celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
This summer, you may be able to observe an amazing event in nature. You can watch a small animal build a structure much bigger than itself, using materials from inside its own body!
This is what happens when a spider spins a web. Inside a spider are glands that can produce seven different kinds of silk. The silk comes out of little spigots, called spinnerets, at the rear of the spider's body.
A strand of spider silk is stronger than a similar strand of steel, and spiders use this amazing material in many ways. If they catch an insect, they may wrap it in silk, to eat later. Female spiders enclose their eggs in a silken sac to protect them. And some spiders—almost always females—make webs that are death traps for insects.
Webs can be in the shape of funnels, sheets, or domes, but the best-known are called orb webs. From an orb web's center, lines of silk radiate out in all directions, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. After building this basic structure, a spider goes round and round, laying down ever-bigger circles of silk. Some of the silk threads have sticky glue to catch a moth or other prey. A spider can create this whole complex design in an hour or less.
When an orb web is complete, some kinds of spiders wait right in the center. Others hide at an edge. Either way, the builder keeps a front leg in touch with the web. Vibrations from the threads tell a spider whether prey has been caught.
Spiders often have to repair their webs, and some species routinely build a new one every day. And they recycle! They eat most of their old web. After digestion, it becomes brand new silk for the next construction job.
You may be able to watch a spider on the job. Look for webs in a field, park, or backyard. Also look for webs near doors, windows, or on a porch. The nighttime lights from such places attract night-flying insects, and spiders often build webs there. They may or may not be orb webs, but watching any kind of spider at work on its silken insect-trap can be fascinating fun.
And remember: the spider wants nothing to do with you. It is just trying to stay safe and catch some food.
This video was shot by Ingrid Taylor, " I shot this a few minutes after the rain subsided, when the City of Spiders outside the door came to life. Mass web-building and repair going on..." wikimedia commons
Scorpions are cousins of spiders but they are very different. Learn how they are strange and wonderful in Laurence Pringle’s book.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Watch a Webmaster at Work!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 14 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
The question “how smart are animals?” has puzzled many people for generations. Scientist Irene Pepperberg became intrigued with this problem after viewing NOVA TV programs about communication studies in apes and dolphins. Trained as a chemist, Irene decided then and there that her true passion was actually animal intelligence, not chemistry.
Irene plunged into learning what was already known and the revolutionary ideas of scientists who were changing how people thought about animals. At that time, in the early 1970s, people thought that animals didn’t think and make decisions but merely responded moment by moment to their environments. But researchers working with apes and dolphins were overturning that concept and showing that indeed, animals could think, solve problems, and act intelligently about what they had learned.
What about birds, Irene wondered? She had kept pet parakeets and knew they were smart and could learn to speak at least a few words. . She decided to study an African Grey parrot, a popular pet that can learn to pronounce words especially well.
She bought a young parrot, named him Alex, and got to work. To probe Alex’s mind, Irene needed to teach him to use words to describe his world. This took long, patient training. After a few years Alex could name objects and foods, such as a key, a piece of wood, or a banana. He also learned several colors, and soon could label an object by both its label and color, such as identifying “green key” or “yellow corn.” He learned to distinguish whether an object was made of wood, paper, or rawhide, and could distinguish shapes such as “three-cornered” or “four-corner.”
Alex also used his vocabulary to express his own desires. In the middle of an experimental session he might say “Want nut,” or “Wanna go shoulder.”
As the years passed, Alex kept learning. If Irene presented him with a tray of items of different numbers and colors—say 2 green keys, 4 blue keys, and 6 red keys—he could correctly answer the question “What color four?”
By the time he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007, Alex had learned more than 100 labels and showed understanding of many concepts. When people asked Irene why Alex was special, she’d reply, “Because a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the kinds of things that young children do. And that changed our perception of what we mean by ‘bird brain.’ It changed the way we think about animal thinking.”
Alex isn't the only bird Dorothy has written about. This book explores a University of Montana research project using blood samples from osprey chicks to investigate the effects of heavy metal refuse from mining on the ecology of the Clark Fork River.
To learn more about The Call of the Osprey, go 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. "Alex the Parrot, a Real Bird Brain." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
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/
Who doesn’t like penguins? Their waddling gait is fun to watch. They have little fear of humans so it’s easy to get next to them. Penguin movies such as Happy Feet and The Penguins of Madagascar are box office hits.
World Penguin Day on April 25 focuses attention on these loveable flightless fowl. Some people dress up in black and white clothing. Many read books about penguins or watch penguin movies.
I was fortunate to get up close and personal to thousands of penguins during a trip to Antarctica. As our ship neared the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—the closest point to the southern tip of South America which had been our departure point—we marveled at how effortlessly they skimmed through the water beside us. Soon we marveled at another characteristic. We were at least two or three miles offshore when the harsh odor of the poop generated by all those penguins wafted over the ship.
We relished the opportunity to go ashore and wander through their rookeries. There were lots of juveniles, covered with gray fuzz that would eventually fall off and be replaced by their characteristic black and white plumage. None of them seemed to mind our presence.
But we had several harsh reminders that we weren’t in a zoo. Several century-old stone huts provided shelter for explorers who slaughtered hundreds of penguins to eat during the long, harsh Antarctic winters. Skuas, nasty predatory birds, routinely feed on penguin chicks. We saw the discarded remains of several skua meals. Danger can also come from the depths. A couple of times we observed large seals relaxing on ice floes with bright red stains next to them.
The saddest sight came one afternoon when we took a Zodiac inflatable boat to shore. A penguin stood forlornly on top of a small ice floe, a leopard seal thrashing the water next to it. We asked our guide if we could rescue the doomed bird. He shook his head. “The water is too rough,” he said. “Too much chance of falling in if anyone tried to step out onto the floe. And you don’t want to be anywhere near an angry half-ton leopard seal that feels his dinner is being taken away from him.”
On our way back to the ship, there was no sign of the lone penguin. We had to accept that we couldn’t interfere in the natural course of things.
All images ©Jen Goode
Jim Whiting has written more than 100 titles and edited another 150 or so, with subjects ranging from authors to zoologists and including classical musicians and contemporary pop icons, saints and scientists, emperors and explorers. Many of his books have received glowing reviews.
He's also ventured into a number of classrooms and served as a presenter at writers' conferences, conveying the enthusiasm for writing and for a good story that still animates him. Check out his work here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "World Penguin Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Apr.