10 Science and Nature Experiments to do While at Home

A close up macro picture of a dandelion.


Finding Science Around Your Home

As I write I'm stuck inside, because of COVID 19, much like children and adults everywhere. Home schooling has become the norm, but mostly on the computer. As an outdoor educator I'm struggling to find nature myself (while limiting outside time), and also missing teaching students and visitors. So I decided to write about science and nature experiments that you can do at home.

What exactly is an experiment? 

I love etymology, so let's look at the word "experiment". It comes from the Latin "experimentum", from "experiri" which means to try. When scientists get a hold of the word it becomes, "A scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact." That sounds dry and so unfun that you almost want to choke. When you're at home and working with kids, I like the words "try" or "discovery" best. However, for older students especially it's a good practice to make educated guesses. I think too much emphasis is put on younger students doing "real" science and not just exploring and understanding the foundations of their world first. But that's my soap box....

Let's get to the meat of science experiments of kids.  Here is a list of experiments for today's blog:

  1. MICRO WORLD-Using clip-on lenses and smart phones to magnify nature
  2. KITCHEN SCIENCE-Using clip-on lenses and smart phones for kitchen science exploration
  3. NATURE OBSERVATION- Nature scavenger hunt walk & photo Journey
  4. SOUNDS- Soundscaping your home
  5. BOTANY- Seed sock walk
  6. BIRD SOUNDS-Bird sound identification (inside and out)
  7. ANIMAL BEHAVIOR- Studying ants & making ants (or termites) march in a circle
  8.  ANATOMY- Human or animal anatomy chalk drawing
  9. BALANCE- Make a nature mobile from found objects
  10. SINKING AND FLOATING- Build a twig boat

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Identifying A Baby Owl

Baby great horned owl. (Photo: Owl Moon Raptor Center, https://www.facebook.com/owlmoonraptorcenter/, please donate to help rehabilitate local birds!)

Baby Owl ID

I sometimes get called to help with the rescue of injured owls and birds of prey. Many times it's a case of a baby owl or hawk that is on the ground and perfectly fine. When babies are "branching" or stretching their wings, flapping, and learning to fly, they can fall from trees. The parents are watching and continuing to feed the baby owl or hawk, but you usually don't see them, and often (if given time) the fledgling is perfectly capable of climbing back to the nest or into a tree. It's when concerned people see them, and want to intervene, when owl-napping occurs. To that end, I wanted provide a quick guide to what baby owls look like, and their adult form, so that you can recognize them and talk about them to a wildlife officer or helper. If you are concerned then please call a wildlife rehabilitator right away.   DON'T WAIT FOR HOURS OR DAYS to call for assistance!!   I've gone to more than one house where people "watched" the injured or baby owl for two days, and then it died right when we got there. Tragically we could have offered it help if we'd been called sooner.   Don't be an owl-napper, but if you're concerned then make sure the scene is safe for the baby, take a picture, and call for help.

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Silverfish in Your House

Silverfish adult.

Silvery Silverfish and Nocturnal Munchies

If you're like me, you get up in the middle of the night to either go to the kitchen to grab a bite, or hit the bathroom. Now, usually I avoid turning on the light, but sometimes you just have to. It's then that you see the quick silvery flashes of insects moving like those dragons you see at the Chinese New Year, back and forth scuttling quickly for their lives. Those are silverfish (Lepisma saccharina), and in this post we'll explore exactly what silverfish are, why people don't really like them, and a few ideas for helping secure your home from them.

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River Otter Poo-pori of Facts

North American river otter (Lontra Canadensis): Photo- Publicdomainpictures.net)

Things You Didn't Know You Wanted to Know About River Otter Poop

Working with kids and the public it's hard to stay away from topics that make people go "eww" and get grossed out, because it grabs their attention. Now that's not to say that all of my program include poop, but there's something about scat or poo that helps people draw comparisons to themselves and find connection (if not humor) in nature's potty-paws.  I'm fortunate enough to live in an area with active population of river otters (Lontra canadensis). Most of you are probably familiar with the cute and fuzzy sea otters of the West Coast of the US, but the river otter of the Eastern seaboard and inland spaces is sleek and fun too. In this post I want to introduce you to ten facts about river otters and their poop, because poop plays a central role in a river otter's social life, and their social life centers around pooing.

