Are you tougher than a tardigrade? I don’t think so.
These typically water-dwelling animals may be microscopic in size (barely half of a millimeter when fully grown!), but boy are they fierce. Sometimes called “water bears,” they’re anything but cuddly. Each of their eight legs is decked out with wicked claws. Some tardigrades have full body armor. Most have specialized "sucker" mouths to pierce the cells of plants and animals and suck out their nutrients, while others prefer to consume their tiny prey whole… and that prey might even be another tardigrade!
Aside from ending up as someone else’s dinner, though, tardigrades are practically indestructible. They can survive in just about any conditions and take on just about anything life has in store for them. Starvation? No worries there: Tardigrades can go without food for at least 10 years. What about water, you say? No problem. They’ll just suspend their life activities and wait until the drought is over. They can survive at pressures more than six times that of the deepest ocean trenches. And, you’d die from radiation poisoning long before a tardigrade would even notice. Scientists have even tried shooting them into outer space… and the tardigrades survived.
Because of their ability to live practically anywhere, these little guys are practically everywhere. Tardigrades can be found on top of Mount Everest and in boiling hot springs, in desert dunes and rainforest canopies, in freshwater lakes and salty oceans, on your roof, outside your front door… maybe even in your bed or on your dinner plate! There are billions and billions of tardigrades… and they’re always making more!
Fortunately, there’s no need to worry—tardigrades are completely harmless to humans. In fact, tardigrades may actually end up being our best friends someday. Because they can do so many things that other Earthly animals can’t, scientists are studying tardigrades to try to find solutions to all kinds of problems. Want to dry something out to preserve it, then rehydrate it later? Study how tardigrades do it. Wish we could safely reanimate something that has been frozen? Learn from the tardigrades. Need to protect cells from being damaged by radiation? Figure out why tardigrade cells can withstand it.
Who knows? Someday the tough tardigrades might teach us all kinds of handy tricks!
Tardigrades are short and plump, with four pairs of legs, each with four to eight claws also known as "disks." Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012)/Wikimedia Commons
An adult Milnesium tardigrade, an example of more than 1,000 species of the tiny animal. Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden, UNC Chapel Hill/Wikimedia Common
This video shows a tardigrade in real time at 100X magnification. Dmitry Brant via Wikimedia Commons
Laurie Ann Thompson and coauthor Ammi-Joan Paquette begin a fascinating new series with Two Truths and a Lie, a book that presents some of the most crazy-but-true stories about the living world. Some of the stories are too crazy to be true—and readers are asked to separate facts from fakes! "A brief but savvy guide to responsible research methods adds further luster to this crowd pleaser.” —ALA Booklist (starred review)
MLA 8 Citation
Thompson, Laurie Ann. "Tardigrades Make the Grade." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 21 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
A celebrity has just arrived in Mr. Madison’s classroom at El Verano Elementary School and the 3rd graders are beside themselves. “Here he is!” they exclaim as the visitor walks through the door.
This special guest has not come to give a lesson or tell a story. He is neither a star athlete nor a movie star. He doesn’t play an instrument, sing, dance or do magic tricks. His tricks are mostly limited to sit, stay and shake. He is a dog. His name is Fenway Bark.
An eight-year old chocolate-colored Labrador retriever, Fenway has been coming to El Verano for six years with his owner, Mara Kahn. He has helped hundreds of children become better readers. Fenway is a literacy dog.
“Fenway’s job is to listen while you’re reading,” explains Mara to the class, which is gathered in a circle around her and Fenway.
One of the best ways for children to improve their reading is to read aloud, but reading in front of an audience can be scary. What if Chelsea mispronounces a word? Or if Alex loses track of where he is on the page? Will everyone laugh? The fear can discourage some children from reading aloud at all.
Solution: read to a totally non-judgmental audience that doesn’t care what you read or how you read it. Read to a dog! When reading to dogs, young readers don’t have to worry about saying “whoof” when they meant to say “which.” With less anxiety and more confidence, young readers increase their reading fluency. That’s why literacy dogs visit hundreds of schools and libraries as reading buddies for children.
