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/
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.
Have you ever seen a lizard hurtling over your head? How about a frog sailing down from the tree tops? I’m not making these animals up. They belong to one of earth’s most astonishing groups of animals.
Gliders travel through the air, but they don’t fly. Instead, they glide. What’s the difference? Well, to get itself off the ground, a bird, bat, or insect has to generate a force called lift. A flying animal generates lift using its wings, which are attached to powerful flight muscles. These wings move and bend in complicated motions to counteract the force of gravity.
Gliding animals do not have muscle-powered wings. Instead, most gliding animals have special flaps or folds of skin called patagia. Like wings, the patagia generate lift—but only after the animal is already moving through the air.
When chased by a snake, a Draco lizard leaps from its tree. Instead of plunging to its death, it spreads out its rib cage into two elegant airfoils covered with skin. As air rushes over them, these airfoils—the patagia—generate lift to keep the lizard from falling straight down. The lizard does steadily descend toward earth, but it is also riding the air. It can change directions, pull a U-turn, and control where it wants to go. In the process it can travel hundreds of feet before landing on another tree or on the ground.
The patagia of Wallace’s frogs lie between their toes. These frogs usually live up in the trees, but when it is time to mate or lay eggs, they leap, spread out their toes, and glide to earth.
Earth’s most astonishing gliders may be five species of gliding snakes. These snakes don’t have patagia. Instead, they flatten out their bodies and “crawl” through the air. Scientists aren’t sure if the crawling motion helps generate lift, or if lift comes mainly from a snake’s flattened shape, but the animals can glide more than 100 feet before landing.
Most of earth’s gliding animals live in Southeast Asian rainforests, which are home to more than eighty species of gliding lizards, frogs, snakes, and mammals. In North America, we have only two gliding animals: Northern and Southern flying squirrels. Despite their name, flying squirrels don’t fly. They glide—and are adorably cute! Want to see one? Try shining a flashlight on a bird feeder at night!
A male Draco lizard extending his gular flag (throat flap) and patagi (wings). While not capable of powered flight Dracos often obtain lift in the course of their gliding flights. Glides as long as 200 feet have been recorded, Wikimedia
Wallace's frogs live almost exclusively in the trees, and leap and "fly" from tree to tree or to bushes. The membranes between their toes and loose skin flaps on their sides catch the air as they fall, helping them to glide, sometimes 50 feet or more, to a neighboring tree branch or even all the way to the ground. They also have oversized toe pads to help them land softly and stick to tree trunks. Wikimedia
Flying squirrels are able to glide from one tree to another with the aid of a patagium, a furry, parachute-like membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle. Their long tail provides stability in flight. Wikimedia
There are five recognized species of flying snake, found from western India to the Indonesian archipelago. They flatten out their bodies and parachute or glide using their ribs to become flat, and then they whip their bodies in a fast, rhythmic S-shape to stay airborne. Wikimedia
Illustrated with arresting photographs, Sneed B. Collard's Catching Air: Taking the Leap with Gliding Animals takes us around the world to learn why so many gliders live in Southeast Asia, and to find out why this gravity-defying ability has evolved in Draco lizards, snakes, and frogs as well as mammals. Why do gliders stop short of flying, how did bats make that final leap, and how did Homo sapiens bypass evolution to glide via wingsuits and hang gliders―or is that evolution in another guise?
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. "Meet Earth's Incredible Gliders." Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 11 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Daddy longlegs are the spiders we run across the most often, right? Think again.
How many body parts does a spider have? Two. A “head” (called a cephalothorax) and an abdomen (where that sticky silk comes from). How many body parts does a daddy longlegs have? One. So, these animals aren’t even spiders. Daddy longlegs are one of many animals called opilionids (oo-pill-ee-OH-nidz). They are in the same animal class as spiders (Arachnida), and they all have long legs so they look like spiders—but they’re a separate order.
Opilionids aren’t dangerous to humans, but their predators had better watch out. Scientist Dr. Thomas Eisner discovered that a daddy longlegs carries toxin in its armpits. His research began one day when travelling through Texas. He picked up a daddy longlegs and smelled it— that’s right, his nose was his scientific instrument. He observed an odd smell so he carted the creature back to his motel room and studied it. The smell was a toxic chemical called benzoquinone (say BEN-zo-qwi-NO-ne). So of course, Dr. Eisner wanted to know more about that!
The chemical is toxic when it is a gas or a liquid, but not when it is a solid. On the side of the animal’s body–basically in its armpit–Dr. Eisner found a sac-like gland. In that gland? Solid benzoquinone.
When a predator such as an ant threatens the daddy longlegs, he spits up a drop of gut juice. That liquid travels down a groove from his mouth to the gland. In less than a second, he dissolves a bit of that benzoquinone into the liquid and creates toxic ammunition. You know those two long legs daddy longlegs use as feelers? He dips the tip of one of them into the toxic drop then slaps it on his predator.
Take that you scary ant! They flee.
The opilionid can reload his feelers up to thirty times from one toxic drop. When his ammo runs low, all he needs to do is drink water and spit again. Other types of opilionids skip the feelers and just let the liquid ooze out around their body, creating a super toxic safety shield.
What other secrets might opilionids be hiding? Not many people study them, so who knows?!? Maybe you will sniff out a discovery!
Some bugs litter. Some pass gas. Some bugs throw their poop! Discover ten of the rudest, crudest bugs around. Full of scientific facts, humor and just the right amount of yuck, Heather L. Montgomery's How Rude! features a countdown of the top 10 bad bugs who just won't mind their manners. One part illustration and one part photography, How Rude! is hilarious, informative, and seriously gross!
MLA 8 Citation
Montgomery, Heather L. "Toxic Armpits." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Toxic-Armpits.