Are skunks aggressive, dangerous animals? Or are they peaceful animals that try to avoid trouble? Well, biologists who study skunks think of them this way: if life were a sport, skunks would be known for their strong defense and for playing fair.
Skunk stinkiness comes from a chemical weapon called musk. Foxes, weasels, and some other mammals also produce musk, but skunk musk is especially strong and long-lasting. And only skunks use musk to defend themselves from attack.
Picture a skunk ambling along in the night, looking for food. It digs in the soil to get tasty earthworms and beetle grubs. The black and white fur that comes with just being a skunk sends a warning. This color pattern is unusual among mammals. It signals: "Beware, don't mess with me!"
Suppose a coyote or other predator ignores this first warning. It steps toward the skunk. When a skunk feels threatened, it faces the danger. It raises its tail and tries to look as big as possible. It stamps its feet and clicks its teeth together. It may growl or hiss.
Oh, oh! Despite all of these warnings, the coyote growls and comes closer. Now the skunk gets really serious. It twists its body into a U-shape, so it can see the coyote and also aim its rear end toward it. The skunk's tail arches over its back, away from its rear—the final warning. This gives the skunk a clear shot, and also protects its own fur from the stinky musk. Skunks try to avoid smelling bad!
From two grape-sized glands, a skunk can spray musk as a fine mist, or squirt a stream. It can squirt accurately for about 12 feet (3.7m), and hit an attacking animal right in the face. The musk stings the predator's eyes, and can blur its vision for a while. And it stinks! Animals hit with this musk learn to never bother a skunk again.
A skunk's glands store enough musk to fire a half dozen shots but then need a week or so to produce more. This is seldom a problem, since a skunk sprays only when its life seems to be in danger. Some skunks can go for months or even years without spraying musk. That's fine with them. Skunks want to avoid trouble, and "play fair" with their many warnings.
A skunks’s stripes point to where the spray comes out. A 2011 study found that animal species that choose fight over flight when faced with a predator often have markings that draw attention to their best weapon. So while a badger has stripes on his face to highlight his sharp teeth, skunks’ stripes are perfectly positioned to highlight their ability to spray potential threats. By http://www.birdphotos.com via Wikimedia Commons
Skunks are so nice that some people want to keep them as pets. The striped skunk is the most social skunk and the one most commonly domesticated. The legality of keeping skunks as pets in the US varies by state, with it being illegal in a majority of them. By Matt MacGillivray via Wikimedia Commons
Larry Pringle has written many animal books, among them The Secret Life of the Red Fox. His The Secret Life of the Skunk was published by Boyds Mills Press in 2019. It is about spring and summer in the lives of a mother striped skunk and her kits.
ML 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "How Skunks Play Fair." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/how-skinks-play-fair.
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/
Sonora Webster of Georgia adored horses. At age five, she even tried to swap her baby brother for one. Alas, grownups disapproved. At age nineteen, in 1923, Sonora went to the Savannah fair. There she saw a huge, deep pool of water beside a tower as tall as a four-story building. High atop was a lady in a red swimsuit and circle of spotlight. At her signal, a gray horse pounded up the ramps. The lady jumped on. The horse tossed its snowy mane and tail, leaped into space, and down into the pool! Glittering sheets of water SPLASHED the shrieking crowd. After a breathless moment, the horse rocketed UP from the depths, made its way to the arena, and the smiling lady dismounted. How Sonora clapped and cheered— for that beautiful horse!
As it happened, the elderly showman who’d invented this amazing act needed extra ladies for his popular traveling shows. He advertised in the local paper:
“Likes horses?” THIS was the job for Sonora!
As a trainer, “Doc” Carver was tough, but so was Sonora. She learned how to dive with all five of Doc’s horses, all carefully trained and cared-for. (Veterinarians checked often to see that they were.) In time, she made countless dives— and fell for Doc’s son Al. They married. After Doc died, Al took over the act, starring Sonora and the magnificent diving horses.
Sonora met her day of destiny at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, New Jersey’s great amusement park, July 14, 1931. She hopped astride Red Lips, her favorite horse. “Red” leaped from the tower. And somehow, Sonora hit the water face first, in the instant before she closed her eyes. They stung, but how could she know that the water collision had loosened her eyeballs’ retinas? She didn’t! Soon, despite medical treatments, 27-year-old Sonora saw her vision fading away. Could she accept that her diving days were over? She wouldn’t! She might have lost her sight, but her love and trust for her brave horses? Never! They’d keep flying through the air together, thrilling and splashing audiences for the next eleven years.
Sonora Webster Carver told her story in her 1961 memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, which inspired a 1991 film, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. She died at age 99, in 2003.
Because world-traveling sharpshooter, William Frank Carver had been a dentist, such friends as “Buffalo Bill” Cody called him “Doc.” Wikimedia
Sonora and her brave diving partner. Equine Inc.
An exciting day at Steel Pier, Atlantic City, N.J. NJ com
Cheryl Harness is an illustrator as well an author, as seen by her delightful poster-like illustrations in Women Daredevils by Julia Cummins. The book offers mini biographies of ten fascinating women who risked their lives in the late 1800s and early 1900s to entertain the public.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Splash!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Jan. 2018,
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