Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature's Animal Ambassador
If I asked you what grain is the most harvested in the world, you’d probably answer either wheat or rice. But the answer is actually corn, more accurately called ‘maize.’ This nutritious crop that originated in Mexico feeds not only people but also animals around the world. We’re used to the wonderfully tender sweet corn harvested in late summer and early autumn, but most maize is actually field corn, more starchy than sweet and used as animal feed or to make cornmeal and flour.
For a long time, biologists puzzled about the origins of this important crop. There is no wild plant that looks anything like modern corn, which is actually a giant grass. The closest relative is a scrawny branching plant with hard dark seeds called teosinte. It seems a huge jump from teosinte to corn, yet geneticist George Beadle found in the 1930s that corn and teosinte have the same number of chromosomes and could be crossbred to produce hybrids. With the limited tools available at that time, Beadle deduced that only about five genes were involved in creating the differences between teosinte and corn.
Fast forward to modern times, when scientists can look directly at DNA and analyze every detail of its structure. We now know that Beadle came very close to the truth—about five regions in the DNA seem to control the major differences between teosinte and corn. For example, these two plants look so very different, yet just one single gene turns a branched plant into a single stalk, like a stalk of corn. Another single gene controls one of the most dramatic and certainly most important traits for farmers—the nature of the seeds and their stalk. In teosinte, each seed has a hard covering. Just one gene eliminates the hard covering and produces a stalk bearing exposed seeds, like an ear of corn.
Scientists now use maize as a perfect example of two major ways evolution happens. One way is through major sudden jumps, like the change from a branching plant to a single stalk. The other is the more gradual kind of change that has led to the thousands of different kinds of maize grown by farmers today. There are probably hundreds of varieties of sweet corn and thousands of varieties of field corn. Think about that the next time you bite into a nice crunchy taco made from a corn tortilla.
Corn was a very important crop for homesteaders in the American West, used both to feed themselves as well as their animals. Read about it in Homesteading: Settling America's Heartland, revised and expanded edition, Mountain Press, 2013.
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. "Amazing Maize." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Amazing-Maize.
The Explainer General
On May 24, 1883, The Brooklyn Bridge was opened to the public. It took 14 years, $15 million and many lives to link Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Before work was begun, its designer, John A. Roebling, was making final surveys of the site. A docking ferryboat nudged a piling near him, driving a dirty nail into his foot. He died of tetanus 24 days later. His son, Washington Roebling took over the engineering project.
To sink the bridge tower foundations down to bedrock, workers excavated river silt inside two open-bottomed 3000 ton iron bases, caissons. High-pressure air pumps kept river water out. As the caissons were dug deeper beneath the river surface, air pressure grew higher; work became more dangerous. When they were digging near seventy feet deep, a few workers walked through the caisson air-lock at the surface, across the street to the tavern, and dropped down dead. The cause: nitrogen embolism—gas dissolved in blood under high pressure expanding rapidly at normal pressure. Scuba divers call it “the bends.” Washington Roebling, himself, was crippled this way but monitored the project through a telescope from his bed upriver. His brilliant wife, Emily Warren Roebling, managed construction on-site. Twenty to 30 bridge workers were killed in construction from nitrogen embolism, being struck by falling material, and by falls from the towers.
It was the longest suspension bridge in the world, with a river-span of 1595.5 feet. Anyone could cross: 1¢ for a pedestrian, 5¢ for a horse and rider, 10¢ for a horse and wagon, 5¢ for cows, 2¢ for sheep or hogs.
Only six days after its opening, the bridge was crowded with walkers when a rumor started that the bridge was collapsing! Strollers stampeded, killing 12, injuring 35 in the panic. Was the great bridge safe?
Months later, May 17, 1884, the great huckster and self-promoter P. T. Barnum set out to prove the solidity of the bridge “in the interest of the dear public.” Across the broad bridge paraded 21 elephants with Barnum’s famous African elephant Jumbo in the rear. They were followed by seven Bactrian camels (two-hump) and ten dromedaries (one-hump). Since elephant and camel fares had never been specified, no tolls were paid. The New York Times reported “…it seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself over on Long Island.”
If any doubts remained, Barnum’s ballyhoo proof put them to rest.
The story of how Jumbo was brought from Africa to the United States is a fascinating one -- Google it. In the meantime, you might want to have a look at Jan Adkin's fascinating description of how people often have to use brains rather than brawn to move heavy items.
Jan Adkins 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
Adkins, Jan. "Proof Positive: Ballyhoo Confirms the Safety of the Brooklyn
Bridge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 June 2018,
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/
Nonfiction is the new black
Early in 1980, Mt. St. Helens in southwestern Washington state began showing signs that it was about to erupt. Part of the state’s Cascade Range, the mountain was an active volcano that had been dormant for 123 years.
The possibility of seeing the “fireworks” prompted many people to head for the mountain. The sightseers included Ron and Barbara Seibold and their two children, who parked about 12 miles north of the mountain. That was well beyond two danger zones that scientists had established.
