Monday, November 30, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

So here’s my maple tree today. Looks pretty much the same as last week, doesn’t it? Until the ice and snow come, the tree won’t change very much. But that doesn’t mean you should stop reading. There’s still lots to explore and discover.

Today I’ve included a closer photo of the south-southwest side of the tree’s trunk. As you can see, the tree has some hitchhikers. That greenish gray stuff isn’t moss. It’s lichen.

What is lichen? Good question. It’s not a plant. It’s an unusual partnership between two life forms that have been hanging out for millions of years. And both organisms benefit bigtime from living together.

This particular lichen is a combination of a fungus and an alga (plural algae).

Lichen looks greenish because the alga partner contains chlorophyll. Like plants, algae use the chlorophyll to collect energy from sunlight. That energy combines with water and carbon dioxide in the air to make a sugary food called glucose.

A fungus can’t make its own food, but it’s bigger and tougher than algae cells, so it acts like a body guard. It grows around and between algal cells and protects them from the weather and some hungry critters. When algae live in a safe, stable environment, they can grow faster and make more food. So, like I said earlier, both creatures benefit.

Lichen doesn’t just grow on trees. And it isn’t always greenish gray. It can be red or orange or even yellow. If you start looking for lichen, you’ll see it in all kinds of places. So get outside and start exploring.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I’m taking a break to get ready for tomorrow’s festivities and a weekend of family fun. I hope you enjoy your holiday too. It’s a great time to stop and think about everything we’re thankful for.

I’ll be back on November 30.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Good Morning, Maple

From my window, my maple looks about the same as it did last week. But there’s something on it that’s worth a closer look. See the leaf on the left? In front of it is a little pointy thing. That’s a bud. Next spring it will burst open and a brand new leaf will unfurl.
That bud isn’t new. It began forming last July. In New England, trees start growing buds about 9 months ahead of time because that’s when food (made from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide in the air) is plentiful.

Inside its protective sheath, the tiny new leaf will wait out the winter. But there is chance it won’t survive until spring. If there is a warm spell, such as a significant January thaw, the bud might begin to open and then die when the temperature drops. This bud is fortunate to be high off the ground, but buds closer to the ground are the favorite winter fare of hungry deer.

If I climbed to the top of my maple, I’d see buds that look a bit little different. These thicker, more plump buds enclose flowers instead of leaves. Sorry, but I’m not willing to risk life and limb to get a photo of them. If you’d like to see drawings that compare of the two kinds of buds, take a look at Bernd Heinrich’s excellent book Summer World: A Season of Bounty (HaperCollins, 2009).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fun Friday: Take a Look! Contest

I've already received a lot of entries for the Take a Look! contest, but I'm still looking for the perfect answer.

I spotted this rock at Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts. Ask your students what they think caused it to split in half.

Email their answers along with their name, address, and age here by December 1. All correct responses will be entered into a drawing to win an autographed copy of an age-appropriate book.

Have you or your students seen something amazing or unexpected in the natural world? Email me a photo and description and it may be used in a future contest.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Behind the Books: When Topics Choose Me

If you look back at this post from November 4, you might ask whether I really "chose" to write about sea lions. Actually, the topic was sort of thrust upon me by the animal itself. And believe me, that’s not the only time an animal encounter was so thrilling that I couldn’t resist writing about the critter in question.

While researching a book in Costa Rica, I was lucky enough to encounter three different kinds of New World monkeys. And, perhaps not surprisingly, my original book project got put on hold. Those monkeys were just too irresistible.

I didn’t bring an alarm clock on my trip, but it wasn’t a problem. Each morning, the loud, low calls of howler monkeys woke me at the crack of dawn. Near the end of the trip, I was able to see these monkeys at very close range.

As I headed off to breakfast each morning, I often saw spindly spider monkeys swinging through the tree tops, looking for their own morning meal. I saw them foraging again in the late afternoon. In the middle of the day, these smart monkeys take a siesta to avoid the hot sun.

But it was a single tiny capuchin monkey that really captured my heart. One afternoon, I spotted the little guy (or girl) climbing up a tree. It had set its sights on a bright red panchira flower, which it plucked with two fingers and then ate petal by petal. I watched that monkey forage in the forest canopy for nearly three hours. It was amazing.

When I came home, I started researching New World monkeys, and discovered the group was a lot more diverse and complicated that I’d ever imagined. There are more than six different species, from the pygmy marmoset, which is small enough to fit inside a teacup, to the woolly spider monkey, which can weight as much as thirty pounds.

I was hooked. I wrote a proposal, sent it out, and soon enough New World Monkeys became a book.

And what happened to the book I was supposed to be working on in Costa Rica? Well, it’s still not published, but it’s getting there. Right now, it’s scheduled for publication in 2013.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

Last week, when I said the maple tree had lost all its leaves, I was overstating things a bit.

The truth is there are still about thirty leaves left on the tree. Those leaves have turned brown, but I guess their petioles (the little nub where a leaf stem attaches to a tree branch) didn’t get the message that they were supposed to break free.

I wonder how long those leaves will stay on the tree. Guess we’ll find out.

