Friday, October 31, 2014

The Case of the Vanishing Bats

The Case of the Vanishing Brown Bats
By Sandra Markle
48 pages; ages 9-12
Millbrook Press, 2014

If you're looking for a perfect Halloween mystery, this book's for you. You see, little brown bats were once among the most common kinds of bats in North America. But by 2013, their population had dropped so low that scientists wondered whether they should be listed as endangered species. 

[perfect spot for spooky musical interlude]

This story begins in 2007, when a team of scientists from the NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation goes to a cave near Albany. Their job: to count hibernating bats. What they found were lots of dead bats, some with fuzzy white noses. The following year they found even more dead bats.

What was killing the bats? Was it climate change? Pesticides? A virus?

In her book, Sandra Markle follows a team of scientists working on the bat-killer mystery. She follows them into caves and into their labs. The scientists determine that the killer is a fungus – but they still have more questions: what will happen to the populations of other animals that depend on the bats? Some animals rely on bats for their suppers, and farmers rely in bats to control crop-munching insects in the ecosystem.

Markle provides amazing bat facts and lists ways people can help their local bats. She’s also got a long list of books and other resources for folks who want to explore bats more deeply.

Today is Halloween. It's also STEM Friday! Head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are reviewing. On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher

Friday, October 24, 2014

Beetle Busters & author interview

Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People who Track It (Scientists in the Field)
by Loree Griffin Burns; photos by Ellen Harasimonwicz
64 pages; ages 10 - 14
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

This is a book about one gorgeous beetle (look at the beautiful antennae), the damage it does to forests, and the scientists and citizens who are trying to save their trees. The Asian Longhorn Beetle, also known as the ALB, came from China tucked into wood used to ship products to the US. Now it's infesting trees from Massachusetts to New York and into Canada, and foresters are in a race to control its spread. But is cutting thousands of trees the answer?

In this book Loree Burns takes a close look at the beetle - its life cycle inside and outside the trees - and the scientists tracking the insect. She talks trees: bark, tree rings, leaves and buds. She takes us into the woods with the beetle busting team for some surveying and a bit of tree climbing (don't worry; we're roped in), then into the lab. Beetle busting is hard work, and the scientists need help. That means we - yes, just ordinary citizens - need to help track and report beetle break-outs. Even if it means losing a tree we love.

Burns includes diagrams, sidebars, author's notes and resources for curious beetle naturalists. Ellen  Harasimonwicz's photographs are integral to this book. She traipsed from field to lab and her photos of beetles, trees, and scientists in action help us understand the complexity of the problem.

Loree has been traveling this fall, but she took a few minutes to answer some questions about her new book. You can find out more at her website.

Archimedes: Did this book evolve from an experience with a tree?

Loree: It began with several trees, actually. At the time, my family and I lived on a single acre and were the proud stewards of many trees, including several mature shagbark hickories that I particularly loved. And we were surrounded on two sides by 20 acres of forested conservation land. When I first began to read and hear about an invasive beetle and a program to eradicate it that involved cutting trees, I became very, very defensive. My first instinct was “No! Not our trees!”

So I went to an information session that was being held at the town library. The meeting was run by Clint McFarland, who was directing the eradication program in Worcester, and I learned a lot about the beetle, its strange life cycle, the damage it causes trees, the process involved in eradicating it, and the breadth of what was at stake. I could see the dilemma: cutting trees here NOW would save trees in lots of other places later, but cutting trees here NOW might also mean losing most of the trees that surrounded us.

I attended several more community meetings and, eventually, approached Clint with some tough questions. His patient and honest answers—he understood my stance but was firm in his own—convinced me that this complicated issue was worth exploring more deeply. And the beetle provided an incredible story in which to explore it. It finally occurred to me that this could be an interesting book.

Archimedes: Tell me about your research process for this book.

Loree: I had to do a lot of background reading to learn about beetles in general and ALB in particular, the history of ALB in North America, the history of ALB in its native home, and so on.

I also had to go out into the field and see how Clint, Mike Bohne, Kevin Dodds, and their colleagues work. This story was unusual because there are so very many different players: tree surveyors who work on the ground, tree surveyors who work in the canopy, foresters who study beetles in the wild and scientists who raise and study them in the lab, and so on. Over the course of two years, I conducted more than thirty-five individual interviews, many of them in the field. It was thrilling.

Archimedes: Did you ever go along on an ALB survey?
(photo by E. Harasimonwicz)
Loree:  Yes, I went on several (see photo). A few were with Clint’s team, and in those cases I carried a notebook and a camera (and in some cases Ellen was there with her camera) and recorded everything I saw.  A few others, though, were with local land trust organizations that were working to educate the public about the beetle and get them involved in finding them. In these cases I brought binoculars and was taught how to identify the twelve species of trees that the beetle prefers and how to scan those trees, methodically, for signs of ALB. 