A single otter poop is called a "spraint" like a "spraint" ankle. A place where there are multiple spraints is called a latrine.

Latrines are the social hubs for otters. When you're a medium sized mammal (3-4' long or smaller) then you have to weigh the cost/benefit of hanging around in big social groups. Sure, you could "chat more" with your friends, and get help fishing, but you'd also be competing for resources too (from female otters to food). This is why otters poo in latrines. The latrines act like the world-wide-web for otters, it's a communication in stinky that keeps them up to date on the neighbors and allows them to live alone (like most female river otters) or in small groups (like most male otters), while being in a larger community. There is some debate in the river otter world about whether or not otters are territorial, so spraints are really more communal than purely territorial.

This is an example of a bit older otter spraint, usually they are a touch darker grey but this one has been outside a week or so (Photo: K. McDonald)

Spraints contain a lot of information.

It is known that otters can differentiate their own poo smells, that of others, and the estrus state of females (if she's breeding or not). These poo-grams are also thought to convey information about who is in the "hood," and their health as well. Not only do otters spread fecal-facts but they also rub at the sites, leaving behind scent and smell as well. Green and Monick, Journal of Ethology, found that otters actually spend more time, standing, sniffing, and rubbing at spraint sites than just pooing.

Otter's don't just make spraints, they also make "anal jelly." 

We're not talking about the canning kind of jelly here, we're talking full on stinky intestinal lining. Otter anal jelly is not the kind of jelly you're thinking of either. It's thought to be the shedding of the intestinal lining of the otter, along with some undigested bits of food, and anal secretions to add some aroma. Anal jelly is usually not the same color of spraints, and it has a jelly-like consistency. The anal jelly I've seen is usually white or tan, and makes a stinky puddle. these jelly filled poos are also found at latrines, and scientists use them to harvest DNA for studies of individual otters. It's easier to get DNA from stomach lining than from poop. Yes, scientists have studied this (for European otters mostly) and you can read all about it here.

Otter anal jelly (Photo: K. McDonald)

River otters sometimes dance when they poo. 

One of the rituals that river otters are known for is something called the "otter poop dance." Yes, it's a real thing. I'll share a video below, you can also find several on Youtube. I've not found any good reason for this ritual, but it makes me laugh.


We can learn a lot about what an otter eats from its poo. 

There is a world of information that otters can get from each other's poo, but scientists find it useful too. Here are just a few ways scientists can:

  • Tell what a river otter eats and what is in season (from crayfish to crabs and fish to ducks)
  • Age the fish that the otters eat by counting the rings on the fish scales (like tree rings), this gives an idea of the age of the populations of fish they are eating, and their health
  • Estimate river otter populations by sampling DNA, looking at frequency of the spraints being laid down and how fresh they are
  • Track the estrus cycles of female otters and when they are ready to breed
  • Monitor fission-fusion events in otter populations, this is fancy science speak for when groups of otters come together to be social, and when they break up into smaller groups to hunt and forage. Fission-fusion events have implications on disease rates, information transfer, and the change in group dynamics (who goes to hang out with whom).

Yes, there is a protocol for cleaning otter spraints to get this information, it involves dish soap, shaking, sieving, and baking (to kill off parasites/bugs), but it's surprisingly not as smelly as you may think. In our region the spraints are mostly made up of fish scales and a few duck feathers, with crabs thrown in during the warmer months. These aren't so smelly with the flesh removed by the otter by its digestive system.

