Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Do your feet sometimes smell rotten? Do you wish you could toss out your shoes and start with a new pair? We make jokes about smelly feet, but smell and feet have a very different relationship among some insects.
Take butterflies. Have you ever watched a butterfly flit over a plant, gently touch its feet to a leaf, and then fly on to the next leaf? That butterfly isn’t being picky about where to land. It’s hunting for the right kind of leaf for laying its eggs. It’s “smelling” the leaf with its feet!
Actually, we need to qualify that statement a bit. Some writers will say the insect is “smelling” the leaf while others may write that it’s “tasting” the leaf. Smelling and tasting are forms of “chemoreception,” or sensing of chemicals. Smell usually refers to sensing from a distance while tasting generally means actually touching the nerve cells that sense a chemical.
We humans have cells in our noses that send messages to our brains about chemicals in the air. We call that our sense of smell. We have cells on our tongues that sense chemicals dissolved in liquid in our mouths. That’s taste.
That butterfly doesn’t have a nose, and its mouth is a long tube for sucking up nectar from flowers. Its chemoreceptors are elsewhere, like on its feet, around its mouth, and on its antennae. Most butterflies lay their eggs on the plants that the hatched caterpillars will eat. Some species are very specific about what plants their young can feed on. Take the postman butterfly, which lives in Central and South America. Its caterpillars can only survive on certain species of passionflower vines. Other species are poisonous to their offspring.
The female postman butterfly has dozens of special nerve cells on her feet called “gustatory sensilla.” Scientists think that when she touches gently down on a leaf, these cells can sense chemicals there that would be poisonous to her caterpillars. She avoids laying eggs on those leaves. But when she finds a plant that will nourish her young, she’ll alight and lay her eggs.
Now take your shoes off and move your feet around on the floor. The only nerve endings on your feet are ones that sense touch. But then, you don’t need to be able to smell the ground you walk on. Imagine how gross it would be if your feet could smell the insides of your socks and shoes—yuck!
A dog’s nose is 300 times more powerful than a human nose, so it’s no wonder that dogs use their incredibly advanced sense of smell to do some very important jobs. In Super Sniffers, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent explores the various ways specific dogs have put their super sniffing ability to use: from bedbug sniffers to explosive detectors to life-saving allergy detectors . . . and more. This dynamic photo-essay includes first-hand accounts from the people who work closely with these amazing dogs. For more information, click here.
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. "Smelling Feet or Smelly Feet?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 23 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
A celebrity has just arrived in Mr. Madison’s classroom at El Verano Elementary School and the 3rd graders are beside themselves. “Here he is!” they exclaim as the visitor walks through the door.
This special guest has not come to give a lesson or tell a story. He is neither a star athlete nor a movie star. He doesn’t play an instrument, sing, dance or do magic tricks. His tricks are mostly limited to sit, stay and shake. He is a dog. His name is Fenway Bark.
An eight-year old chocolate-colored Labrador retriever, Fenway has been coming to El Verano for six years with his owner, Mara Kahn. He has helped hundreds of children become better readers. Fenway is a literacy dog.
“Fenway’s job is to listen while you’re reading,” explains Mara to the class, which is gathered in a circle around her and Fenway.
One of the best ways for children to improve their reading is to read aloud, but reading in front of an audience can be scary. What if Chelsea mispronounces a word? Or if Alex loses track of where he is on the page? Will everyone laugh? The fear can discourage some children from reading aloud at all.
Solution: read to a totally non-judgmental audience that doesn’t care what you read or how you read it. Read to a dog! When reading to dogs, young readers don’t have to worry about saying “whoof” when they meant to say “which.” With less anxiety and more confidence, young readers increase their reading fluency. That’s why literacy dogs visit hundreds of schools and libraries as reading buddies for children.
Vanessa sits cross-legged on the rug in Mr. Madison’s classroom. She gingerly opens Strega Nona by Tomie De Paola. Softly, slowly, she reads about Big Anthony who ignores Strega Nona’s instructions not to touch her magical pasta pot. Fenway sits up and looks at Vanessa. He gazes at the floor. Vanessa keeps reading. The pasta starts flowing. Fenway stretches out. Vanessa reads a little louder, a little faster. Pasta floods the town. Fenway licks Vanessa’s knee. She giggles and goes back to her book.
Today, six children got to read to the canine visitor. “It’s so cool to read to a dog,” said one boy who will get his chance next week. He was already thinking about choosing a doggone good book
MLA 8 Citation
Schwartz, David M. "Reading Has Gone to the Dogs." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Reading-Has-Gone-to-the-Dogs. Accessed 20 Dec. 2017.