Vanessa sits cross-legged on the rug in Mr. Madison’s classroom. She gingerly opens Strega Nona by Tomie De Paola. Softly, slowly, she reads about Big Anthony who ignores Strega Nona’s instructions not to touch her magical pasta pot. Fenway sits up and looks at Vanessa. He gazes at the floor. Vanessa keeps reading. The pasta starts flowing. Fenway stretches out. Vanessa reads a little louder, a little faster. Pasta floods the town. Fenway licks Vanessa’s knee. She giggles and goes back to her book.
Today, six children got to read to the canine visitor. “It’s so cool to read to a dog,” said one boy who will get his chance next week. He was already thinking about choosing a doggone good book
MLA 8 Citation
Schwartz, David M. "Reading Has Gone to the Dogs." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Reading-Has-Gone-to-the-Dogs. Accessed 20 Dec. 2017.
Polar bears are built to withstand some of the coldest temperatures on the planet. Their brown and black bear cousins avoid the winter cold by digging dens and sleeping. But, except for pregnant females, polar bears spend the arctic winter outside where temperatures could be -40° F (which equals-40 °C) and windy. That’s too cold for humans. You could go outside, but only for only a few minutes with every part of your body completely covered. And if you didn’t wear goggles, your eyelashes would freeze and break off if you touched them.
Polar bears are warm-blooded like us with a body temperature of about 98°F/37°C. But they are invisible to night-vision goggles that pick up the infrared rays that warm-blooded creatures, including humans, give off. Why? Nature has given polar bears enough insulation to prevent body heat from escaping. They are toasty warm and comfortable in the frigid arctic.
Their heat insulation is in several layers. Under their skin, there is a 4-inch (21.5 cm) layer of fat. Next to the skin is a dense layer of woolly fur that also keeps heat in. The fur you see is a thick layer of long, colorless guard hairs that shed water quickly after a swim. They are stiff and transparent and hollow. In the arctic sunlight, the hairs act like mirrors and reflect white light, which acts as camouflage against the snow so the bears are not seen by their prey. Polar bear skin is actually black, so that it can absorb the invisible warm infrared rays of the sun and the bear’s own body heat, both of which are reflected back by the guard hairs.
Most warm-blooded animals raise their body temperatures through exercise. Polar bears hunt seals, which they don’t often chase. They prefer to sit at the edge of an ice floe and wait for dinner to arrive. At best, they’ll lumber after a seal at four and a half miles (7.25 km) an hour, raising their body heat to 100°F (38°C). When that happens, they go for a swim to cool off.
Cold won’t kill off the polar bears, but global warming can. As polar ice disappears, so does the hunting ground for seals. Not so cool!
Close up, the polar bear guard hairs are transparent. This allows the infra-red light (heat) from the sun to pass through them to be absorbed by the black skin under the hairs. The hairs also act like mirrors , reflecting back to the skin any infra-red radiation escaping from the bears body so it can be reabsorbed. Thus, the insulation is just about perfect with no infra-red radiation escaping. The hairs are also coated with oil so they drain quickly after a swim.
Vicki Cobb's This Place Is Cold shows how the latitude of Alaska affects the lives of the plants, animals and people who live there. It is gloriously illustrated by Barbara Lavallee, a long-time Alaskan resident and artist.
Vicki is a member of Authors on Call—she can visit your classroom with interactive videoconferencing: Read more about her here.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "The Way Polar Bears Keep Warm Is Cool." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/The-Way-Polar-Bears-Keep-Warm-Is-Cool.
writing science, history, and everything in between
Question: If your favorite snack was just out of reach, what would you do?
That’s what Preston Foerder, who studies animal behavior, asked Kandula, a male Asian elephant at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Scientists have always thought that using a tool to solve a problem was a sign of higher intelligence. They also thought that only humans were tool users. But then Jane Goodall discovered chimps using sticks to fish termites out of a hole, and ravens were observed making hooks to nab a treat. People who’ve worked with elephants have long known that they are highly intelligent, but no one ever tested an elephant’s ability to use a tool to solve a problem.
To set up the experiment, Preston skewered Kandula’s favorite fruits on a branch and suspended it well out of trunk reach. Then he scattered potential tools such as long bamboo sticks and a heavy-duty plastic cube around the yard.