The first thing I can tell you is that identifying trees to species can be difficult. The trees have unique shapes and bark patterns and leaf/needle shape, and these are super-helpful identification clues. But these characteristics are different on a sapling than on a teenaged tree than on the mature, adult tree. It’s a tricky thing. I actually spent months practicing to ID trees (with help from an ALB project member, Amy Stauffer) and I’m still not super good at it. 

The next thing that stood out was how hard it is to spend hours looking up. Within the first hour of my first field survey, my neck was aching. Really aching. You have to build up a stamina for this work.

Once you’ve learned trees and built up the stamina to study them closely through binoculars—on top of all that—its VERY hard to notice dime-sized holes in tree canopy. Especially at certain times of day. What I learned, beyond the technical procedures of surveying, was how very hard this work is. The people who do it are incredibly talented and dedicated.

Archimedes: It sounds like kids can get involved in participating in ALB surveys. But what else can kids do to help save the trees in their neck of the woods?

Loree: I think the best thing they can do is pay attention to them. Notice the way they naturally change over the course of a year, and take note when something unusual happens. Study the critters that live in and around your trees and, again, pay attention to anything unusual.

I think it’s important for kids to realize, too, that there are many other invasive beetles to be on the lookout for. Here’s a list fromthe US Forest Service; you can click on the beetle’s name to see its photo and learn more about where it is from and where it has invaded.

If you see any of these insects, or think you do, take photographs. Make notes. Contact someone through the website above, or at a local nature organization, to let them know what you’ve found.

And if you happen to live somewhere that an eradication program is underway, a great way to help is to care for replanted trees. Where I live, tens of thousands of trees have been cut, and thousands have been replanted. These newly planted trees need people to monitor water, prune, and protect them as they become established in their new location.

Archimedes: These beetles spend so much time inside the trees - are there any natural enemies?

Loree: There are in Asia, where ALB is native, but we don’t know much yet about what its natural enemies might be here. Surely there are parasitic wasps that will, eventually, take advantage of this new host species. And surely there are birds and other animals that will eat the beetle. It is just going to take some time for equilibrium to establish and for these enemies to keep the population in check.

Archimedes: Is there anything you’d like to add?

 Loree: I’d just like to mention that photographer Ellen Harasimowicz was a crucial part of telling this story. She attended many of the field events and caught a lot of the crucial details on film.  This makes the storytelling easier for me, and makes reading Beetle Busters a visual delight.

Thank you, Loree. Today we're joining STEM Friday - head over to that blog to see what other people are reviewing. On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Next Wave

The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Ocean (Scientists in the Field)
by Elizabeth Rusch
80 pages; ages 10-14
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

 Elizabeth Rusch takes us to Oregon's wave-battered coast to check out the newest technological research in renewable energy. In this book we find surfer scientists and engineers working to transform the energy in ocean waves into electricity. We meet the Mikes and Annette von Jouanne, the AquaBuOY, and a team of Columbia Power engineers.

The pages are jam-packed with photos of waves, boats, surfers, bigger waves, and turbines of all types and sizes - including the Mikes' prototype turbine constructed of plastic spoons from a fast-food joint. There are diagrams and graphs that help explain wave motion and watts, and plenty of sidebars that delve more deeply into the issues surrounding wave energy technology.

One question is what happens to sea life when you harness waves for energy. Rusch notes that because the technology is so new, "no one really knows how it will affect marine animals or the environment." Buoys and other machinery could introduce new sounds and electromagnetic fields into the sea and set cables to thrumming, like guitar strings. Devices that capture wave energy will remove that energy from the waves, and reduced wave power could affect sand movements, water temperature, and water mixing near the shore. Scientists don't think they'll increase beach eroion, but they might affect the lives of tiny creatures. If you are interested in learning more about potential environmental impacts, check out the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the US Department of Energy Report to Congress (downloadable pdf).

Rusch does a good job of taking us behind the scenes in a growing energy technology field. Some countries are beginning to use wave energy - in small experimental situations. So if you've got kids who are interested in renewable energy, waves are the next big thing to watch. And that calls for a field trip to the ocean, right?

Today is STEM Friday! Head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are reviewing. On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher

Friday, October 10, 2014

Chasing Cheetahs ~ Saving Africa's Fastest Cats

Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cats (Scientists in the Field)
by Sy Montgomery; photos by Nic Bishop
80 pages; ages 10- 14
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

A full-grown cheetah weighs about 90 pounds and can run 70 miles per hour - as fast as a car driving on a highway. It can go from zero to 40 in three steps, but after a few hundred yards it has to stop for a rest, or it will overheat.