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
Imagine you’re driving home from your favorite take-out restaurant when you suddenly encounter a giant boulder in the middle of the road. With luck, the person at the wheel has time to slam on the brakes and then drive around it.
Scientists are refining a technology that helps cars avoid collisions and traffic jams. Cars will be programmed to “see” a roadblock or sudden slowdown before the driver does. And some of this technology is based on . . . ants.
Leafcutter ants, to be specific. Leafcutters can be any of a number of species of ants equipped with powerful mandibles (jaws). They travel in long lines through the rainforest, leaving a scent along the trail to find their way back. After an ant saws a chunk out of a leaf, it flings it over its back and then joins the super-highway of nest-mates heading back to the nest. Once there, the ant’s colleagues chew the vegetation into a pulp and then mix it with ant poop and fungus spores. The ants eat the resulting fungus that grows from the decomposed goop.
According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology, scientists blocked the path and created a narrow passageway between leafcutter ants and their nest, to see what the ants would do. Not only did the ants at the front show the ants behind them an efficient route back to the nest, but the chain of ants also somehow communicated, ant by ant, the need to carry a smaller piece of leaf to fit through the narrower passage the scientists had created.
And none of them bumped into anything, even while lugging leaves ten times their body weight. By working together and adapting quickly, the ants communicated information and reinforced the trail using what scientists call “distributed intelligence.”
And ants don’t just help car engineers. Scientists in other fields have been studying ant traffic patterns for all sorts of different systems where massive amounts of interacting units have to move around without crashing into one another. Besides traffic jams, scientists are studying ways to apply ant-like ingenuity to fields of study such as molecular biology and telecommunications.
Sara Albee's book, Why'd They Wear That?, was published by National Geographic in 2015. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people actually wore in public.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Ants in a Jam." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Ants-in-a-Jam.
Polar bears are built to withstand some of the coldest temperatures on the planet. Their brown and black bear cousins avoid the winter cold by digging dens and sleeping. But, except for pregnant females, polar bears spend the arctic winter outside where temperatures could be -40° F (which equals-40 °C) and windy. That’s too cold for humans. You could go outside, but only for only a few minutes with every part of your body completely covered. And if you didn’t wear goggles, your eyelashes would freeze and break off if you touched them.
Polar bears are warm-blooded like us with a body temperature of about 98°F/37°C. But they are invisible to night-vision goggles that pick up the infrared rays that warm-blooded creatures, including humans, give off. Why? Nature has given polar bears enough insulation to prevent body heat from escaping. They are toasty warm and comfortable in the frigid arctic.
Their heat insulation is in several layers. Under their skin, there is a 4-inch (21.5 cm) layer of fat. Next to the skin is a dense layer of woolly fur that also keeps heat in. The fur you see is a thick layer of long, colorless guard hairs that shed water quickly after a swim. They are stiff and transparent and hollow. In the arctic sunlight, the hairs act like mirrors and reflect white light, which acts as camouflage against the snow so the bears are not seen by their prey. Polar bear skin is actually black, so that it can absorb the invisible warm infrared rays of the sun and the bear’s own body heat, both of which are reflected back by the guard hairs.
Most warm-blooded animals raise their body temperatures through exercise. Polar bears hunt seals, which they don’t often chase. They prefer to sit at the edge of an ice floe and wait for dinner to arrive. At best, they’ll lumber after a seal at four and a half miles (7.25 km) an hour, raising their body heat to 100°F (38°C). When that happens, they go for a swim to cool off.
Cold won’t kill off the polar bears, but global warming can. As polar ice disappears, so does the hunting ground for seals. Not so cool!
Close up, the polar bear guard hairs are transparent. This allows the infra-red light (heat) from the sun to pass through them to be absorbed by the black skin under the hairs. The hairs also act like mirrors , reflecting back to the skin any infra-red radiation escaping from the bears body so it can be reabsorbed. Thus, the insulation is just about perfect with no infra-red radiation escaping. The hairs are also coated with oil so they drain quickly after a swim.
Vicki Cobb's This Place Is Cold shows how the latitude of Alaska affects the lives of the plants, animals and people who live there. It is gloriously illustrated by Barbara Lavallee, a long-time Alaskan resident and artist.
Vicki is a member of Authors on Call—she can visit your classroom with interactive videoconferencing: Read more about her here.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "The Way Polar Bears Keep Warm Is Cool." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/The-Way-Polar-Bears-Keep-Warm-Is-Cool.
writing science, history, and everything in between
Question: If your favorite snack was just out of reach, what would you do?
That’s what Preston Foerder, who studies animal behavior, asked Kandula, a male Asian elephant at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Scientists have always thought that using a tool to solve a problem was a sign of higher intelligence. They also thought that only humans were tool users. But then Jane Goodall discovered chimps using sticks to fish termites out of a hole, and ravens were observed making hooks to nab a treat. People who’ve worked with elephants have long known that they are highly intelligent, but no one ever tested an elephant’s ability to use a tool to solve a problem.
