Do Ladybugs Bite?
Ladybugs are familiar sights in the Spring. (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Biting Ladybugs: Should I Run and Hide?
Ladybugs are one of those insects that even non-insect lovers tend to like. They're bright and colorful, tickle when they walk, and are easy to handle and play with. Kids don't feel threatened by them and adults will often go out of their way to move them or take them outside. There are countless children's story books about the wee creatures. However, they are still insects. In this post I want to share with you the awesome life cycle of lady bugs (you will never guess what they look like as babies!), their mouth parts/anatomy, and a few ideas for lessons or teaching materials.
Mucus: Nature's Miracle Lubricant
A snail gliding along on its mucus trail (Photo: Wiki commons)
Slipping and Sliding in the Natural World
It's that time of year when colds and flu are prevalent and everyone is hacking and sneezing, bemoaning their stuffed up and runny noses. I thought it would be the perfect time to discuss mucus. Yes, it's gross and one of those things people don't talk about, but everyone deals with it. It is also the lubricant that keeps the natural world from seizing and the animals sliding and gliding.
The Scientific Method On Its Way Out
Aristotle was a proponent of methodical science (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Science as a Practice
As a curriculum developer my nose is constantly buried in science education standards, notably the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which are slowly being adopted across the country. As I've been delving into these standards and other literature about teaching pedagogy ( which is the method or practice of teaching), I've noticed a clear shift away from the scientific method. If you're like me, then growing up the scientific method was the bread-and butter of your science classrooms, and you were taught to memorize the steps of the scientific method:
What are the Differences in Spider Feet?
The leg of a pink toed tarantula. (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Spider Feet For Different Purposes
For Valentine's Day my friends at the Smithsonian featured a cute little spider called the pink toed tarantula. This got me thinking about spider feet. They don't really have toes like you and I do, (though the idea of spider tube socks with toes is funny) but they do have special modifications that help them get about. The feet of spiders can be lumped into two general categories based on how the spiders make their living. There are web building spiders and wandering spiders.
The demands of weaving a web and walking a continual tightrope, are very different from those of a spider that wanders, runs, and leaps on prey ( If you haven't read my post on spider legs you should check it out too).
The First thing to know about spider toes is that all spiders have hairy feet (which is why so many people find them creepy), but it's the arrangement and function of these hairs that varies.
Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolution of Sex
Dr. Ruth Meets David Attenborough
In honor of Valentines Day I thought I'd share with you one of my all time favorite books. It's called, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolution of Sex by Olivia Judson. The reason I like Dr. Tatiana is because she's written a book that I would consider as being the love child of Dr. Ruth and David Attenborough. It has tongue in cheek humor about animals and their unique reproductive problems. As her website suggests, it's "..witty but rigorous."
Mating lions (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Fluid Support of the Hydrostatic Skeleton
Sea anemone's have hydrostatic skeletons (a tube within a tube). (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Spineless Doesn't Mean No Support
Have you ever heard the words: "You're spineless?" While meant as an insult, it's actually a compliment in biological terms. You probably already know that some animals, like humans, have internal skeletons (endoskeletons), and some have external skeletons (exoskeletons), like insects. But the story doesn't end there, nature is much more complex and diverse. There is an entire class of organisms that has a type of skeleton, called a hydrostatic skeleton. It is just like the name implies, a static skeleton made of fluid (hydro).
Turtles Breathe Through Their Butts
Red Eared Slider (Photo: Brent Myers, Flicker Sharing)
Vent Breathing Through Cloacal Bursae
In a previous post I talked about the difference between hibernation and brumation in turtles. Essentially turtles don't sleep all winter, they have punctuated periods of activity. However, turtles do not brumate under water, they usually dig burrows or bury themselves in leaf litter or mud to overwinter. One of the questions I'm asked frequently is, "How do turtles breathe while they are buried?" A similar question was, "How can that turtle breathe while napping under water?" (This was usually aimed at a local terrapin that lived in a tank in the education center). The answers are similar.
A List of Hawk ID Guides and Resources
Red tailed hawk (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Hawk ID for Hawk Watching
Just out of college I began hawk watching for fun, and worked with Hawk Watch International through the forest service. I moved on to hawk watching at the Grand Canyon for a season, then later to the shores of Delaware and now Maryland. I like to encourage all beginning birders to start with raptors because they are charismatic and fairly easy to learn. No matter where you go in the US, raptors are there and they are magnificent birds to watch and enjoy. When I first started learning about raptors I was given a set of books that have stayed with me on all my journeys. Now, there are even more resources than when I started, including free online guides. However, I also like to encourage beginning and intermediate hawk watchers to stay low-tech and use paper based-field guides. I've already written a post about how to choose the best bird field guide, but I want to provide you with a list of hawk ID guides that you can use to prepare for hawk migration or for IDing hawks you're already seeing.