These fast cats live in one place: Africa. But they are endangered and, without help, may go extinct. This book shows how Laurie Marker - and other scientists working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia - is working to preserve remaining cheetah populations. Saving cheetahs, she says, is about more than saving the big cats. "It's about antelopes and birds, leopards and giraffes, soil and trees, dogs and goats." That's because, if you save the cheetahs you end up saving all of the other plants and animals in that ecosystem.

One strategy is to use dogs to save cats. Farmers shoot cheetahs because the big cats take goats from their herds. But in cases where herds are protected by large dogs, cheetahs don't bother the livestock. Instead, they chase down wild game. So Laurie's strategy: give a dog to every farmer, and teach them how to protect their flocks so both wild and domestic animals can share the landscape.

In one chapter Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop take us on a forensic expedition to determine which cheetahs have been in an area, and what those cheetahs are eating. Using DNA from scat and hairs left behind, scientists can figure out whether cheetahs are dining on gazelles or goats. They also check in with a wildlife vet for some hands-on lessons on cheetah health.

I particularly like how the book ends with Laurie's "advice for saving the world". Her first (and most important) bit of wisdom: "Don't wait for 'somebody' to do it." If you're ever thinking that "somebody should do something", then that somebody might be you. Her last and just-as-important words of advice: "We can save the world. There's no reason we can't. But we have to actively do it." Everyone- even kids- can do something to make this world a better place.

Today is STEM Friday! Head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are reviewing. On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NASA seeking Citizen Scientists Oct 12 - 18

In celebration of Earth Science Week, October 12 -18, NASA invites you to look up at the sky and help scientists who study Earth’s clouds by participating in #SkyScience.

Clouds are an important part of Earth’s atmosphere, and NASA scientists are studying how they affect our weather and climate. Clouds cover about half of the planet at any one time, ranging from high, wispy cirrus to dark, rumbling thunderheads. By participating in #SkyScience you will help NASA learn more about the types of clouds where you live, work and play, and help all of us celebrate the beauty of Earth’s atmosphere, and the science behind it.

You don’t have to be a scientist to do sky science. All it takes is curiosity and a bit of planning, and you’ll become a “Citizen Scientist” in no time!

#SkyScience highlights two of NASA’s programs studying Earth’s atmosphere.  S’COOL, Students’ Cloud Observations Online, focuses on cloud observations as “ground truth” measurements to assist in the validation of the CERES instrument on NASA satellites passing overhead. Sky Art is an online community where the public can share in the beauty of nature and the science behind it by submitting sky photos related to NASA Earth science mission research areas.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears!

I've got a basket full of  new "Scientists in the Field" books - so this month we're heading out on some armchair field trips.

Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America’s Own Backyard
Scientists in the Field series
by Mary Kay Carson; photos by Tom Uhlman
80 pages; ages 10-14
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

The National Park Service is nearly 100 years old (their anniversary is 2016) and for all those years the rangers and park scientists have been studying the best ways to preserve and protect the landscape, plants and animals. 

"Because national parks are protected places, researchers are able to do long-term studies of ecosystems, geysers, and climate," writes Mary Kay Carson. They don't have to worry that their natural laboratory will be clear-cut for a mall or highway project.

In this book, Carson and photographer Tom Uhlman document scientists at work in three of our most popular national parks: Yellowstone, Saguaro, and Great Smoky Mountains. She opens each section with a park brief: how big, how many visitors, when it was established, and reasons to visit. Then she takes us into the field with the park scientists.

In Yellowstone (our oldest national park, established in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant) we head into a hot spot to learn more about why the temperatures are rising. But first, everyone has to suit up with protective clothing and heat-resistant boots. Then there's the science gear: infrared camera, temperature probes, gas detectors and more. On another trip into the field we learn how scientists apply GPS technology to track and manage grizzly bears.

Then it's down to Arizona to track Gila monsters and count cacti. From there it's a cross-country trek to the Smoky Mountains which really do live up to their name. We head into the forests on a salamander safari - the Smokies are home to more than thirty species of salamanders. Data from the salamander study indicate that a rise in the earth's temperature will erase much of the red-cheeked salamander habitat. The good news? There will be some refuges where the salamanders can thrive. 

Carson ends with an evening light show: fireflies in the Smokies. There's a wonderful glossary at the end, some sources (for those who want to dig deeper) and an index that makes it easier to revisit cool stuff you forgot to bookmark. Oh, and did I mention the abundant and awesome photos?

Check out the trailer for the book here. Then head on over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are reviewing. And on Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher.