Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Wednesday Explorers Club ~ city tree, country tree

Take a walk to meet the winter trees in your neighborhood. Are they decked with lights? Do bright red and blue birds brighten their boughs?

Do your trees have needles or leaves? Or have they gone bare for the season? Do they sport lichens and shelf fungi? Is their bark rough and scabby or smooth and papery?

Happy Solstice and a Merry New Year!

 Archimedes is taking a winter holiday - I'll be back at the beginning of January with lots of new activities and reviews!

Friday, December 13, 2019

Real Science about Farts & Superpowers

People ask scientists all kinds of questions, but one of the most frequent is whether a certain animal farts. Which, believe it or not, scientists collect data about – because sometimes science is funny. And it’s part of the information they collect when studying what an animal eats and how it digests food. And – as in the case of some insects – passing gas can be an insect’s superpower!

themes: animal adaptations, insects, nonfiction humor

Does It Fart? A Kid's Guide to the Gas Animals Pass
by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti; illus. by Alex G. Griffiths
48 pages; ages 6 - 9
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019

This is a book about farts.

They may make you laugh and they may be really stinky, but the fact is that everybody farts. Well, almost everybody. Some animals don’t. Scientists Nick Caruso and Dani Rabiaotti present what could be a silly topic in a straight-forward manner. Their mission: to help young readers understand some of the basic chemistry behind toots and butt burps. They analyze how 20 different animals digest their food, and whether gas is produced.
What I like about this book: The format is fun. On one page is a cartoon representation of an animal with a statement and a question. For example: “This is a horse. Does it fart?” Turn the page and you get the answer – plus an explanation of how its digestive system works. Horses, it turns out, do fart. But parrots? Nope. And some animals have weaponized their gas. Beaded lacewing larvae expel gas to stun their termite prey, putting new meaning into “silent but deadly”.

Like other nonfiction, this book grew from a question. Dani’s teenage brother asked her if snakes farted. She knew from her own research that wild dogs of Africa farted, and so did gray seals. But she wasn’t sure about snakes, so she contacted a snake expert. And you know, when a scientist gets curious about something, they begin talking to others, and before long researchers all over the world were creating an animal fart database.

As a bug-lover, I was intrigued by the beaded lacewings and wanted to know if other insects farted. Which leads to our second book of the day….

Insect Superpowers
by Kate Messner; illus. by Jillian Nickell
80 pages; ages 8 - 12
Chronicle Books, 2019

The book’s subtitle describes what’s between the covers: 18 Real Bugs that Smash, Zap, Hypnotize, Sting, and Devour! So I could not wait to get my hands on a copy (it was released just a few weeks ago).

Sure enough, Kate Messner devotes an entire chapter to the “Masters of Chemical Weaponry”. This chapter features termites, the bombardier beetle and lubber grasshoppers. Good thing these insects are small, because their superpowers make them mighty.  “Imagine a human-size termite with a goo gun for a face,” writes Messner, “or a beetle the size of a bear that shoots a hot toxic chemical mist from its bottom!”

The African bombardier beetle sprays a hot chemical mist from its rear end when threatened. It actually sprays a series of superfast pulses – about 500 per second – so it’s like a chemical machine gun, Messner points out. That’s enough to make birds back off.

In six chapters, Messner presents a diversity of insect superpowers that rival any comic book hero: speed, mimicry, strength, defensive engineering, and the “Jaws of Doom”.

What I like about this book: I like graphic-novel style. It’s filled with action: swoops! sluuurps! Chomp! Smack! Slash! Crunch! Pfffr-ffft! 

I like the way Messner begins each chapter with an introduction of the insect: common name, scientific name, identification features, size, and superpower. Throughout the short chapter, she presents information in text boxes. She also includes an icon illustrating an arch-enemy for each insect. Total fun!

Beyond the Books:

Do you know what animals fart? Take a quiz here at Science Friday.

You’ve already met two bugs that fart. Meet one more here.

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Create a short comic showing how you would use your superpower to help others or defend yourself. You can download a free comic template here.

Today we're joining other book bloggers over at STEM Friday, where you can discover other cool STEM books. And we're joining  Perfect Picture Book Friday, an event where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website.
I borrowed Does it Fart? from the library; A review copy of Insect Superpowers provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday Explorers Club ~ Winter Berries

This is the time of year when  tree trunks bare against a cloudy sky just emphasize the grayness of the season. And then - a bit of brilliant red against a snowy backdrop. Rosehips! Not only do they add a splash of color, but they also provide food for winter wildlife. If you've got rose bushes nearby, watch to see what birds and animals nibble the fruits.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Growing Up Gorilla ~ Blog Tour Stop

Growing Up Gorilla
by Clare Hodgson Meeker
48 pages; ages 8-12
Millbrook Press, 2019

The subtitle says it all; this is a book about “how a zoo baby brought her family together.”  As the book opens, we meet Nadiri, a 19-year old gorilla preparing to give birth. She’s gathered a thick nest of hay around her, but when her baby is born she has no idea of how to respond and care for a tiny baby.

