Can you name the world's fastest mammal? How about the biggest shark? If you said the cheetah, and the whale shark, you’re right! It's safe to say that we will probably never discover faster, or bigger, animals. However, it is still possible to find small animals that can set new records for being tiny.
Take frogs, for example. For many years, two kinds of frogs were tied for the honor of being the world's smallest. One species lives in Cuba, the other in Brazil. These frogs are so small that one can perch its whole body on a United States dime. Look at a dime and imagine an adult frog sitting there!
Recently, those two little species from Cuba and Brazil lost their title as Earth's smallest frogs, thanks to two scientists from the United States. They were herpetologists (scientists who study amphibians, including salamanders and frogs). In 2009 these scientists were studying frog calls on Papua New Guinea a large island nation north of Australia, in the Pacific Ocean.
The scientists were recording frog calls at night. All around, they heard chirping sounds that came from dead leaves on the forest floor. "Probably insects," they thought, but they decided to check. They searched among the leaves but found nothing. Frustrated, they grabbed whole handfuls of leaves and stuffed them into a clear plastic bag. Then they slowly searched through the bag, leaf by leaf. A small frog hopped off one of the leaves!
When I say "small frog," I mean one that can sit on a dime with room to spare. It was just 7.7 millimeters long. That's less than a third of an inch. Though the scientists later discovered another slightly bigger relative, the first one is now officially Earth's smallest frog—and Earth's smallest four-footed animal.
These tiny frogs are hard to catch. They can leap 30 times their own length. But the herpetologists managed to catch quite a few, take photos of them, and learn about their lives, close up. It wasn't until January 2012 that the scientists announced their discovery. Since this frog was discovered near a village called Amau, it was given the scientific name of Amauensis. Eventually, people may come to call it the Amau frog.
In the world of science, the tiny Amau frogs are very big news.
At the end of his book FROGS!, Larry Pringle has an Author’s Note called “A Life Full of Frogs” in which he tells about his close encounters with frogs as a child, as a father, as a wildlife photographer, and as a neighborhood ecologist acting locally to protect and even create anuran habitats. His relationship with frogs continues to this day. He says, "Our Spring evenings are sweetened by a chorus of spring peepers from the neighborhood wetland forest. Also, almost every day we visit our backyard garden pond. Several green frogs, large and small, live there. There are tadpoles of both green frogs and gray tree frogs." For more on the story behind the book, click here.
Stephen R. Swinburne
Lion’s mane jellyfish can grow seven feet wide with tentacles reaching a length of 100 feet. That’s the same length as a blue whale! Their bodies are 98 percent seawater. They live in the cold, boreal waters of the Arctic, northern Atlantic and northern Pacific Oceans. Slowly pulsating ocean currents carry the big jellies great distances. The long trailing, stinging tentacles capture and tear apart their prey. Swimmers beware when currents sweep lion’s manes close to shore. Their stings cause red swollen welts, and severe body contact with a lion’s mane jellyfish may be deadly.
What animal can happily and safely slurp down a lion’s mane jellyfish as if it were a big bowl of Jello™? The leatherback sea turtle!
Adult leatherbacks are the largest reptiles on earth today, averaging seven feet long. As the planet’s biggest turtle, they range from the Arctic Circle south to Antarctica, and they swim, on average, more than 6,000 miles each year. And they love lion’s mane jellyfish. As a matter of fact, lion’s mane jellyfish make up almost their entire diet. How can a seven-foot long sea turtle consume a creature armored with a hundred feet of stinging tentacles?
Often referred to as Earth’s last dinosaur, leatherback sea turtles have lived on the planet for millions of years, surviving ice ages and major extinctions. For an animal to live that long on a diet of giant blobs of gelatinous saltwater, it better be very very good at tackling and consuming its delicious but dangerous meals of giant stinging jellyfish. And, it better have developed some cool adaptations over the ages. Here’s how they do it
First off, a sharp pointed lip acts like a hook so the turtle can snag the jellyfish and hang onto it.
Second, the turtle’s mouthful of backward-pointing spines prevents the jellyfish from escaping. A scientist once said to me, while looking into the mouth of a leatherback, “It’s the last thing a jellyfish will ever see!”
Once the leatherback has consumed dozens and dozens of jellyfish, there’s the problem of all that salt in its diet. Eating too much salt will cause dehydration. No problem for the leatherback! The turtle is perfectly adapted to rid its body of all that excess salt. Salt or lacrimal glands, located near their eyes, allow leatherbacks to secret saline tears—and then they cry them away.
So the largest marine reptile on earth evolved by getting better and better at eating the most unlikely diet, the largest jellyfish on earth.