Fish bones and scales from a river otter spraint (Photo: K. McDonald)

Spraints can also tell us about the health of an otter.

Studies about European otters showed that in one project over 36% had Toxoplasma gondii, which comes from domestic cats. A study by researchers at UC Davis in California found the same issue, sea otters were also infected by the single celled parasite Toxoplasma (also called Toxoplasmosis), which comes from runoff from the land. Otters found near heavy freshwater flows from land are 3x more likely to be infected than those not near freshwater flows. This is thought to be a major contributing factor to the decline in sea otter populations in the region.

River otter spraints can also have other parasites too, ranging from different types of nematodes to trematodes (worms, don't worry about the names, just flat or round). Where I work we've found lots of long round-worms in the spraints, possibly trematodes, or worms that live in mollusks and whose life cycle requires mammal guts and later a snail for reproduction (nature is so weird and cool).

Nematodes or worms found in otter spraint (Photo: K. McDonald)

Otter latrines are geographically specific. 

Otters, like people, like to hang out in conspicuous places (at least to them). After all, you want to leave your poo-pori laden stink at the place where there are the most otters. To find otter latrines scientists did a bit of work trying to figure out what makes a latrine site just about as desirable to otters as malls to teenagers. Typically otters like to mark in areas of high traffic, where either trails or water bodies intersect, and areas that are fairly undisturbed by people as well as easy to watch from for predators. These areas are different depending on if you're studying in inland Colorado or the Chesapeake Bay. For us it's floating docks and finger piers. Knowing where otters like to be social, and spraint can help researchers study them. There are whole papers on multivariate statistical analysis of potential otter latrine sites (if you're looking for some light bedtime reading).

Spraints could be used to track other local carnivores. 

Let's face it, if you're a giant carnivore researcher tracking bears and pumas, wouldn't it be easier not to have to chase after them, trap them, tag them, etc.? Well, there may be an easier way, you got it, otter poop! Scientists in New Jersey used camera traps located at otter latrines to see if they could capture images of other carnivores that might be drawn to the spot by the smell. They found that all sorts of animals were drawn to the traps:

"....the overall carnivore detection frequency was 3.5 times greater at latrines, and the detection frequencies for red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), northern raccoons (Procyon lotor), river otters, mink (Neovison vison), long-tailed weasels (Mustela frenata), and Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) were greater at latrines. American black bears (Ursus americanus) and eastern coyotes (Canis latrans) where detected more frequently at non-latrines. Our study provides evidence that placement of camera traps at otter latrines may serve as a new and novel approach for monitoring carnivore populations in riparian areas (Wagnon and Serfass, Ecology 2016)."

Can you spot the fox visiting this latrine? (Photo: K. McDonald)

Bet you didn't know there was a lot to learn from river otter scat. Regardless of whether or not you find poo to be too disgusting to deal with, or you find it funny to joke about, it's a real tool for researchers. When you're out and about, along rivers or lakes, keep an eye out for otter spraints, and see if you can tell what they have been eating, and who has been visiting.

Just because it's fun, here's another otter poop dance (4 minutes of otter poop dance fun).




Spiny Spiders of Fall

Spiny Micranthena (Micrathena gracilis) (Photo: K. McDonald)

What is that Spiny Spider?

There's magic to fall, and the cycles that ramp up (or down) before the cold. You'll start to see all sorts of animals scurrying around caching nuts, humming birds stocking up on nectar, and general mayhem before the birds depart on their way south. To me, there are three signs that fall is coming:

  1. Black gum tree leaves change their color (they're the first to turn red, along with poison ivy)
  2. Fungus starts popping up everywhere
  3. Spider webs smack you in the face constantly on the trail and you have to dodge spiny spiders.

This leads me to helping you identify those pesky spiders that you're dodging on the trails in fall.

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What do Dragonflies Eat?

