020). I knew right away that I wanted to go beyond the simple adaptations we think of right away – cheetahs are super-fast so they can hunt down a meal and turtles have a hard shell to protect themselves. I wanted to find and write about the little-known adaptations that make people go, “Whoa!” Researching and writing these books was SO MUCH FUN.
The education market doesn’t generally make a big deal out of cover reveals. But, the covers of these books (thank you Katie Mazeika!) are brilliant. So I am going to throw myself, and these books, a little cover reveal party over the next five weeks. Today, it’s the mammal book: Stink Fights, Earwax, and Other Marvelous Mammal Adaptations. Ta da!
In this adorable book there are many mammals with marvelous adaptations, including the giant anteater. So these animals, which can be as large as golden retriever, have that long snout. That snout houses a long tongue. TWO FEET long to be more accurate. Oh, it gets better. The tongue is like a long strand of spaghetti and is covered in sticky saliva small, backward-pointing spines to help the anteater better slurp up termites or ants (once they’ve used their long, sharp claws to tear open a mound). They can flick that tongue in and out up to 150 times PER MINUTE. They don’t even chew. They just swallow – up to 30,000 insects in a day. D-lish!
On a Colorado-clear-blue-sky day, on one of those magical mornings blanketed in new snow, I go exploring, high in the mountains.
At first the forest seems quiet when there’s snow – it’s still. Almost like everything has stopped to sleep until spring. And yet…there’s the soft trickle of water below the ice on the creek. The solitary call of a bird. The rustle of the breeze through the treetops. And crisscrossing the new snow are tracks – the echo of critters who have recently passed by. Moose. Elk. Squirrel. Rabbit. Mouse. I saw their fresh tracks. But I didn’t see them. Perhaps they saw me.
We’ve already had a lot of snow this season – it started just before Halloween and seems to keep coming. After every new snowfall I find myself staring at a framed copy of Bill Watterson’s last Calvin and Hobbes comic, which hangs by my desk. It features the beloved Calvin and his ever-present buddy, Hobbes, facing a new day blanketed in snow and armed with a sled.
This last cartoon was published on December 31, 1995. So as we approach another new year, I thought it appropriate to showcase that cartoon again because it so perfectly captures how I feel about the natural world – how I wish everyone felt. It is a magical world. Go explore.
PHOTO CREDIT: San Diego Zoo
Given the season, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about reindeer. Or is it caribou? The answer is, it’s both! Reindeer and caribou are, in fact, the same animal. What we call them depends on location. In Europe they are called reindeer. In North America, it gets more complicated. Wild herds are called caribou, while the domesticated animals are called reindeer.
Which brings me to my next point. Since Santa’s herd is clearly domesticated, they are called reindeer. But for the record, Rudolf was a girl. And, actually, Santa’s entire team was female! These animals are part of the deer family. Like other members of the deer family, they grow antlers. In the case of reindeer/caribou, though, BOTH males and females grow them. And here’s how we know that Rudolf was female – male reindeer/caribou shed their antlers every November. Females, on the other hand, don’t shed theirs until calves are born – in May. Like so many things in our past, it seems as though history needs to be rewritten. In the meantime, should you come across a reindeer/caribou with antlers in the coming weeks, say hello to HER.
Happy book birthday! Animal Conservationists makes its way into the world this month, celebrating the ongoing work of scientists to save species at risk in the face of climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species. The work of these scientists includes monitoring bats affected with white-nose syndrome and collaboration between groups to find practical solutions to the epidemic. Others have focused their efforts on preserving or restoring habitats, including the Everglades in Florida. Breeding programs have also helped species like the California condor; thanks to the efforts of conservationists, the population of these birds has recovered from 22 in 1982, to over 400 in 2018. In zoos, scientists use animal matchmaking to determine genetically ideal matches in order to help recover species populations. Coral breeding programs are likewise helping to restore coral colonies. In addition, technology is playing an increasingly important role in species conservation. These animal conservationists on the front lines of saving species at risk are doing amazing work – work that should be celebrated and highlighted!
If you look like the leaf you’re sitting on, you are a lot less likely to be singled out as a meal by a predator. And, if you don’t get eaten, you are also more likely to live long enough to reproduce. Chances are, your offspring will also look a lot like a leaf too. Hopefully they don’t get eaten either.
Meet the satanic leaf-tailed gecko of Madagascar. Through millions of years of evolution its camouflage is so precise it really does look like a leaf. And if some sharp-eyed predator (birds, snakes, and rats) does happen to spot one of these geckos, the gecko will resort to plan B. They scream. Plan C is to leap to a new branch. But take a look at the picture. Can you spot the gecko? I’ll be plan A works most of the time!
In my lifetime I’ve watched many, many documentaries, but none have made me laugh out loud like Dancing with the Birds. I also think I set a new record for the number of times I said, “WHOA!” All the birds in the documentary were fantastic, yet the male MacGregor’s bowerbird stole the show. This bird builds a bower on a platform of moss that’s more like a tower of woven sticks and twigs – it’s over 3 feet tall! The bird may spend months or years perfecting its bower and maintaining it. He also decorates, hanging plant sap and caterpillar feces among the lower branches much like humans decorate Christmas trees.
Once perfected, he awaits a female. When one arrives, he begins a show of vocalizations. MacGregor’s bowerbirds imitate other birds’ song as well as human voices and the sound of children playing. To say that this is amazing is an understatement. You gotta hear it to believe it. Then, once the female arrives at the bower they begin a lengthy game of hide-and-seek around the tower. They flit and jump round and round, back and forth. And hopefully, for him, she is as impressed as I was.
I am constantly reminded that the earth is an amazing place. For me, the awe usually has to do with some kind of living creature. This past weekend it was rocks. Paint Mines in El Paso County, Colorado is a treasure of colorful rocks, spires, and hoodoos (a column of weathered rock). The colored bands were caused by oxidized iron compounds. Erosion exposed the layers of geologic history, creating the gullies and hoodoos in the process. And long before white settlers moved west, native peoples used the clays tinged with yellow, red, orange, purple and gray to make pottery. Some evidence points to humans inhabiting the area as long as 9,000 years ago.
Today it is a county park. In addition to the beautiful rocks, it is full of cottontails, jackrabbits, and deer. There were probably coyote slinking through the grasses too. And as the sun set, casting long shadows and intensifying the colors, I couldn’t help but once again, be amazed.
As I walked across campus this week, I came across a squirrel hastily covering a nut or acorn it had just buried. When it saw me it froze. Caught in the act. We had a staring contest for many seconds. I won. The squirrel scampered off.
Like many kids, I learned early on that squirrels don’t hibernate, and in advance of winter they store food. But I had lived my whole life (until now!) and never actually seen a squirrel doing it. It made me wonder how many other stashes that squirrel has. Will it remember where they all are? Most likely. They bury different caches of food all over the place and use both memory and smell to find it when needed. They can even find their food when there’s a foot of snow on the ground!
Many people don’t much like squirrels, but I do. They are intelligent, playful, and funny. They love a good game of chase or taunt the dog. They are masters at figuring out how to get to the bird feeder. They can leap between branches in a single bound. One squirrel in my yard likes to come look in the window right next to my desk. And, in the deepest days of winter, when the days are short and the rest of the world is resting, the squirrels are out scampering about having a jolly good time. Best of all, not all of squirrels’ buried nuts get dug up, which results in more trees!
Remember each day
The power of being present.
Of not speaking
but holding a hand
giving a hug
offering a smile.
life, love, and laughter.
Because today is a gift.