Augmented Reality Applied to Education
One example of augmented reality using text images (Photo: Wiki Commons).
What is Augmented Reality?
As a science educator I often find myself walking a fine line between wanting kids to experience nature in person, unplugged and engaged with their surroundings. But, I can't turn a blind eye to technology. STEM science education is rapidly emerging as part of classroom requirements, and that includes tech. Besides, most of the kids I teach or write curriculum for were born with smart technology at their fingertips, and it's how they understand their world.
One of the newest technologies emerging for museums, science centers, engineering and design, and even advertising is augmented reality or AR. Augmented reality is a type of smart technology that superimposes a computer-generated image onto a user's view of the world using a smart phone, iPad, or camera on your computer. There are many different types of AR, but most require that you download an app to be able to see these over-laid images. You'll also a device with a camera (phone, tablet, or computer). The idea is that your device, using image cues, uploads a computer-generated video, 3-D image, photos/photo album, news-feed, or interactive animation. The computer program keys in on one of several types of cues in static images, these can be things like QR codes (those black and white boxes of smaller boxes you see everywhere), which is a symbol that is unique to the app you're using, or even a specific picture, image, artwork, or advertisement.
Giant Clam: A Living Greenhouse For Algae
The interior mantle of a giant clam can be quite striking. (Photo: Wiki Commons).
How Giant Clams Act asGreenhouses for Algae
Normally I stick to North American species of animals, but I thought the story of giant clams was too good to pass up, especially because of the emphasis on the study of light in the Next Generation Science Standards. Let's start with giant clam 101:
Orchid Flowers: Beauty and Biodiversity
Orchid Flower Pictures
Sometimes I get lucky enough to be able to travel to some very interesting places and meet amazing new folks. One such example was a recent visit to the Smithsonian Gardens support center. We were filming for a project, and during the filming breaks I couldn't help but marvel at the biodiversity of orchids which they cultivate. But it wasn't just orchids that they offered. Smithsonian Gardens is a series of many gardens around the National Mall, in Washington DC. But, they are much more than just gardens, they are also a hub of orchid conservation and biodiversity.
Tannic Acid to Harden Blisters and Calluses
A small mound of extracted tannic acid (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Tannic Acid Natural History and Blister Care
Hikers and rowers share a common affliction, blisters. As a new rower (8 person crew) I have a vicious set of blisters year round. They form while using rowing machines and while using oars on the water (it's a mark of pride to compare cheese-grater like hands). Hikers often get blisters from ill fitting shoes and socks (first thing to do is make sure you never we new hiking shoes long distances and get good socks, yes, pay $15 for a good pair of wicking socks). I've had people complain of blisters from riding horses, high heels, and more. One of the solutions I use, which I want to share with you, is the use of natural plant tannins or tanic acid.
Coywolf: A New Species of Canid Emerging
Coywolves bred in captivity (Photo: Wiki commons). These hybrids are examples of interbreeding, but differ from the ones found in the eastern third of North America.
Coywolf (Wolf x Coyote)
Coyotes (Canis latrans) have always been the one species of canine that receives the short end of the stick of public opinion. The Looney Tunes character isn't portrayed as the brightest creature on Earth and many native myths have the coyote featured as a trickster and schemer. Coyotes are the only species of wild canine in the US that do not have an specific hunting season, and so they are hunted year round as a pest and trouble maker. Despite all this, they are clever animals, capable of surviving in extreme conditions, adapting to the presence of humans, modifying their litter rates, and eating just about anything they can get a hold of. They are so good at surviving that they don't need protection or help. Coyotes are masters at adaptation and now they are adapting again.
Spider Legs: Hydraulics in Action
Spiders are amazing works of engineering (Photo: Karen McDonald).
How Spider Legs Work
Let's face it, spiders are considered creepy by a large majority of people around the world. Yet when you ask them, most folks can't really name what it is about spiders that freaks them out so much. Usually explanations start with beady eyes, fangs, bites, or wrapping up their prey. Spider movement is also at the top of the list. They scuttle and scurry around at night (especially when you turn on the lights and they scamper off), jump, and generally run in a "creepy" way. But what makes their movement really foreign and creepy to us? The answer lies in two key elements of their anatomy, their skeleton and muscles.
