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
.To learn more about the lives of spiders, and see spectacular realistic illustrations, see 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/
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
Almost every spring an amazing event in nature happens in parts of the United States. Huge numbers of insects called periodical cicadas emerge from the soil. For a few weeks they fill the days with loud buzzing calls.
Every summer you can hear the calls of some kinds of cicadas, but periodical cicadas are different. They exist only in the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and have the longest of all insect lives. Some periodical cicadas live 13 years, others 17 years, with nearly all of that time spent underground. Young cicadas, called nymphs, sip water and nutrients from tree roots. The nymphs count the years, probably by sensing changes in tree sap, as it is affected by the seasons of each year.
When their countdown ends and soil warms in the spring, millions of cicada nymphs dig out. They climb posts, bushes, and trees, and cling there. Their nymph "skins" split open and adult cicadas wriggle free. Finally, after many years underground, they are out in the sunshine. They can fly, and the buzzing noises of males attract females. It is a noisy and hectic time in their lives. They have just a few weeks to mate and produce the next generation. Once females lay eggs in tree twigs, all of the adults die. Soon after, tiny nymphs hatch from the eggs. They drop to the soil, borrow in, and begin to sip juices from tree roots. The nymphs grow slowly, counting the years until they will have their own time in the sun.
Nearly every year, one or more populations, called broods, of periodical cicadas emerge. Seventeen year cicadas live mostly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Thirteen year cicadas are most common in the South and Lower Midwest. Some broods emerge in parts of just a few states. Some years, a more widespread brood emerges in parts of fifteen states. Notice that I say "parts" of states. These cicadas don't roam around. The nymphs go underground in the same places where their parents emerged. You will find them in one town but not another, in one neighborhood but not another.
Some people call cicadas "locusts," but locusts are a kind of grasshopper that eats plants. Cicadas do not chew on plants. They are harmless, fascinating creatures. And, once in a great while, they give us a rare and awe-inspiring animal spectacle.
Visit the great website, Cicadamania, which has high praise for this book: "Definitely the best cicada book for kids. Adults will appreciate it as well, as it is well written, factually accurate, and beautifully illustrated."
You can read more about Larry's fascination for these creatures on his website.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Here Come the Cicadas." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank,
23 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
It was December 24, 1801, when bundled-up Philadelphians bought their 25¢ tickets and entered Peale’s Museum on Fifth Street. Once inside, they saw the owner’s paintings. And I’ll bet you have too—even if you’ve never heard of Charles Willson Peale. This one, for instance, of his fellow Revolutionary War soldier:
Visitors to the museum had seen Peale’s collections of butterflies, too, and other nature specimens, such as the fossilized teeth of mysterious beasts. (Who knew then that animals went extinct? Hardly anybody!) But on this extra-special Christmas Eve, people probably hurried past Peale’s handmade dioramas, with the lifelike bodies of birds and mammals that he’d stuffed and posed. Today, Mr. C.W. Peale himself was introducing his NEW ATTRACTION. People had paid an extra 50¢ just to see it! Now they looked up, up, UP at it, and were astonished.
What animal’s skeleton was eleven feet tall? Seventeen and a half feet from its bony tail to the tips of its giant, curving tusks? It was a mastodon.
No one had seen a live mastodon in more than ten thousand years. So how did one’s bones get to Philadelphia? Mr. Peale and other naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson, the new President-elect, wrote to one another about their studies, collections, and the latest discoveries, such as like these huge, mysterious bones in southern New York state. Some of North America’s long-gone mastodons ended up there, by the Hudson River. As soon as he heard about them, Peale hurried to see them. Then he not only figured a way to dig up the bones, but he also painted a picture of the huge excavation!
Peale’s son, Rembrandt helped to draw and assemble the bones:
For years, people paid to marvel at the enormous, sensational skeleton. Later on, after Mr. Peale’s death in 1827, his museum slowly went broke. P.T. Barnum, the circus showman, bought a lot of his exhibits. Later still, they were destroyed in a fire. And the mighty bones of the mastodon wound up lost for a hundred years, until the skeleton turned up in Germany, where you can see it today.
In Thomas Jefferson, her sixth presidential biography for National Geographic, Cheryl Harness illuminates the many sides of Thomas Jefferson: scientist, lawyer, farmer, architect, diplomat, inventor, musician, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States. Readers meet this extraordinary man of contradictions: a genius who proclaimed that "All men are created equal" and championed the rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," while at the same time living a life that depended on the enforced labor of slaves.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Big Deal in Mr. Peale's Museum." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 18 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Nonfiction is the new black
During the Middle Ages, “going to the bathroom” or “relieving oneself” meant using a privy. A privy typically consisted of a raised board with one or more openings cut in the middle where the users would sit. Their fecal matter would plop into large holes called cesspits beneath them. Over time, the cesspits would fill up and start overflowing. When that happened, gong farmers had to empty them.
“Gong” came from a word that means “going.” And the farmers “harvested” the accumulation of months or even years of “going.” To make sure all the foul material was removed, the workers would hop down into the pits, where the feces came up their waists or even higher. Because of the relative ease of getting them in and out, small boys were often employed. The cesspool contents were dumped into carts and taken to larger dump sites on the edge of town, where more conventional farmers would use it as fertilizer.