Seeing those last holders-on reminds me of a children’s book I love: The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger Greenwillow, 2008). The story’s protagonist is an oak leaf that hangs onto its tree long after all its friends take the plunge. It feels lonely. Around midwinter, it notices a red oak leaf still attached to a nearby tree. Finally, the two leaves agree to float to the ground together. Lovely story. Amazing art. If you haven’t seen this book, check it out.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  1. Most people pass wind about fourteen times a day and give off enough gas to fill a 1-liter soda bottle.
  • What causes the popping noises you sometimes hear when you fart? The walls of your anus—the hole at the end of your digestive tract—vibrating back and forth. The loudness of the fart depends on how fast the gas rushes out and the tightness of the muscles around your anus.
  • Ever heard the saying: “Whoever smelt it, dealt it”? It’s not true. The farter usually smells the stench last. Because gas blasts away from the culprit’s body, the stinky scent takes a while to reach his or her nose.
  • Some snakes hiss when enemies get too close. Others shake their rattling tails. But Sonoran coral snakes and western hook-nose snakes let out a fart that can be heard from up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) away. That’s enough to spoil any predator’s appetite!
  • How do herring find one another after the sun goes down? They fart. The blasting bubbles of gas sound like a high-pitched raspberry as they shoot though the water. Other herring can hear the noise, but larger fish can’t.
  • Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book Blasts of Gas: The Secrets of Breathing, Burping, and Passing Gas.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Behind the Books: Stealing Ideas

    If you’ve read my last couple of Wednesday posts, you know that many of my book ideas come from things I observe or experience—often in the natural world. But I admit that once I stole an idea.

    Hold on, hold on. I’m no criminal. Here’s the back story.

    A few years ago, my nephew (Shown here with his sisters on Halloween. He's a zombie.) thought insects were way cool. I recommended all kinds of books for him to read, and he gobbled them up (the books, not the insects).

    One day, he asked me for a book about insects “that were still growing up, just like me.” It seemed like a reasonable request, but guess what—I couldn’t find much. That’s when I decided to try to write a book myself.

    But I didn’t tell my nephew. I didn’t want him to be disappointed if the book never happened. That’s why, technically, it was stealing.

    I called my editor, and she liked the idea. So I did some research, developed an outline, wrote a few sample sections, and sent them out. It wasn’t long before I had a signed contract in my hands.

    I could have told my nephew at this point, but I decided not to. I wanted to surprise him. So, technically, it was still stealing.

    When Maggots, Grubs, and More: The Secret Lives of Young Insects came out, I showed it to my nephew. He liked the title. He liked the cover. He like the information. But I didn’t see a little light bulb go off in his brain, and I was a bit disappointed.

    He didn’t even remember asking me for a book about juvenile insects. And while he still liked insects, they were no longer his passion. (After all, two years had passed.)

    But he was thrilled when I told him how I got the idea for the book. In fact, he was stunned that I’d really listened to him, and he was honored that I had taken his idea seriously—and that, just that, made my day.

    Monday, November 9, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    So here it is—the maple tree without any leaves. By Friday, they had all drifted down to the ground. On Saturday, we raked them up. Now the tree is ready for winter.

    But we are having warm, sunny days here. It's supposed to be in the high 60s F today. Imagine that. Nobody told the maple trees, or any of the other trees.

    But winter will be here soon enough. And I think we'll see some suprising changes in my maple tree along the way. Stay tuned. The show isn't over by any means.

    Friday, November 6, 2009

    Friday Fun: Word Search

    Check out this fun and educational word search. It’s a perfect compliment for units on animal classification, animal adaptations, animal communication, as well as predators and prey.

    Interested in more science activity pages? Visit my website.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    Behind the Books: More on Choosing Topics

    The idea for Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses began percolating in my mind while I was in the Galapagos Islands. Here’s an excerpt from the journal I kept during that trip.

    I tightened the strap on my facemask, took a deep breath, and fell backward over the edge of the boat. Down, down, splash! The chilly ocean water stunned my body.

    Even though it was February, I had expected the water to be warmer. After all, I was just off the coast of Floreana, one of the Galapagos Islands. These islands, which straddle the equator, are about 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador.
    After a few minutes, my body adjusted to the water. I dove down and started looking around. Empty shells littered the sandy bottom. Fish with bright stripes, spots, and splotches swam lazily by. What a quiet, peaceful world!
    Suddenly, a strange noise startled me. As I turned toward the sound, my heart began to race. A large, chocolate-colored creature darted toward me at top speed. An instant before impact, the animal altered its course slightly, gliding just inches below my body. I was shocked, but the sea lion was thrilled. It was playing one of its favorite games—chicken.
    My new playmate copied my every move. When I dove, it dove too. And when I turned, the sea lion followed me. Soon, I was out of breath, but the sea lion kept on going. It used its powerful front flippers like oars and steered with its smaller back flippers.

    As the graceful animal flowed effortlessly through the water, it spun in circles and twisted its agile body this way and that. When playtime was over, the sea lion swam to shore and flopped down on the beach.

    Soon, I was out of breath, but the sea lion kept on going. It used its powerful front flippers like oars and steered with its smaller back flippers. As the graceful animal flowed effortlessly through the water, it spun in circles and twisted its agile body this way and that. When playtime was over, the sea lion swam to shore and flopped down on the beach.

    After an experience like that, how could I not write about sea lions and their kin?

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Good Morning, Maple!

    Wow, what a difference a week can make!

    In hindsight, I wish I'd taken a photo of the tree every morning last week. As recently as Friday, about three-quarters of the leaves were still on the tree. But then rain and wind knocked most of them to the ground.

    I wonder if my maple will be totally bare by next Monday. Stay tuned to find out.