Dragonfly (Photo: Karen S. McDonald)

A Story of Prehensile Jaws, Butt Propulsion, and Biting Mouth Bits

Dragonflies are one of those creatures that people love and hate. They show up on Memaw's knitted sweater, baby onesies, wine glasses, and summer napkins, but when it comes to actually seeing them in the wild many people cringe. They're fast moving, multi-winged, and bug-eyed creatures that look like aliens. Two of the most common questions I get asked  is "Do dragonflies bite?" and "What do dragonflies eat?" In this blog we'll cover both questions, and the extraordinary world of dragonfly feeding, from prehensile jaws to mandibles.

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Do Carpenter Bees Sting? 

The Answer is Yes and No.

Starting in spring bees and wasps begin to appear and I can always tell that people are concerned because my posts on "What Bit Me?" gets a lot more traffic. I completely understand  fear and phobia of bees, ranging from concerns of severe allergies to those that have watched horror movies. As a former bee keeper though, I truly love and respect bees. One of my most favorite types of bees are the carpenter bees (here in Maryland we have Xylocopa virginica). Yes, they can be destructive; yes, they are big; and yes they can be scary, but when you really study them they're quite interesting. So, on to the question, "Do carpenter bees sting?" And more importantly what should I do around them?

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What Big Moth Might This Be?

Image result for cecropia moth
Cecropia Moth (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Charlie Kellogg)

Identifying Big Moths of the Eastern US

Around this time of year I find a lot of moth cocoons and newly emerging moths at night. I thought it would be a good time to review some of the big moths that you may find in the Eastern US, and what they look like.

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What is a Cashew? Nut, Fruit, or Something Else? 

Cashew nuts (Photo: Wiki Commons, see attribution)

Unraveling the Mystery of the Cashew Nut

Most people know about the fact that a tomato is really a fruit and not a vegetable. In your science class you probably learned that fruits come from the ovaries of plants and bear seeds, while vegetables are all the other parts of plants (stems, roots, leaves, etc.). There are foods that continually  get mis-categorized, and that's especially true of nuts. In this  post I will explain what a cashew nut is, and why it's not truly a nut.

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How Many Knees Does a Spider Have?

Female jumping spider, look at those legs! (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Spider Knees in the Know

I had a reader e-mail me for a 10 year old student who wanted to know exactly how many knees a spider has.  If you Google the answer you get a web page that is aimed at kids and has the wrong answer as the first choice. This always infuriates me because they offer an easy, off-the-cuff quick answer that requires absolutely no thought or research. I hate it when people play down to kids and don't do the work required to give an accurate answer. So here's my answer.

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Countercurrent Exchange in Nature

Mallards on ice (By Proch (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

or "Why Ducks Don't Wear Mucklucks"

Have you ever looked at a duck swimming in icy water and wondered how they do that without wearing dive booties? Or have you ever looked at a squirrel sitting in snow calmly eating seeds and wondered why it's not racing for the nearest heated mani-pedi spa? All animals have unique adaptations for dealing with cold, ranging from boosted fat stores to growing extra feathers and double coated fur, but some animals have developed something called "countercurrent exchange." It's a trait that animals who are active in extreme conditions have converged upon as a way to deal with hot and cold temperatures, especially in snow, ice, cold water, and even tropical rain forests.

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Wild Foods for Wildlife in Rehab

Collecting and sorting wild foods (Photo: K. McDonald)

How You Can Help Wildlife

When I walk I graze, I can't help it. I love looking for wild foods to munch on or smell.  It's a lot fun to introduce students and adults to the bounty of nature that is all around them if they learn how to look. The other part to that is how to identify plants that are safe to snack on.  At a recent conference I was made aware of how I could benefit more than just myself when I'm out there hiking around.  Bear with me as I shift topics, but this will all make sense shortly.