En route to the mountain, the children—Kevin, aged 7, and his 9-year-old sister Michelle—made a cassette tape. They asked questions and the parents answered. “They were goofing around—asking whether or not they would see lava coming out of the mountain,” said a state emergency management official. “One asked if it was dangerous, and both parents cheerfully reassured their kids that they’d be safe.”
Exploding on May 18 with a fury far beyond what scientists had expected, the blast generated the largest landslide in U.S. history and flattened millions of trees. Uncounted tons of ash rose as high as 15 miles into the atmosphere.
The Seibolds never had a chance. Ash almost instantly buried their vehicle. They suffocated.
The eruption claimed 53 more people, making it the deadliest-ever on the US mainland. One was Harry Truman, who had run the inn at nearby Spirit Lake for more than 50 years. Truman had become somewhat of a folk hero for his refusal to move despite the danger.
Twenty-year-old newlyweds Christy and John Killian were camping nine miles from the volcano. Christy died of massive head injuries, her arm around her pet poodle. John and the couple’s retriever were never found.
Terry Crall and Karen Varner, both 21, died when a tree fell onto their tent, 14 miles away. Four people outside the tent were unharmed.
So were researchers Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, flying a small airplane less than 1,300 feet above the summit at the moment of the eruption. A cloud laced with lightning bolts billowed toward them. They managed to outrun it.
Today, much of the vegetation destroyed by the blast has returned. But the mountain—once compared in its graceful contours to Mt. Fuji in Japan—lost 1,300 feet of its height. Its former symmetrical cone shape is now topped by a horseshoe-shaped crater which stands as a mute reminder of the catastrophic eruption.
The top of Mount St. Helens two years after the eruption. The removal of the north side of the mountain reduced St. Helens' height by about 1,300 feet and left a crater 1 mile to 2 miles wide and a half mile deep. The eruption killed 57 people, nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk, and bear), and an estimated 12 million fish from a hatchery. It destroyed or extensively damaged more than 200 homes, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railways.
Volcanoes have been erupting for all of recorded history. More than 3,500 years ago, people on the Greek island of Calliste had a very good life. There was only one problem: Calliste was actually a volcano. Around 1650 BCE, the volcano erupted, blowing out the center of the island and creating a large bay. What was left of Calliste was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. Though the island was deserted for many years, people eventually returned. Several centuries ago, it was renamed Santorini. The island has reclaimed its beauty and allure, but the volcano below continues to reshape this little plot of land in the Mediterranean Sea. For more information on Jim Whiting's book on the Santorini eruption, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Deadly Eruption of Mount St. Helens." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 5 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
This story happened in 1778, a time of terrible war. As General George Washington’s troops shivered in their winter camp in Pennsylvania, at Valley Forge, Daniel Boone was hunting out west, in the future state of Kentucky. Nearby, in the forest, his friends were boiling down mineral-rich spring water to make salt for their families in Boonesborough. It was a community of cabins in and around a log stockade, to protect the pioneers from attackers.
Of whom were they afraid? The First Nations, who’d been living in the so-called New World for countless generations. Specifically, Daniel Boone’s people feared the Shawnee and Cherokee peoples—and vice versa. The Native Americans were fighting an endless supply of white settlers determined to take their ancestral lands. All through and after the Revolutionary War years, American, British, and Native warriors fought throughout the wilderness west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.
We know Daniel Boone as a frontier explorer and trailblazer. To the Natives, he was “Wide Mouth,” a leader of the invasion that threatened to end their ways of life forever. So it was a BIG deal when, on a winter day in 1778, Shawnee Chief Blackfish and his warriors captured him! Daniel used all of his wits to work out a trade: In return for making him and his salt-making friends their prisoners, the Shawnee would put off attacking Boonesborough.
For ten days, the captives were marched through the snowy woods to Chillicothe, the big Shawnee town in Ohio. The British paid bounties for colonial prisoners, so some of Daniel’s friends were sold. They and others were lost to history, but we know that Daniel had to prove his courage in the gauntlet, dashing between rows of Shawnee warriors, getting hit by clubs.
Now, he’d known Natives and studied their ways since he was a boy. To stay safe until he could get back to his family, he knew he needed to let Chief Blackfish do as he wished: adopt him into his tribe. Daniel got scrubbed. He got all of his hair plucked out except for a “scalp lock” atop his head. He got a new name too: Sheltowee or “Big Turtle.” But it was June before he got the chance to escape. Then Daniel ran, hid, hiked, and limped 160 miles home to Boonesborough, in time to prepare for the attack of the angry Shawnee.
But that’s another story for another day.
Once again, Cheryl Harness combines lively storytelling with vividly detailed illustrations to transport readers back to an exciting era in American history. During Daniel Boone's 86-year life, Colonial America is transformed into a revolutionary republic, trails morph into roads and highways, and Americans discover new ways to travel—by canal, and by steam-powered boats and trains. Readers journey through these formative milestones in America's great westward expansion with the aid of a time line running along each page, 200-plus illustrations, maps, sidebars, primary-source quotations, and resource lists. For information on The Trailblazing Life of Daniel Boone: How Early Americans Took to the Road, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Kidnapped!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 June 2018,