The keepers and staff at the Woodland Park Zoo were committed to having Nadiri raise her baby. But they were also ready for the possibility that she might not embrace motherhood immediately, because Nadiri had been rejected by her own mother and was hand-raised. So while they began caring for the new baby gorilla, they were determined to help Nadiri bond with baby Yola in a safe, non-threatening environment.

What I like about this book: Reading this book gives you a front row seat into what goes on behind the scenes in a zoo. Author, Clare Meeker takes us into the gorilla dens, introduces us to the other gorillas that become family, and shows us the love and dedication of the zoo staff. There’s also plenty of back matter so kids can see how humans compare with gorillas (we share 97.7% of the same genes), and some of the ways people are working to protect gorillas and their habitat.

Clare graciously shared her thoughts during a phone conversation a couple weeks ago. She admits to having a deep love for animal stories. Clare has written a passel of books, including one about an otter and another about rhino rescues. She’s also written a number of animal stories for magazines. Some stories, she said, take longer than others, and this one has been simmering on the back burner of her mind for the past twenty years.

Archimedes: That seems like a long germination time for a story.

Clare: I was working on another book, Hansa, about a baby elephant, and met Harmony Frazier, who has been caring for baby Nadiri at the time. When I saw a photo of the two of them, I thought it would make a great story. But it would have focused on hand-raising a baby gorilla. Fast-forward twenty years and times have changed. Now the Harmony and the team of keepers had a plan. Nadiri had practiced mothering skills with a burlap doll. Still, she was so nervous when faced with caring for her actual baby. Even though the keepers stepped in to begin baby care, they knew that they wanted to raise this baby, Yola, in a gorilla-centered environment. And the beauty of this book is that I could talk about how things had changed for the good, as the keepers focused on helping Nadiri and Yola bond.

Archimedes: It feels like you were right in the cage with Yola. What sort of research did you do?

Clare: Yola was born in November of 2015, and I began doing research not even knowing if she would stay at the Woodland Park Zoo. I’d read a book about the Columbus zoo’s surrogacy program, and asked if I could talk with Barbara Jones and Maureen Casale, the coordinators of that program. They graciously answered all my questions about baby gorilla care without the certainty of knowing whether I would have a book. I spent time at the zoo, watching the gorillas, watching them make nests and engage in outdoor activities. And numerous interviews [note: nearly two-years-worth!] One thing I’ve noticed about the gorilla keepers is that they truly love their animals and are totally dedicated to their care.

Before disconnecting, she talked a bit about where she gets her ideas. Often they come from a chance meeting. One day, driving through Seattle, Clare saw a billboard that inspired her first book, A Tale of Two Rice Birds. Her advice: be open to ideas no matter where they come from.

Thank you for joining us today, Clare. You can find out more about Clare Meeker and her books at her website. If you missed any of the stops on her blog tour, here’s the schedule.

Today we're joining other book bloggers over at STEM Friday, where you can discover other cool STEM books. Review copy provided by the publisher. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Wednesday Explorers Club ~ Plant defense against invaders

Sweet potato. photo by Anja Meents, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology

If a hungry predator threatens you, you can run away. You can also yell at your friends to warn them to run away too.

But what about plants? They can't run anywhere. But they have a lot of ways to defend themselves. Think: thorny roses, needle-sharp cactus spines, stinging nettle hairs. When I was writing Are Ants Like Plants, I learned how some plants can even warn their neighbors by sending a chemical message. Yesterday scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, and at the National Taiwan University released a study about how a sweet potato uses a single odor to warn its neighbors of insect attack.

First the researchers wanted to know what happened in a particular variety of sweet potato after it was attacked by leaf-munching bugs. That's because the variety was more resistant to insect attacks than other varieties. The resistant sweet potato plants produced a plant hormone in the damaged leaves - and emitted odors.

Cool thing #1: Leaves that weren't attacked by the insects also produced the same hormone - a protein that made the attacking insects lose their appetite (it affected the insects' digestive system).

Cool thing #2: Plants growing nearby that hadn't been attacked by the insects also produced the anti-herbivore protein.

Turns out, the neighboring plants could detect the odor emitted by the insect-nibbled plants, allowing them to prepare their defense against invading leaf-munchers. Pretty nifty trick for plants, right? Makes you wonder what else we can learn by studying plants.

You can learn more about this study here and about another study (at Cornell University) here. Check out this earlier article in the Scientist.