As an apprentice wildlife rehabilitator I've always known that it's important to provide foods and stimulation for the animals that come into our care.  Using foods that are as close as possible to their natural foods and environments as possible is really important.   Until now I've stumbled around using prescribed diets, field guides, and books that could help us approximate those foods. I've pulled worms from compost for rails, to make mud-pie bowls of crawly goodness, and I've picked poke-weed for an impatient grackle, and I've cut oak leaves for squirrels to make nests (called dreys) in their hammocks. Wild food was one of those question marks for me, because I didn't want to bring anything into the center that wasn't safe, and I also wasn't always sure how to prepare it. (Is there a recipe for grubs and worms?)   That's where this fun new website comes in.  It's  called Wild Foods4Wildlife at wildfoods4wildlife.com. The founder, Kate Guenther, is a wildlife rehabilitator who spoke at a recent conference in Virginia. I found her website interesting and very helpful, so I thought I'd share it with you.

If you're not convinced how happy food makes captive wild animals, then watch this video (yes, they really do smack that loudly when eating, especially mice):

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Sanguivores: Nature's Blood Drinkers

Oxpecker bird, which is a sanguivore (blood drinker) (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Derek Keats)

12 of the Most Interesting

Let's face it, there are a lot of ways to eat and be eaten in the animal kingdom. Feeding ranges from the sponge-like mouth parts of flies to the flat molar-like chompers of clam-eating fish like black drum. If an animal or plant exists in the world, then something feeds in or on it. This is true of animals that drink blood, also called sanguivores (sang-wa-vors). Another word for this is hermatophagy (pronounced her- mat-oh-fay-gee). Any time you see the term "--phagy" at the end of a word it means "eating". Herma comes from the Greek word "haima" or "blood" and phagein or "to eat." For today's post I want to share with you the world of sanguivores or blood drinkers. There are more than you think, and even though you may already be squirming in your seat at the though, keep an open mind. Blood is little more than water with easily digestible proteins, lipids (fats), and nutrients. To humans blood is super taboo, and gross, we see blood as "disgusting" because we're taught that it's full of diseases and should only be seen in horror films. However, in nature blood is something not to be wasted or ignored. It's the "water of life" for some animals. Here are 12 of the most interesting.

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Red Velvet Ants or Cow Killer Ants

Velvet Ant (Photo: Mary Kiern Flicker Sharing)

It's Really a Wasp

Working outside, and in Education, I often get queries and questions about things people find in their yards or sidewalks. This week was no different, one of the researchers where I work messaged me asking about a big red fuzzy ant that has a black stripe on it. This fuzzy visitor is quite common in the Eastern US so it was an easy ID, but I thought it worth doing a post to introduce you to some quick facts about red velvet ants, also called cow killers, and their relatives. Most species of velvet ants are found in the southern and western parts of North America, and there are over 50 species in Florida alone,

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Pneumatic Bones: Bones that Breathe

Penguin skeleton (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Pneumatic Bones in Birds and You

As a birder and naturalist  I love it when I learn new information that not only helps me understand the avian world but also my own, thus the post this week. Most of us learned long ago that birds have hollow bones. We learned in grade school that it helps the birds be lighter so that they can fly. However, there's something more to unpack in the story that I think is pretty neat, they can breathe with those hollow bones.

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Get kids to drink water (Photo: Maxpixel)

Get Kids To Drink by Transforming Alcoholic Drinking Games into Kid-Friendly Ones

This post is a bit off the main track of what I usually do, but it's very critical to the field I work in: outdoor education. I teach students of all ages, in all weather, and I find that one of the things that children (and adults) forget to do is drink water. Never mind the fact that it's a struggle just to get visitors just to bring water (4 oz bottles don't count), drinking water is even tougher when there are exciting things to do and see outside with our guides. However, it's critical to keep everyone hydrated. If you want to get kids to drink water it can be challenging to keep their attention. To this end I have put together a list of fun games that you can play with large or small groups of people to get them to drink water. Most of these have been converted from traditional alcoholic drinking games to kids-friendly versions.