To set up the experiment, Preston skewered Kandula’s favorite fruits on a branch and suspended it well out of trunk reach. Then he scattered potential tools such as long bamboo sticks and a heavy-duty plastic cube around the yard.
At first Kandula just stared at the fruit longingly. Occasionally he picked up a stick, but only played with it. On the seventh trial, Kandula got an idea. He rolled the cube several yards so it was beneath the fruit. He placed his two front feet on the cube, stretched his trunk as high as he could, and plucked the fruit off the branch. The next day, as soon as Preston suspended the fruit, Kandula was already shoving his cube into place. He seemed to enjoy his new tool. He used it to peek over walls, to check out birds in a nearby tree, and to eat blossoms off another tree that grew outside his yard.
Later, Kandula showed off by using a tractor tire and then a large ball as a stool. He even figured out that if he stacked one small block on top of another he might be able to reach higher fruit. Although he came up short (he needed to stack 3 blocks), he still showed that his brain was working out the problem.
So, congratulations! If you said you’d use a stool to reach your favorite snack, then you are as smart as an elephant.
Peggy Thomas is co-author of Anatomy of Nonfiction, the only writer’s guide to crafting true stories for children. She is currently working on a book about elephant intelligence. To learn more, visit her website.
Peggy Thomas is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. “Are You as Smart as an Elephant?.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/are-you-as-smart-as-an-elephant?
Earth’s temperatures are getting warmer. In fact, sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. These warmer temperatures are driving larger, long-term changes in our planet’s weather and climate. Scientists refer to these changes as “climate change.”
In a few places, climate change might be welcome, but around the world, warmer temperatures and other changes are leading to a host of problems from rising sea levels to more extreme weather events and the spread of harmful human diseases.
Professor Scott Mills, from the University of Montana, wanted to see how climate change might be affecting one particular animal called the snowshoe hare.
Snowshoe hares live in regions of North America that receive snow every winter. The hares, in fact, change their coat color from brown to white and back again every year. This helps camouflage them against their background—and hides them from the eyes of lynx, owls, and other hungry predators.
Here’s the thing: snowshoe hares can’t choose when they molt, or change their coat color. Molt timing is controlled by their genes, which are part of the DNA inside their bodies. If a hare’s genes make it molt to white in October, but snow doesn’t fall until December, the hare will stick out like a light bulb against the brown earth. And that’s a problem. Why? Because almost everywhere on earth, the length of time with snow on the ground is growing shorter and shorter.
To find out if shorter winters might harm hare populations, Scott and his team spent three years tagging and following hares. They measured how many were born, how many died, and what they died from. They also recorded whether the hares were matched or mismatched against their backgrounds.
They discovered that predators killed mismatched hares significantly more often than hares whose coats match their backgrounds. Scott and his team also calculated that over the next one hundred years, this greater mortality, or death rate, could lead to the decline or disappearance of many snowshoe hare populations.
The good news? Different hares molt at different times. This may help some hare populations adapt to shorter winters and longer periods without snow.
Hares are not the only animals affected by shorter winters. More than twenty species of animals including lemmings, weasels, hamsters, and Arctic foxes change their coat colors every year. Scott’s research helps us predict what might happen to these animals—and decide what we can do to protect them.
Scott’s discoveries about Montana snowshoe hares, together with experts’ predictions about our future climate, indicate that hares will be mismatched between 5-½ and 10 weeks by the end of this century.
Before tagging and putting a radio collar on a snowshoe hare, Professor Mills and his team must weigh and measure it.
This snowshoe hare has been tagged and fitted with a radio collar—and is now ready to help scientists learn more about snowshoe hare survival.
Even from a great distance, a mismatched hare stands out like a glowing light bulb. (Photo Courtesy of L. Scott Mills research laboratory)
Besides serving as popular prey for predators, snowshoe hares are irresistibly cute. This is a young hare, also called a leveret.
Sneed B. Collard III is the author of more than eighty award-winning books, many focusing on science and the natural world. His entertaining memoir Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts—Journeys of a Biologist’s Son recounts his challenges and adventures growing up as the son of divorced biologist parents, and the experiences that would one day lay the foundation for his writing career. He is a dynamic speaker and offers school and conference programs that combine science, nature, and literacy. To learn more about him and his talks, visit his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com.
This book was reviewed by Vicki Cobb in the Huffington Post: "The Cheeseburger of the Forest".
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. "Hopping Ahead of Climate Change." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/hopping-ahead-of-climate-change.
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