At first Kandula just stared at the fruit longingly. Occasionally he picked up a stick, but only played with it. On the seventh trial, Kandula got an idea. He rolled the cube several yards so it was beneath the fruit. He placed his two front feet on the cube, stretched his trunk as high as he could, and plucked the fruit off the branch. The next day, as soon as Preston suspended the fruit, Kandula was already shoving his cube into place. He seemed to enjoy his new tool. He used it to peek over walls, to check out birds in a nearby tree, and to eat blossoms off another tree that grew outside his yard.
Later, Kandula showed off by using a tractor tire and then a large ball as a stool. He even figured out that if he stacked one small block on top of another he might be able to reach higher fruit. Although he came up short (he needed to stack 3 blocks), he still showed that his brain was working out the problem.
So, congratulations! If you said you’d use a stool to reach your favorite snack, then you are as smart as an elephant.
Peggy Thomas is co-author of Anatomy of Nonfiction, the only writer’s guide to crafting true stories for children. She is currently working on a book about elephant intelligence. To learn more, visit her website.
Peggy Thomas 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
Thomas, Peggy. “Are You as Smart as an Elephant?.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/are-you-as-smart-as-an-elephant?
Earth’s temperatures are getting warmer. In fact, sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. These warmer temperatures are driving larger, long-term changes in our planet’s weather and climate. Scientists refer to these changes as “climate change.”
In a few places, climate change might be welcome, but around the world, warmer temperatures and other changes are leading to a host of problems from rising sea levels to more extreme weather events and the spread of harmful human diseases.
Professor Scott Mills, from the University of Montana, wanted to see how climate change might be affecting one particular animal called the snowshoe hare.
Snowshoe hares live in regions of North America that receive snow every winter. The hares, in fact, change their coat color from brown to white and back again every year. This helps camouflage them against their background—and hides them from the eyes of lynx, owls, and other hungry predators.
Here’s the thing: snowshoe hares can’t choose when they molt, or change their coat color. Molt timing is controlled by their genes, which are part of the DNA inside their bodies. If a hare’s genes make it molt to white in October, but snow doesn’t fall until December, the hare will stick out like a light bulb against the brown earth. And that’s a problem. Why? Because almost everywhere on earth, the length of time with snow on the ground is growing shorter and shorter.
To find out if shorter winters might harm hare populations, Scott and his team spent three years tagging and following hares. They measured how many were born, how many died, and what they died from. They also recorded whether the hares were matched or mismatched against their backgrounds.
They discovered that predators killed mismatched hares significantly more often than hares whose coats match their backgrounds. Scott and his team also calculated that over the next one hundred years, this greater mortality, or death rate, could lead to the decline or disappearance of many snowshoe hare populations.
The good news? Different hares molt at different times. This may help some hare populations adapt to shorter winters and longer periods without snow.
Hares are not the only animals affected by shorter winters. More than twenty species of animals including lemmings, weasels, hamsters, and Arctic foxes change their coat colors every year. Scott’s research helps us predict what might happen to these animals—and decide what we can do to protect them.
Scott’s discoveries about Montana snowshoe hares, together with experts’ predictions about our future climate, indicate that hares will be mismatched between 5-½ and 10 weeks by the end of this century.
Before tagging and putting a radio collar on a snowshoe hare, Professor Mills and his team must weigh and measure it.
This snowshoe hare has been tagged and fitted with a radio collar—and is now ready to help scientists learn more about snowshoe hare survival.
Even from a great distance, a mismatched hare stands out like a glowing light bulb. (Photo Courtesy of L. Scott Mills research laboratory)
Besides serving as popular prey for predators, snowshoe hares are irresistibly cute. This is a young hare, also called a leveret.
Sneed B. Collard III is the author of more than eighty award-winning books, many focusing on science and the natural world. His entertaining memoir Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts—Journeys of a Biologist’s Son recounts his challenges and adventures growing up as the son of divorced biologist parents, and the experiences that would one day lay the foundation for his writing career. He is a dynamic speaker and offers school and conference programs that combine science, nature, and literacy. To learn more about him and his talks, visit his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com.
This book was reviewed by Vicki Cobb in the Huffington Post: "The Cheeseburger of the Forest".
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. "Hopping Ahead of Climate Change." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/hopping-ahead-of-climate-change.
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