Tree Identification: The Arbor Day Field Guide
Tree Identification: What Tree is That?
I know that trees aren't the fuzzy charismatic mega-fauna that most people adore and love, but they are an important part of our world, from ecosystem services to wood products and even the lowly toilet paper. Being able to walk into the woods and identify trees is like going into someone's home and saying hello to friends. It creates a familiarity with your surroundings and helps you to understand what is going on around you. For instance, the presence of willows means water and the presence of sweet gums means the land was probably disturbed in the not too distant past. All forests tell stories, you just have to know what trees you're looking at, and what their presence means.
The Arbor Day website lets you choose your region in North America (Photo: Arbor Day Website).
Science Toys for Kids
Uncover Books have great 3-D books for kids.
Science Toys to Inspire Learning
One of the great things about being a science educator is that I never stop playing and learning, because it keeps my teaching fresh and fun. During the holidays I'm always amazed to see the new toys that pop up, many of which I wish were around when I was a kid! So, for those of you considering holiday gifts around science, nature, learning or STEM here is a list of some of my favorites this year. (Remember, you can always find a great list of science and nature education/toy providers in the tab "Science Teaching Supplies and Nature Gifts" ). Click on each toy's name to be taken to a site that carries it.
This toy is great, because it involves science and technology, along with a bit of human physiology. It's very simple, but sure to entertain. It's a robot hand, complete with LED lights that light up when the hand moves. Warning though, you'll need a soldering iron for this one, so it's best for older kids under supervision (ages 12+).
The Cranberry: Natural History and Home Made Cranberry Sauce Recipe
Cranberries (Photo: Wiki Commons).
What's the story of cranberries?
Cranberries are a common side for holiday dishes in North America, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The red berries are tart and appropriately colored for the season with a bright red color. For many the only thing they may think of when they prepare cranberries is that sucking sound that the solid mass of cranberry makes as it slides out of the can. But, If you're like me, you might like to make home made cranberry sauce, or know a bit more about where those berries came from. I firmly believe in knowing about what you eat, how it grows, and how it is produced. So, in this light, much like the Turkey Snood post, we'll start this one with a short natural history of the cranberry and follow up with a homemade cranberry sauce recipe that has been in our family for a long time. At the end of the post I'll also provide you with some neat resources for teaching about cranberries in the classroom or on an interpretive hike.
FEATHERED FEATURE: TURKEY SNOODS
(A Special Early-Bird Thanksgiving Edition of the Infinite Spider Blog)
What is a turkey snood and why do turkeys care?
By Karen McDonald and guest writer Anne Littlewolf
I couldn't resist, how fun is the word snood? It's a great word to throw out at the Thanksgiving dinner table, for parties, or when exchanging biological insults with your friends (yes, there are those of us that do this). Today's post will be in two parts, in the first part we'll examine exactly what a turkey snood is and why female turkeys care, and in the second part we'll provide you with some holiday tips for making sure your Thanksgiving turkey is tender and moist so you don't get snoody insults.
Let's start with a few key terms. A female turkey is a hen, a mature male is a gobbler, and a juvenile male is a jake. Baby turkeys are called poults. You can see the physical differences between jakes and gobblers in the images below.
A juvenile male turkey (Photo: Wiki Commons)
An adult male turkey or gobbler (Photo: Wiki Commons).
- Hens are usually brownish with buffy tipped breast feathers, while gobblers usually look almost black in color, and their breast feathers are tipped with black.
- Jakes and Gobblers both have beards or modified feathers that dangle from their chest (they look almost like miniature horse tails). Jake beards are about 2-5" long and gobbler beards are 5-12" long. About 10-20% of females can grow beards too, but it's not common.
- When you look at the fanned tails of a jake v. a gobbler, you'll see that jakes have longer tail feathers in the center, while gobblers have tail feathers of equal length all the way around. Check out the jake in the far right corner of the picture below, see the longer tail feathers in the middle?
Jakes and gobblers displaying to hens (Photo: Wiki commons).
I'm not going to go into sordid detail about the anatomy of wild turkeys, there are lots of great websites that have already done that, and I want to get to the snoods. So, if you'd like to know more, check out the National Wild Turkey Federation website.
So, What Is a Snood?
