One of my favorite things to do in the summer is to hike in the high country and enjoy the wildflowers. It’s like nature is celebrating summer too. And these flowers, sometimes blanketing hillsides, are absolutely brilliant. Then a closer look reveals the delicate complexity of each flower. The first in my series is called a shooting star. They are found only in areas with a lot of moisture, along streams and in watersheds.
I’ve mentioned before that I am in the middle of researching and writing a series of picture books on animal adaptations, which has been so much fun. Deciding which animals to put in each book (I only get to pick 12-13!) was difficult, but I decided to put beavers in the mammal book because I don’t think they get nearly the credit they deserve.
First of all, beavers are ecosystem engineers. The dams they build create slow-moving ponds, which helps to reduce downstream erosion. They also provide aquatic habitats for countless other species, creating highly diverse biological communities. The dams themselves are an engineering feat. Built from downed trees and limbs, the dams/lodges are water-tight – sticks, reeds, branches, and saplings woven together and “caulked” with mud. They are ventilated by a small hole in the roof called a chimney. Oftentimes the entrance to the lodge is underwater, keeping the beavers safe from predators. Beavers even cover the floor in wood shavings that absorb excess water and provide a comfy bed. They really are amazing critters. And they’re pretty cute, too.
For my last ocean blog, I wanted to end with a truly mind-blowing thought. Phytoplankton, the microscopic, plant-like cells that live in Earth’s oceans (and lakes) provide FIFTY PERCENT of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s right. Even though we can’t even see them without a microscope, these minute organisms prove us with 50% of the air we breathe. Not only that, they take in carbon dioxide (this is the same process of photosynthesis that plants and trees go through). And if that isn’t enough, they also form the base of marine food chains.
Next time you are at the ocean, look at a drop of water on your skin – there will be thousands of phytoplankton in that single drop. Then, take a deep breath of air and thank these microscopic organisms!
“The oceans deserve our respect and care, but you have to know something before you can care about it.” [Sylvia Earle, American Marine Biologist]
While I have always loved the ocean, the writing and research I’ve done in the past several years has given me a new, deeper understanding and appreciation. Not only is the ocean home to countless strange and amazing creatures, but it also plays such a vital role in the health of the planet as well as in the lives of billions of people. In honor of the oceans, I highly recommend two BBC documentaries: Blue Planet, and Blue Planet II. You will not be disappointed.
“In every curving beach, in every grain of sand, there is a story of the Earth.” [Rachel Carson]
Whenever I get the chance to go snorkeling, I’m always happy to see parrotfish. I’m not sure why I like them so much. Maybe it’s because they always look like they are smiling. Or that you can see their perfect teeth (which form a parrot-like beak). Or how colorful some of them are.
Recently I learned an especially cool fact about parrotfish – they poop sand. Like many people I’d always thought that sand was the byproduct of hundreds of years of erosion and the weathering of rocks. That is still true. But there’s more to the story. On some beaches around the world, the sand is the byproduct of parrotfish. Here’s how it works. Parrotfish scrape off coral with their beaks. The soft tissues of polyps, bacteria, and algae are absorbed. The hard calcium carbonate skeleton of the coral, however, is processed and pooped out as sand! A large parrotfish can produce hundreds of pounds of sand a year. I will never look at sand or parrotfish the same.
I’m in the middle of researching and writing a series of nonfiction picture books (for Nomad Press) about animal adaptations. One of those includes a book about fish. I honestly never had too much of an appreciation for fish that weren’t tropical fish until now. Fish actually come in all kinds of shapes and sizes with a myriad of bizarre adaptations.
In honor of Father’s Day, I present one of my favorites: the leafy sea dragon. They are peculiar and beautiful and wonderfully camouflaged. And, like seahorses (they are different species but are in the same family), the male sea dragon is responsible for taking care of the eggs (up to 300 of them!). He broods the eggs in a special pouch under his tail for about 6 weeks. That’s some kind of daddy daycare. Kind of makes you wonder where the mom goes…
I saw whales. Lots of them. In real life. And it was awesome.
While I am definitely a mountain girl, I do love the ocean and had the privilege of spending the past week on the Atlantic. One night, about a half hour before sunset, we looked out across the vast expanse of sea and saw a spout of water. Then another. And another and another and another. There were well over a dozen whales right there. As the falling, orange sun shined on the water, and the spouts and flukes of the whales rose above the surface, it was nothing short of magical.
June 8 was World Oceans Day. So in honor of the oceans and the whales that I saw, my next few posts will be about the marvels of Earth’s oceans. Stay tuned…
Writing about animal adaptations is fun. I’m not talking about giraffe’s long neck (to help it reach leaves on the tallest trees) or a woodpecker’s beak (perfect for tap, tap, tapping into the bark of trees to find insects). No. I am talking about all of the CRAZY adaptations out there that get so little press.
Take, for example, the shoebill stork. It has a big powerful beak. It can move stealthily through the swamps of eastern tropical Africa. But those are not its most interesting adaptations. The one that takes the cake is the fact that the birds poo on their legs to help them cool down. You read that correctly. Vultures do this too. Wow. Biodiversity is so cool.
My writing goal is to teach kids about the amazing biodiversity on the planet and inspire them to act to protect it. Some days, though, it is hard to stay positive. Recently the UN released a report about the grim future facing other species on our planet. The report, written by 145 experts from 50 countries, estimates that of the eight million species on Earth, one million are at risk of extinction as a result of human activity. ONE MILLION. Think about that for a minute.
The main causes are pollution, habitat loss and degradation, over-exploitation, invasive species, and, of course, climate change. I do not want to dwell on the details here. What I do want to highlight is that the report also says that it’s not too late. So the question is, what will you do to be part of the positive change?