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Wolf Spider Facts and Pictures

Wolf spider (Hogna Lenta) (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Is it Really the Big Bad Wolf?

Have you ever been out with friends, and you see a big hairy spider and someone yells, "wolf spider!"? Now the thing is, there are lots and lots of big brown spiders out there (and "big" is relative to how much you hate spiders too). Wolf spiders are the ones that have a bad reputation because they're big and brown and easy to see, and they have a fierce sounding name so people remember them. If they were called "floofy brown Betsies" or "hairy teddy bears" then most folks would probably just chalk them up to big brown things that happen to saunter through now and again.  But no...a biologist long ago thought that wolf spiders hunted like wolves, in packs, and they named the family "Lycosidae." This comes from the Greek "lycosa" meaning wolf. Any time you see an "a" after a Greek name it means the critter is a predator, it eats meat. In the case of spiders, bugs and other small creatures, this particular family name is misleading because wolf spiders the world around are really solitary and don't like hunting in packs. They do pounce on prey but not quite like a wolf does. So let's get down to some real wolf spider facts and pictures.

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5 Quick Facts about the Luna Moth

Luna moth adult (Photo: Flicker Sharing pdbreen)

Luna Moth Facts 

This time of year there is a fun abundance of moths and insects flying around at night, and often hanging on buildings during the day. One such popular moth in our region is the luna moth (Actias luna). Luna moths are the charismatic megafauna of the moth world. They're big and flashy and easy to spot, as well as being quite harmless. In honor of these beauties, and the summer nights, here are ten interesting facts about luna moths.

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Montem Trekking Pole Review, Ultra Z Folding Model

Hiking with the Montem Ultra Z folding trekking poles (Photo: K. McDonald)

Trekking Poles That Work

In a previous article I wrote about Why You Should Use Walking Poles to Hike, because they are great tools for all ages, and they help with burning calories, provide stability, and aid in endurance . I still strongly believe that walking or trekking poles are a wonderful tool to use  and that's why I agreed to do a review of the Montem Ultra Z Folding Trekking Pole. You may remember that I mentioned this small start-up outdoor company in my previous post. You can  read all about Montem on their home page here.  I also want to take you on a journey of how to consider the different features and materials that you should consider when examining a trekking pole, using these as an example.

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Opossums Eat Ticks and Help Humans

Baby opossums (Photo: Flicker Sharinng,by Cryptozoo)

Why Opossums Get Ticked-off

Let's face it, ticks are one of those creatures that everyone hates. Even I, the biggest nature nugget of them all, hate ticks. They're flat and creepy and they invade the private moist areas of the human body that only my doctor and I should have access to. As if that's not enough, they bury their mouth parts in our skin, latch on, and suck our life-blood all while possibly transferring diseases. This creates a real ick factor that keeps many people out of the woods altogether.  However, there is some hope, namely because there is a cadre of creatures that eat ticks. There are the usual suspects of beetles, ants, centipedes, and other generalist eaters that wipe out ticks, but this list also includes chickens and ground fowl such as guinea birds and bobwhites. There's even an African bird called an oxpecker, which lives in sub-Saharan Africa that eats ticks off water buffalo and other hoofed animals (and who doesn't love that name!?). Well, since we're short on oxpeckers here in the Eastern US we have to rely on another creature to help us out, namely the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

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Introducing the Butterfly Proboscis (Snoot, Sippy Straw & Sponge)

Butterfly tongue (Flicker Sharing: Thomas Quine)

How Butterflies Get Their Fluids

I think I have a form of nature attention deficit disorder because I get so easily distracted by anything in the natural world. In meetings I'm focusing on the sparrows outside my window and and analyzing their flock structure. At restaurants I'm looking at moths flying around lights and trying to identify them. I can't help it, it's what I do. Thus, while sitting on a dock watching the sunrise I noticed a butterfly probing a fairly fresh pile of scat that the morning's inhabitants had left. It sat there for a long time, probing with its long tongue and "dung sipping" (yes, there is a term called "dung sipping" that scientists use, makes for a great insult to other entomologists). Butterflies also can be found sipping carcasses and dead things too (so much for a butterfly's beauty eh?.."corpse sipper" anyone?). Here's a picture of what I observed:

Swallowtail butterfly drinking from dung (Photo: K. McDonald).

