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.
Can you name the world's fastest mammal? How about the biggest shark? If you said the cheetah, and the whale shark, you’re right! It's safe to say that we will probably never discover faster, or bigger, animals. However, it is still possible to find small animals that can set new records for being tiny.
Take frogs, for example. For many years, two kinds of frogs were tied for the honor of being the world's smallest. One species lives in Cuba, the other in Brazil. These frogs are so small that one can perch its whole body on a United States dime. Look at a dime and imagine an adult frog sitting there!
Recently, those two little species from Cuba and Brazil lost their title as Earth's smallest frogs, thanks to two scientists from the United States. They were herpetologists (scientists who study amphibians, including salamanders and frogs). In 2009 these scientists were studying frog calls on Papua New Guinea a large island nation north of Australia, in the Pacific Ocean.
The scientists were recording frog calls at night. All around, they heard chirping sounds that came from dead leaves on the forest floor. "Probably insects," they thought, but they decided to check. They searched among the leaves but found nothing. Frustrated, they grabbed whole handfuls of leaves and stuffed them into a clear plastic bag. Then they slowly searched through the bag, leaf by leaf. A small frog hopped off one of the leaves!
When I say "small frog," I mean one that can sit on a dime with room to spare. It was just 7.7 millimeters long. That's less than a third of an inch. Though the scientists later discovered another slightly bigger relative, the first one is now officially Earth's smallest frog—and Earth's smallest four-footed animal.
These tiny frogs are hard to catch. They can leap 30 times their own length. But the herpetologists managed to catch quite a few, take photos of them, and learn about their lives, close up. It wasn't until January 2012 that the scientists announced their discovery. Since this frog was discovered near a village called Amau, it was given the scientific name of Amauensis. Eventually, people may come to call it the Amau frog.
In the world of science, the tiny Amau frogs are very big news.
At the end of his book FROGS!, Larry Pringle has an Author’s Note called “A Life Full of Frogs” in which he tells about his close encounters with frogs as a child, as a father, as a wildlife photographer, and as a neighborhood ecologist acting locally to protect and even create anuran habitats. His relationship with frogs continues to this day. He says, "Our Spring evenings are sweetened by a chorus of spring peepers from the neighborhood wetland forest. Also, almost every day we visit our backyard garden pond. Several green frogs, large and small, live there. There are tadpoles of both green frogs and gray tree frogs." For more on the story behind the book, click here.
Pringle, Laurence. "Tiny Frogs Are Big News." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 13 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/tiny-frogs-are-big-news.
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/
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
Today we are time traveling. So, here we go: back a hundred years, and into your great grandmother's kitchen! O.K., now we're in 1918. You may be thirsty after the trip, so let's see what's in the refrigerator.
Ooh, ooh, I don't see a refrigerator! But there's a tall box-like thing, made of wood. Let's see what's inside. Ah, good, inside this lower part there's a glass bottle of cold milk. Also, meat, eggs and other food. Open the top door and we see: a big square block of ice!
Your great grandma uses an ICE BOX to keep food cold, and safe from spoiling. She doesn't have a home refrigerator. In 1918 there is no such thing! Instead, all over the United States, nearly every house, apartment, hotel, and restaurant uses an ice box. Everyone depends on ice. Cutting ice, storing ice, and delivering ice is a big, vital business.
If you saw the movie "Frozen," you may remember how it started, with dramatic scenes of men using saws to cut ice, and lifting heavy ice blocks with iron tongs. In the early 1800s, that is how ice was harvested in the U.S. In the 1820s, horse-drawn saws were invented. As the ice business grew, each winter countless thousands of men and horses worked on frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers.
Millions of tons of ice were stored in huge, windowless ice houses. They were insulated to keep melting to a minimum, so ice was available year round. Ice from the United States was even carried by sailing ship as far as India, China, and Australia. Of course, what mattered to most people was resupplying ice in their home ice boxes. Ice is probably brought to your great grandma's street in a horse-drawn wagon. Then an iceman carries a 60 pound block of ice into the kitchen to replace the ice that has mostly melted.
People depend on their ice boxes. But sometimes a warm winter ruins the harvest. Ice companies are desperate. They scramble to get ice from northern, colder places. An ice famine is scary. In the early 1900s, inventors tried to make something more reliable. Their work led to the kind of refrigerator you have in your kitchen today.
When we go back to 2018, you might see an icebox in an antique shop. Maybe it was once in your great grandma's kitchen.
The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the "uptown trade" to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; by F. Ray, Harper's Weekly, 30 August 1884 via Wikimedia Commons.
In his book Ice! The Amazing History of the Ice Business, Laurence Pringle discusses northern areas of the East and Midwest that were sources of ice and gives details of ice harvesting and storage by focusing on one lake--Rockland Lake, "the ice box of New York City." And he writes of those vital but sometimes controversial workers who delivered the ice to customers. Laurence Pringle worked closely with experts and relied on primary documents, including archival photographs, postcards, prints, and drawings. For more information on the book, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "In Your Great Grandmother's Kitchen." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 19 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/