People in the Middle Ages rarely bathed. So gong farmers stunk. Really. Stunk. Because of their horrible stench, they were often restricted in where they could live. They were allowed to work only at night to spare their fellow citizens from seeing and smelling them.
Besides the horrible smell and probable lack of friends, gong farmers encountered specific occupational hazards. Decaying fecal matter could produce poisonous gases. At least one gong farmer stumbled into a cesspool he was cleaning and drowned. Violators of the rules for collecting the refuse and disposing of it were submerged in barrels up to their necks and placed on public display for hours on end.
On the other hand, gong farmers were well paid, often earning in a day what other workers might make in a week. They had another potential source of income as well. Careless crappers occasionally dropped rings or coins into the cesspits. Enterprising gong farmers combed through the mess with their bare hands in search of those treasures.
The advent of better sanitary methods in the 19th century ended gong farmers in many countries. However, it is still practiced in some areas of the world.
You can learn more about Jim Whiting with a visit to his website. He is an interesting fellow with an interest in music and sports and has written lots of books in both fields.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Gong Farmers: Their Crop Was ...Crap." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Gong-Farmers.
Science through the lens
Do you know about the “birds and the bees?” If you don’t, don’t worry. You will learn soon enough.
When it comes to flowers there’s nothing to hide. There’s just no way around it—flowers are sexy. Their colorful, curvy petals are soft as velvet and as fragrant as the most expensive perfumes. Their nectar is as sweet as…well, honey. Besides being pretty, flowers have power. Their pollen is packed with protein. No wonder the birds and the bees, and insects of many kinds, find them so irresistible.
Pollen may be the perfect food for bees, but it is also the way plants get together. Think about it. Plants can’t walk, crawl, swim, or fly. So, how does boy meet girl?
In order to reproduce, the pollen from the male has to have direct contact with the female (and I don’t mean texting). Pollen grains are carried on the legs of bees and in the beaks of birds, from one flower to another. A few grains become engaged, hitched, and literally stuck on the sticky female flower part called the stigma. Sugar from the stigma fuels the pollen grain to sprout a tube. This pollen tube grows downward through the female part called the pistil and into the chambers that contain tiny bubble shaped eggs. When the tip of the pollen tube finally reaches an egg chamber it releases a male sperm cell. The sperm and the egg unite, and a brand-new cell is formed. This is the beginning of a seed.
Picture an apple. Before the apple was a fruit containing seeds, it was a very sexy flower. So the next time someone asks you if you know about the birds and the bees, tell them about flower power. They might be surprised how plants get together to make baby plants, which in scientific terms is an interesting example of the process called sexual reproduction.
Pollen is contained in the anthers, which are the six slipper shaped sacs at the end of the stamens. The female stigma is the rounded tip located at the top of the style. The pollen tube is a microscopic tube that grows through the style and into the ovary, which is hidden inside the base of this flower. Hanging down, at the lower right side of the photo are the remains of another flower. The petals and stamen have fallen off revealing the entire pistil: the stigma, style, and the ovary (green structure), which holds the eggs. Photo credit © Alexandra Siy
Why not watch some web-spinners do their thing with the help of this stunning and superlative book by Alexandra Siy? You can read more about it here.
Alexandra Siy 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
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Have you heard about the “butterfly effect,” the idea that one small change can bring about big changes over time? This idea is important in the study of ecology, which deals with the interactions of living things and their environments. Each element of an ecosystem has its place. When one element is eliminated, it affects everything else.
The Yellowstone ecosystem centered in Yellowstone National Park provides a great example. Late in the 20th century, biologists were worried about the aspen trees there. Aspens occur in clusters that are actually clones growing up from shared root systems. Some of the Yellowstone clones were hundreds of years old, but the old, dying trees weren’t being replaced by strong young shoots. It looked like they might just die out, and no one was sure why.
When a severe drought in 1988 led to big wildfires in the park, the idea that fire might stimulate aspen growth proved wrong. Perhaps the elimination of wolves from the region in the early 20th century was to blame. Wolves? New trees? How could that be? Without wolves, the behavior of the Yellowstone elk had changed. No predators. No worry. So the elk became lazy, acting like cows, lying around in shaded areas along the rivers and creeks, munching contentedly on the juicy fresh growth of the willows and aspens.
In 1995, after much political battling, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone. The wolf population grew and the elk learned to be on the alert. As the wolves’ favorite food, the elk had to change their behavior to survive—no more relaxing by a stream where wolves could easy sneak up and make a meal of them! They had to move around and spend more time in open places where watching for hungry wolves was far easier.
The wolves are changing the Yellowstone landscape in positive ways. The aspens and willows are coming back. Beavers, which had almost disappeared from some parts of the park, are returning. These rodents feed on aspens and willows and use them to build their dams and lodges. Beaver dams create ponds, and the ponds provide homes for hundreds of species of plants and animals, from algae and water striders to ducks and muskrats. The willows and aspen trees around the pond are nesting sites for songbirds and homes for insects and spiders, all thanks to the wolf.
Welcome back, wolves!
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's book, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone, is an IRA/CBC Teachers' Choices book, an ALA Notable Children's Book, A Book Sense Pick, and an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, as well as receiving the Orbis Pictus Honor Book Award. Booklist calls it "A great choice for elementary units about science and environmental protection," and Kirkus gave it a starred review. Click here to read the reviews.
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. "Everything Is Connected: The Butterfly Effect and the
Wolf." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Mar. 2018,