Most people that I meet think that when a butterfly visits a flower that it's using its tongue to sip nectar. This is what happens, but the butterfly's tongue is more like a combination sponge and sippy straw instead of just a straw. Let's start with the correct sciency terms for you to stash for future garden parties.....

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What Exactly are Raptorial Claws?

Rainbow mantis shrimp (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Raptorial Claws 101

I love random bits of nature trivia. I store them away like nuts in a chipmunk larder, to be taken out and paraded around when the right situation occurs. The term "raptorial claw" is one that most people will sort of know what it means, but not really, so for today's blog post a short introduction to my shiny chipmunk term of the day.

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What's the Difference Between Moles, Voles, and Shrews?

Eastern mole (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Dave GovoniL)

A Quick Chart and Guide

I hate it when the first online search results for any creature involves their death and killing, and moles, voles, and shrews are no exception. This post will walk you through the differences between these three distinct types of animals that show up in yards but that are often confused and misunderstood. I won't give you management information here, that's up to you, but at least this will help you understand the animals you may be living around and with.

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Using a Trail Camera (Home and Classroom)

Great blue heron on trail camera (Photo: McDonald)

Wildlife Watching Unobtrusively

I find it a personal challenge to give gifts that will be meaningful and used well beyond the occasion when the gift was given. This Christmas I decided to buy a trail camera for my partner. In all fairness I thought it might be a good family gift too, mainly because I work in environmental education and I was also excited to see how one works and the potential use for educational programs or observations. What follows is a short article on my observations and suggestions for personal or educational uses of a trail camera (or multiple cameras).

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Five Animals that Evert Their Stomachs

Crown of thorns
Crown of thorns starfish (Photo: Wiki Commons).

It's Stomach Turning!

I didn't really plan on writing about stomach eversion until I began researching how owls form pellets and I ran across some interesting information about frogs and their ability to burp up their entire stomachs. I started to follow this thread of research and thought I'd share with you information about stomach eversion in five different animals that I found absolutely fascinating.  You'll probably never really use this information at polite cocktail gatherings but will make for great "one up" gross stories while drinking beer with friends.

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What Does the Woolly Bear Caterpillar do in Winter?

graftedno1 flicker sharing
Woolly Bear Caterpillar (Photo: Graftendno1, Flicker Sharing).

How the Woolly Bear Caterpillar Survives the Cold

Have you ever wandered around a parking lot, sidewalk, or trail in the fall and seen a Wooly Bear caterpillar? They're the familiar fuzzy orange and black caterpillars that everyone dodges stepping on and that kids love to pick up and play with.

SeabrookeLeckie flicker sharing
Adult male Isabella Tiger Moth (Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, Flicker Sharing).

These fuzzy wee beasties are technically called the "Banded Woolly Bear" and they are the larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The adult moth isn't very striking. It has golden-brown wings. They also have faint darker brown lines on their wings and the females have a pinkish-orange hind wing. The nice thing is that the caterpillar isn't a crop pest and mostly feeds on common deciduous forest trees such as elm, ash, low growing herbs, and other forest plants (they're not very picky and tend to sat away from gardens).


Now most people have heard the myth that the woolly bear caterpillar can predict winter's length and intensity based on how much black is on them or how big the orange band is around their middle. This is really an old wives tale because as the caterpillar grows, during each molt (or shedding of its skin) the fuzzy black tips become less and less pronounced and the orange band grows. So, the caterpillar color barometer is really subjective based on which one you found and what molt phase it's in.  Not very reliable if you ask me.