Biomimicry and 3D Printing: Emerging Technologies Together
Beetle wings and carapaces are a source of inspiration (Biomimicry) for materials in 3D printers. (Photo: Wikicommons)
Biomimicry and 3D Printing: Is That An Insect You're Wearing?
One of my greatest inspirations and passions in life is a field of science called biomimicry. When people hear the term for the first time they usually think of animals or insects "mimicking" a plant or animal through camouflage, like a moth blending into tree bark. Biomimicry is more than this. It is a combination of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering which looks to nature as a teacher to solve modern human design challenges. This is based on the idea that nature has had millions of years to work out design problems through evolutionary trial and error, using only naturally occurring and biodegradable materials. Biomimicry places value on the inherent wisdom and information that nature possesses, as opposed to what can be harvested, collected, or extracted from nature. The reason I like this field is because it brings together biologists, scientists, engineers, researchers, designers, those who make materials, design products, chemists, and more all to the same table, and all looking at nature differently. But how are biomimicry and 3D printing coming together?
Women: Biology of Cold Hands and Feet
Vintage postcard of a girl in winter. (Photo: Flicker sharing Cheryl Hicks)
Why Our Digits Are So Cold!
As the weather cools and the thermostats go up, a major distinction starts to arise between those who feel cold, and those who tend to run warm, and usually (though there are always exceptions) there's a major difference between the sexes. Guys, how many times have you been nice and warm, only to have your wife, girlfriend, or partner snuggle up and place her icy digits on you? Ladies, how nice is it to find that nice warm guy and just rest your icy numb fingers on him to warm up? Do you constantly deal with thermostat battles for how hot or cold it should be in the house? There is a clear reason why women get cold hands and feet, that's right, biology.
Let's face it, men and women are built differently, and there are some key differences in our physiology (From the US Army Institute of Environmental Medicine):
Three Sisters Gardening: Nutrition and Culture
An example of a Three Sister's garden (Photo: Sarah Braun Flicker Sharing).
The cultural and nutritional qualities of the Three Sisters
Guest Post: Anne Little Wolf with Karen McDonald
You may never have heard of the Three Sisters, but they are a part of most of our everyday lives, and as we enter the fall season you see them everywhere. The "sisters" consist of maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and squash (Cucurbita pepo). These three plants were staple crops of many of the Northeast Native American tribes in the late prehistoric and historic periods. Evidence for these crops dates back to Central and South America, with histories in the more recent North American Southwest, Plains, and Eastern North America. They were transported to Europe, and Africa, where they are eaten and grown together, much as Native Americans still do in this country.
How Many Eyes Does A Spider Have to Help It See?
Jumping Spider eye close-up (Photo: Thomas Shahan Flicker sharing).
Spider Eye Counting
The short answer, it depends. For those of you who don't like spiders, I can see that getting up close and personal enough to count their eyes might be a bit daunting, that's why I'm writing this blog post. Spiders are amazing, and diverse, as well as being very beneficial for you and local ecosystems. To understand their eyes you have to understand their lifestyle. Here's a quick primer:
The Myth of Monarch Migration
Monarchs in Pacific Grove California (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Do They Really Travel That Far?
Right now, Autumn, is the time of Monarch Butterfly migration. You can see monarchs languidly gliding on the cool fall air against a backdrop of colorful leaves and scattered pumpkins. When I lived along the coasts of Delaware I loved to see the monarchs cross the dunes on fall winds. This brings me to one of the most common misconceptions about monarch migration, which is that it's one butterfly that makes the entire trip North and South for migration.
Teaching Climate Change through Prehistoric Leaves
Leaves Tell the Story of Climate Change
In a previous post I provided a list of climate change resources for those interested in knowing more about climate change, and for those who may be needing resources for teaching about it. In today's post I want to share with you another great resource.
One of my favorite types of lessons, in and out of the classroom, involves real world applied science, which integrates fields that might once have seemed diametrically opposed. The folks in Smithsonian Education have created a wonderful lesson plan all about the research of Scott Wing, an SI paleontologist, whose work focuses on paleobotany, climate change, and leaf-margin analysis of fossil leaves from about 55 million years ago. This is a free curriculum, complete with lessons and background materials, that can be found online. It's aimed at middle school students, though it could be adapted for high school.
Ugly Animals of North America: It's Time to Celebrate Ugly
California condor (Photo: Wiki commons).
Ugly Animal Gallery
Sometimes it's fun to just go off the rails and post something completely different. Today, I bring you a gallery of under appreciated animals of North America. Some may call them ugly, but they are all an important part of their relative ecosystems.
