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.
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.
MLA 8 Citation
Swinburne, Stephen R. "Who Eats the Largest Jellyfish in the World -- and Enjoys It?" Nonfiction, iNK Think Tank, 12 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/who-eats-the-largest-jellyfish-in-the-world-and-enjoys-it.
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.
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. Weblog post. Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/rethinking-smokey-bears-message.
Have you ever noticed how photographs of underwater scenes have a bluish tint? Sunlight is made up of a rainbow of colors, but when it enters the water the reds and yellows in the light are quickly filtered out. The blues and greens penetrate deeper into the water and give those watery scenes their peculiar cast. Because there is very little red light in the deep sea, most of the animals that live there have never evolved the ability to see the color red. This is why many deep-sea animals are red. In the depths of the ocean, a creature that can’t be seen is safe from many predators.
There is an unusual fish that takes advantage of its fellow sea creatures’ colorblindness. The stoplight loosejaw, a member of the dragonfish family, can see the color red. Not only that, but it has a patch on its face that glows red. It also has a glowing green spot on its face, which is probably used to communicate with other dragonfish. These red and green patches explain the “stoplight” part of this fish’s name. The “loosejaw” comes from this fish’s ability to open its mouth extra wide and swallow large prey. Scientists think that the open structure of the lower jaw allows the fish to close its mouth quickly, making it difficult for prey to escape. Relative to its size, the stoplight loosejaw has one of the widest gapes of any fish, with a lower jaw measuring one-quarter of the fish’s length. It’s not easy for animals that live in the dark waters of the deep sea to find prey. Many of them, including the stoplight loosejaw, have large mouths and sharp fangs that help ensure that their prey cannot escape.
Below about 650 feet (200 meters), very little sunlight penetrates the ocean. Below 3,300 feet (1,000 meters), the only light is that produced by living creatures. Almost all deep-sea creatures can bioluminescence, or make their own light. But the light they produce is usually blue or green. When the stoplight loosejaw switches on its red spotlight, other creatures in the water are illuminated. Being blind to the color red, they don’t realize that they’ve been spotted. Dragonfish are not known as picky eaters. If one of the lit-up animals is a fish, shrimp, or other suitable prey, the stoplight loosejaw quickly grabs it and swallows it.
The stoplight loosejaw's attributes include a red spot, hinged jaws, and needle-like teeth. Illustration by Steve Jenkins
There are two kinds of stoplight loosejaws. The Northern (Malacosteus niger) shown here and the Southern. Together they are found everywhere in the world except the North and South Poles. Wikimedia Commons
Steve Jenkins has written and illustrated more than forty
nonfiction picture books, including the Caldecott Honor–
winning What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? and the
Boston Globe Horn Book honor–winning The Animal Book.
His most recent books are Apex Predators: Top Killers Past
and Present and Who Am I?, an animal guessing game
written with Robin Page.
MLA 8 Citation
Jenkins, Steve. "The Fish That Sees Red." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Dogs depend on us for friendship, food, and shelter. But wild animals run from people. They don’t turn to humans for help in getting out of trouble. Or do they? Until recently, most scientists thought animals could not think through multiple steps to solve problems. They believed only people could do that. But research into animal behavior shows this is not true. At least some animals think through their problems and come up with possible solutions.
Take a young, wild raven, in Elmsdale, Nova Scotia, for example. In 2013, Gertie Cleary spied the bird perched on a fence—with porcupine quills stuck in its wing and face. Porcupine quills are barbed, like a fish hook. And they really hurt. So Cleary slipped on a pair of gloves before approaching the bird. Now you might think the raven would get scared and fly away. But not this bird. This bird wanted help. It screeched in pain each time Cleary plucked out a quill. But it sat still and let her do it. “When I pulled the one out of his wing,” Cleary says, “he fell off the fence I pulled it so hard.” Once quill-free, the raven flew away.
A real-life mother goose went a step further. When one of her goslings got tangled up in a balloon string, she “called” the cops by pecking on the door of a police cruiser parked nearby. When the curious cops got out of their vehicle, she led them straight to her helpless baby.
My family and I also encountered a bird in trouble. We were walking on a nature trail when the bushes suddenly erupted with chirping. We stopped, and the chirping increased. Looking closely, we found a sparrow stuck on a thistle bush! It was hanging upside down. We felt like heroes when we freed the little creature and watched it fly away.
Birds aren’t the only animals that ask for help. In Fairfax, California, a deer approached a police car and stared at the officer inside until he noticed her broken leg. On a scorching hot day, in Adelaide, Australia, a thirsty koala begged a group of cyclists for a drink of water. And on a nature reserve, in South Africa, a desperate mother giraffe led a wildlife guide to her injured calf. In every case, kind humans helped.
Maybe someday you will rescue an animal and save a life. Wouldn’t that be great?
A baby bird in trouble— has another bird gone for help? Photo by Aline Alexander Newman
A desperate koala approaches humans, letting them know he needs liquid.
A giraffe mother was willing to ask for human help in order to save her baby.
For more stories of remarkable kitties, check out Aline Alexander Newman’s new book, CAT TALES. In it, you’ll meet Millie, the adventurous cat who rock climbs with her owner; Pudditat, who acts as a “seeing eye” cat for the family dog; Leo, a lion who changed the life of one family forever; and 20 other charming cats that will pounce into your heart. Personalized copies of CAT TALES and Aline’s other books are available at www.alinealexandernewman.com.
Aline is also a member of Authors on Call. Bring her into your classroom via interactive video conferencing. Here’s where you can learn more about her and her programs.
MLA 8 Citation
Newman, Aline Alexander. "Do Animals Ask for Help?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 9 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council