Adult woolly bear caterpillar (Photo: Wiki Commons)

So, seeing all those fuzzy cute woolly bear caterpillars got me to thinking and wondering, if they don't predict winter, what exactly do they do to over-winter? Where do they go? How do they survive? Seeing as they can't crawl very far they have to have some strategy to make it through freezing conditions. After all they are found all the way from the Arctic to North America and Mexico.

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The Bold Jumping Spider

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Bold jumping spider (Photo: Flicker sharing, Tibor Nagy)

Little Spider, Big Attitude

I'll admit it, I'm a big fan of little spiders, especially little wee hairy ones with big attitudes. That's why I wanted to feature the bold jumping spider Phidippus audax (say it with me, fid-DIP-us Ow-dax) for today's post. The name alone says it all, they're small spiders, about the size of those removable pencil erasers on mechanical pencils (6-13 mm), but they've got attitude enough for a mega-spider.

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Meet the Bess Beetle

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Bess beetle (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Cotinis)

Real Singing Beetles

Have you ever been digging in the garden or your flower bed and come across a HUGE grub or large black beetle? If you've ever spent any time digging around outside or under logs in the Eastern US (or Midwest) then you've probably encountered our guest beetle for today, the Bess beetle or Bess bug . Their Latin name is Odontotaenius disjunctus (O-don-tote-a-knee-us dis-junk-tus). Odon means "tooth" and taeni means "band" or "ribbon". This refers to the bands of teeth on their bodies (abdomen and wings) that they use to make sound. Dis refers to "separate", "double" or "two", and junc refers to a "rush" or "reed". This may reference that they sound like rushes or reeds rubbed together.

Bess beetle (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Bess beetles are one of the largest beetles you can find (1.2-1.6" long) and can be quite startling. Their backs look like shiny patent-leather dress shoes with legs (there's an image for you). Their bellies have golden hairs and their head has a single horn. Bess beetles are in the scarab super-family (Scarabaeoidea), and there are over 500 species around the world. The Bess beetles of North America (Odontotaenius disjunctus) are one of the few scarabs in the US. Look carefully and you can see the characteristic scarab looking club-like antennae on their head.

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Bess beetle (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Cotinis)

The common Bess beetle name probably comes from the the early English term buss meaning "kiss"  or the French term baiser or even une bise, which also means "to kiss." Both sound very close to "Bess."  This name may attributed to the noise that the beetles make when they're startled or feel threatened. It's akin to a "kissy-sound," like what you'd make when making fun of your older brother kissing his girlfriend or the practice smooches you did as a kid in the mirror. The sound is made much like how a cricket makes sound, by rubbing body segments together, a process called stridulation (st-rid-you-lay-shun). Listen to this...

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Common House Spiders Found Around Homes

Common house spider (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Common House Spiders Pictorial Guide (Eastern US)

If you're like my friends then the thought of finding a spider in your house causes an immediate visceral response, least of which would be putting on boots and grabbing the Raid can. I know I can't change most people's minds, but I can at least help you identify the spiders you might find and reassure you that they are (for the most part) harmless and quite beneficial. In today's post I'm going to give you a quick guide to the types of spiders commonly found in and around homes in the Eastern United States. These spiders are often referred to as "common house spiders" but the term "house spider" is a bit misleading, and how common they are depends on where you live and the environment in and around your home.

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Jellyfish Stings and How To Treat them

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Sea nettle (Photo: Baltimore Aquarium, Flicker Sharing).

Don't Pee on That Arm!

How many comedies have you watched where someone was stung by a jellyfish and the "hero" very selflessly offers to pee on the sting site? It really is just a comedy line, there is no truth in the myth and it can even make things worse! Yes, research as been done on this, and there's a great article in "Scientific American." If you'd like to read it, click here.  For this article I'm going to do two things:     1) Explain what happens when you get stung by a jellyfish and 2) Give you some treatment options.

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