Steve Swinburne has written a book on sea turtles. To see information about the book as well as a study guide and video and picture gallery, click here.
Steve Swinburne 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.
Sneed B. Collard III
"Connecting Scientists and Kids”
Only you can prevent forest fires! At least that’s what Smokey Bear taught me growing up. His message? All forest fires are bad, and we’re helping nature by putting them all out.
Recently, I met a scientist who’s made me rethink this negative message about natural wildfires. His name is Dick Hutto and he’s a biology professor at the University of Montana. “There are two kinds of fires,” Dick explains. “The ones that burn down your house or kill your neighbor are bad, bad, bad. The other ones can be the greatest things in the world.”
To prove his point, Dick took me to the Black Mountain burn area, near my home in Missoula, Montana. A severe forest fire burned through this area only ten years ago, and thousands of blackened trees still stand like sentries across the landscape. Surprisingly, this charred landscape explodes with life. Tens of thousands of new tree saplings reach for the sky. Elk and deer graze on the fresh grass growing in the newly-opened areas. More than anything, the songs of birds fill the burned forest.
In his research, in fact, Dick discovered that dozens of bird species love fresh burn areas. In the West, 15 bird species prefer burned forests to all other habitats! Woodpeckers pave the way. As soon as a forest burns, legions of wood-boring beetles descend on the forest and lay their eggs in the dead trees. Three-toed, Hairy, and Black-backed Woodpeckers follow and begin devouring the newly-hatched beetle grubs. They also chisel out their own nest holes—holes that are used by Mountain Bluebirds, American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, and many other species. Because of burned forests, these birds find food and shelter. They also find safety. How?
Green forests abound with squirrels and chipmunks—animals that feast on bird eggs. A severe forest fire, though, clears out the small mammals. That means that birds can raise their young much more safely.
But listen, don’t take my word for it—or even Dick Hutto’s.
To learn more about the benefits of fire, throw a water bottle, lunch, a bird guide, and a pair of binoculars in your backpack and go visit a burn area for yourself. You will be astonished by what you see. Take a notebook or a camera along, too. Part of the fun of discovering our planet is sharing what you see. By doing so you’ll help others realize the importance of natural wildfires and burned forest—and help create a healthier, more interesting world.
Sneed Collard III has written a book about the birds that thrive in burn areas. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way. If you would like more information, click here to go to Sneed's website. If you click the Study Guide tab, you will find a guide that's been prepared for this book.
STEM through the lens
In 1953, a scientist named Edmund Schulman discovered that bristlecone pines are the world’s oldest trees. They live high in the mountains—between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level where the soil is rocky, the air is as dry as a desert, and the temperatures are extremely hot in summer and cold in winter. Most ancient bristlecones grow in California’s White Mountains and Nevada’s Snake Range, and scientists now know that some of these trees are more than 5,000 years old. They are the oldest known living things on the planet.
Edmund Schulman used a boring bit, a tool shaped like a drinking straw, to drill into old trees and pull pencil shaped pieces of wood called cores out of the trunks of very old trees. Cores contain patterns of stripes. One stripe represents one year of growth. Schulman counted more than 4,600 stripes from a tree he named Methuselah--after the oldest man in the Bible.
Today, the Methuselah Tree’s exact location is kept secret to protect it from too many visitors. Like all ancient bristlecone pines, Methuselah’s annual growth rings contain secrets spanning thousands of years—secrets that are being discovered by scientists who know how to “read” tree rings. Rainfall, fires, volcanoes, droughts, and climate changes, are literally recorded in the growth rings.
In the summer of 2011, I went searching for Methuselah. I brought along my camera. Although I am not a tree-ring scientist, I did my own research using my five senses. I tasted the pitch and pollen from cones (it was a little bit bitter); smelled the bark (it smelled like rain); touched wind sculpted and sun bleached wood surfaces (it was smooth and grooved); listened to the sound created when I tapped the rock-hard wood (it was sharp and short); and I was amazed by their strange forms and colors (they looked like dancers).
Did I find Methuselah during my adventure? Actually, when I stopped searching,Methuselah found me. I will share that story along with a lot of science, in the book I am writing. But I won’t publish Methuselah’s photo or location. Some things must be kept secret.
Alexandra Siy says, "I write books that put the "A" into STEM! Reading about science should be as creative and fun as doing science. Science is not simply information and facts--it's about questions, exploration, and the process of discovery. My books are illustrated with real scientific images that bring alive the stories that inspire kids to think like scientists! " If you would like to know about some of her award-winning books, click here.
Alexandra Siy 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.
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