Alligators are one of the world’s most feared predators. With rows of dagger-sharp teeth, a muscled reptilian body, a dinosaur face and eyes, alligators frighten yet fascinate people. Scientists are working hard to understand this modern-day reptile.
Dr. Daphne Soares, biology professor at the University of Maryland, was intrigued by the hunting ability of the alligator. She knew alligators have keen eyesight and excellent hearing but there was something else that made them such efficient predators, the king of the swamp. Careful focus on the dark bumps all over the animal’s upper and lower jaws led her to conclude that these bumps “were very sensitive tactile organs that can detect ripples in the water.” The ability to feel waves or ripples is one of the many features that makes the alligator an excellent predator. Once the alligator detects ripples, it swims swiftly and silently in the direction of the prey.
Alligators are carnivores. They seize and hold their prey with sharp teeth. Small quarry, such as fish and ducks, are swallowed hold. Larger victims are shaken apart into smaller, bite size pieces. Gators have between 74 and 80 teeth in the jaws at a time. When their teeth get worn down, they are replaced with new ones. Imagine that! No need for a dentist. Alligators can go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in a lifetime.
Alligators are a rare success story of an endangered species saved from the brink of extinction. As late as 1950s, alligators were hunted for meat and hide. They were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1967, and now thrive in the freshwater swamps and wetlands of the southeastern United States.
A smiling American Alligator displaying the bumps around its upper and lower jaws.
Steve wrote, Sea Turtle Scientist after spending time with Dr. Kimberly Stewart, “the turtle lady,” and describes her work on St. Kitts with endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
Steve is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Swinburne, Stephen R. "Alligator Smiles." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/alligator-smiles.
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "When a Jet Wore a Costume." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/when-a-jet-wore-a-costume.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature's Animal Ambassador
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a wolf? You’re born in a cozy, dark den under the ground, probably along with at least one brother or sister. Your eyes are closed shut, but you can smell and feel your way over to your mother to drink sweet, warm milk from her teats. Your father and older brothers and sisters bring food from their hunts to feed your mother.
Your eyes open in about two weeks, but you can’t see much in the darkness of the den. You nap a lot, snuggled up to your siblings and your mom. Then, about a week later, your mother leads you all out of the den into the sunshine. How different it is up here! Now you explore the wild world, wandering among the trees, lapping water from a creek, wrestling and tumbling with your brothers and sisters.
After you get bigger and stronger, you and your family leave the den and move to a safe outdoor area. It’s scary at first, being in a strange new place with no dark den for comfort. An older brother or sister watches over you and the other pups while the rest of the family, or pack, goes hunting. When the hunters return you rush up and lick their faces and they share the meat they got on the hunt. All the older wolves in the pack let you climb all over them and nip their ears and tails while they take care of you, protecting you from danger.
All that good meat helps you grow into a big, strong wolf, with thick, shiny fur. In the fall, you go along on the hunt and learn how to find game and how best to catch it. Hunting is exciting but dangerous. You or other family members might get kicked by a deer or stomped on by a moose. But if you get injured, the other wolves take care of you until you recover. You are family, and family is what matters.
Grey wolf. © Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, 2014
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "What's It Like Being a Wolf?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/whats-it-like-being-a-wolf.
When the United States was a baby nation, it had lots of wheel-busting wagon trails, but hardly any highways. Traveling was difficult—unless water was nearby. Then you could FLOAT yourself and your stuff to market. Rivers don't always flow where you want to go, so Americans did what ancient Egyptians and medieval Chinese and Europeans had done. They built CANALS, the BIG idea in America in the early 1800s, and none was more important than the famous Erie Canal.
On July 4, 1817, at tiny Rome, NY, the digging began. In the next eight years, thousands of men sweated, clearing woods, and digging miles of ditch, four feet deep, 40 feet wide! They built up a TOWPATH beside it for the animals, who'd pull the boats along, when the ditch was full of water. Inventive engineers built 83 LOCKS, too, in which the water moved up or down over the land, and 18 AQUEDUCTS (bridges to carry water over deep valleys).
Finally, early on October 26, 1825, at Buffalo, NY, a cannon BOOMED! Trumpets tootled! New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and his guests stepped onto their packet (or passenger) boat. A team of horses tossed their heads, eager to start. More horse-drawn packets waited to join the parade. Off they'd go, four smooth miles per hour, to Albany, seven days and 363 miles away, on the very first ride on the completed canal, the longest in the world.
People atop the flat-topped packets waved at the folks on the land. They watched out for low bridges—or else: splash! From Albany, the canal boats (minus the horses!) glided down the Hudson River, past dark hills sparkling with bonfires.
Bells rang and flags fluttered that November 4, 1825, as the packets passed Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Then Governor Clinton emptied a keg of Lake Erie water into the harbor. Why? To show that the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean were connected and that Americans were connected to the world. In the next decades they'd build miles of canals— until their next BIG idea came chugging down the railroad track.
The wedding of the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean waters
Boats were pulled by horses walking along a towpath beside the canal.
Here's a treat for you. Cheryl Harness is not only an author, but she is also an illustrator. This is a spread from her book "The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal."
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Roads Made of Water." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/roads-made-of-water.
The Explainer General
Gigantic earthquakes rocked the Midwestern United States between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812. A fault in our continent’s stone base runs beneath the Mississippi River near what is now New Madrid, Missouri. Unequal pressures built up on both sides of this fault and the sides slipped to ease the pressure. Whammo—the first of 3 earthquakes from these slips was felt as far away as New York City, Washington, DC, and Charleston, South Carolina.
There were no scientific instruments to measure the New Madrid Quakes in 1812 so geologists have sifted through widespread accounts from old journals and newspapers for data. Putting the accounts together on a map, we know the quakes were felt over an area of 1,930,000 square miles. They earthquakes began with a pair of terrific shocks at 2:15 and 7:15 local time on the morning of December 16, 1811, both measuring 7.2 - 8.1 on the Richter scale. They were followed by a 7.0 - 7.8 quake on January 23, 1812, and a 7.4 - 8.0 event on February 7, 1912.
The quakes were violent, earth-shifting events. There have been even more powerful earthquakes in Alaska and Hawaii, both vulnerable to deep geological pressures, but the New Madrid quakes are the largest to ever occur in the original forty-eight states. Yet little damage or loss of life was reported. The region was then part of Louisiana Territory, sparsely inhabited with small villages and only a few multi-story masonry buildings. We can’t know how many log cabins or small home chimneys were thrown down, or how many Native Americans were affected.
Coincidentally, the first steam paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi, the New Orleans, invented by Robert Fulton, was making its first trip south during the quakes. Land heaves caused massive waves to travel up and down the river. When the little southbound New Orleans met one of these waves it seemed that the great Mississippi was running backward. Some land rose, riverbanks crumbled, some land subsided and formed new lakes. The river’s course was so changed that maps were useless, and the steamboat did a remarkable job of “feeling its way” through the new channels to dock at New Orleans on January 10, 1812.
We’ve come to expect earthquake and volcanic activity around the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” and other hot-spots of geologic shift, but the New Madrid Quake was the product of an unexpected fault in earth’s crust we now call the New Madrid Seismic Zone. And, yes, there is the possibility of similar earthquakes from this zone in the future. The Earth that seems so solid is secretly restless.
Jan Adkins is not only a writer, but also a wonderful illustrator. His personal website is under construction at the moment, but if you would like to find out more about him and see a list of his very well known books, click here.
Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Earthquakes on the Mississippi?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/earthquakes-on-the-mississippi.
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