However, there's no getting around the fact that these critters won't win a beauty contest. I did have to make some tough choices here, but I went mostly with animals that I would think of as "ugly" and not scary or frightening. If I missed any, feel free to e-mail me!
Animal Skull ID: Identifying Animal Skulls By Their Teeth
Canine skull with clear carnassial and canine teeth (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Animal Skull Dentition
In my previous post about animal skulls I provided you with some basic animal skull identification resources, but in this post I want to help you begin to narrow down what type of animal skull you might have found. The easiest way to start is by looking at the teeth of of the skull. If the teeth are present, this is easiest, though you can sometimes muddle through by looking at the skull if only the tooth sockets remain. It's also helpful if you have both jaws available,(upper and lower mandibles) though it's not required. Often one or the other is enough to help you.
Corn Husk Dolls and Play: A Fall Craft
Corn husk doll (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Corn Husks Offer an Inexpensive Fall Tradition
Guest Post Writer: Anne Littlewolf
As the fall approaches, and corn crops are coming in, this is a timely post. Thanks for author Anne Littlewolf for this fun and whimsical guest post.
There is an old saying that the more complex the mind, the more important the need to play. This is probably one of the truest axioms of our world and so let's look at some of the traditions and treasures of toys and playing. In this post we will revisit the incredibly versatile corn, which you can read more about kernels and ears of corn in our previous post, and see that this amazing plant offers even more than just good nutrition. ...continue reading
How Birds Prepare to Migrate
Migrating birds flying in formation (Photo: Wiki commons).
Bird Physiology as Birds Prepare to Migrate
Fall is just around the corner (though according to some stores Christmas is already here and we should be planning for Valentine's Day!) and as the weather turns cooler our feathery friends begin to depart on their migrations to the South. Bird migration has been studied extensively, from beginning to end, though we're just now really starting to make heads or tails of how it all happens. Birds can do such amazing feats of travel and navigation and no one quite knows how. For me, the question has never been about why the birds migrate, it seems pretty obvious that cold and lack of food is not conducive to creatures that can weigh mere ounces and need insects, nectar, or protein to survive. I've always wondered why it was that male birds wanted to beat the snot out of each other for three months (in Spring and Summer), calling, threats and warnings, and then suddenly they are buddies with the birds next door and can fly south with everyone else in big flocks. So, I did a little digging to find out.
Identifying Common Insect Bites and Stings
A bee with its mandibles and sucking mouth parts. (Photo: Karen McDonald)
Answering Questions About Spider & Insect Bites and Stings
When I take groups into the woods, along the shores, or into the field, invariably we have to deal with bug bites. One of the most common questions I get is, "What does a spider bite look like?" or "How can I tell what bit me?" It's a tough question to answer, but I'll try to provide you with some basics of what to look for.
There are more insects and invertebrates on Earth than any other living creatures, thus it becomes difficult to specifically classify how they all behave, and how they interact with humans, in part because it varies by where you are, the temperament of the creature, the invertebrates physical make-up, your physical chemistry, etc. However, there are a few commonalities you can look for.
NOTE: I am not a medically trained doctor, so please take the materials below as general advice and guidelines, and seek professional treatment if you have been bitten or stung, and you need assistance.
First, Not All Things That Bite And Sting Are Insects
Remember, all insects have three body parts and six legs. This means that not all invertebrates that bite are insects. This is true of spiders, which have two body parts and eight legs, as well as ticks, chiggers, scorpions, and leeches.
Facts about the Moons and Its Optical Illusion
A composite photo of the moon from NASA.
Teaching materials and fun facts about the moon
As an Educator, working in the field, or looking to fill conversation, I frequently turn to subjects that are close at hand. Often it's cumbersome to carry objects on a trail, you can't always find certain plants or animals when you need them (a general rule of thumb), and sometimes you just need to keep people's minds busy to avoid kids wandering off, people losing attention, or just "losing" your audience all together. One of the constants you can always talk about, especially at dawn, dusk, or for evening programs is the Moon. No matter where you are in the world, there it is. On top of this, the new Next Generation Science Standards have a strong component of space literacy too. Specifically they are targeting 1st and 5th grades, middle school, and high school. This program includes determining phases of the moon and determining distances in space. In this blog post we'll explore some quick moon facts, a fun exercise in proportion and size, and I'll provide you with some books and lesson plans that I like for teaching about the moon.