Stephen R. Swinburne
I really like vultures. Sure, they’re ugly and they eat nasty dead things. But those are not necessarily bad characteristics.
First let’s deal with “ugly.” Vultures’ bald heads are what make them seem ugly to most people. But think about why they’re bald. Imagine thrusting your head inside the carcass of a white-tailed deer to reach the meat. A feathered head might capture bits of flesh, blood and gore and you end up with a face full bacteria and flies. Scientists believe that one reason vultures have evolved featherless heads is to aid in hygiene. A bald head stays clean and any remaining germs or bacteria are baked off by the sun. Vultures have also found that a bald head can help with temperature regulation. When it gets cold they can tuck their heads down to keep their neck covered with feathers. When it’s hot, vultures can extend their neck to expose bare skin. Their bald heads work so well that I wrote a poem about them.
It’s best to have no feathers,
When you stick your head in guts,
That way you don’t go walkin’ round,
Your noggin dripping schmutz.
Moving on to “eating nasty dead things,” the next time you see vultures eating a dead animal on the side of the road, be thankful! That carcass might be dead from rabies or contaminated with other harmful diseases. Vultures have the amazing ability to consume rotting and diseased flesh and stay healthy. It’s all in the stomach. Vultures possess very powerful stomach acids that destroy most bacteria and deadly viruses. In fact, vulture stomach acid is so strong it can dissolve metal! Except if that metal is lead shot -- many turkey vultures are killed every year by consuming shot that they encounter in dead deer. Vultures are the world’s natural “sanitation workers,” helping to stop the spread of disease.
I’m so appreciative of the work they do, I even wrote a poem about eating dead things:
I like my meat dead,
It’s best if it’s not moving.
Don’t want to see one final twitch,
I prefer it oozing
So, the next time you see a vulture circling in the noonday sky, think about the valuable and important clean up service this bird provides to us and to the environment. Maybe I’ll write a poem about that….
Steve Swinburne is a science writer, but as you can see from this Minute, he likes to write poetry too. In his book Ocean Soup, he offers verses in the voices of tide-pool animals, including the barnacle, sea urchin, sculpin, mussel, starfish, hermit crab, anemone, and lobster. For more about Steve's poetry, click here.
Steve Swinburne 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
Swinburne, Stephen R. "In Praise of Vultures." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ In-Praise-Of-Vultures.
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 will be 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.
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.
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