6 Feb 2016

The Scoop on Sloth Poop

By Jan Thornhill
Ashley Barron illustration from Kyle Goes Alone
Illustration from Kyle Goes Alone (Illustration: Ashley Barron)
I didn't plan to write a book about pooping sloths—honest, I didn't. What I planned was to write a fairly straight-forward information book about the myriad forms of life that call a rainforest tree "home." I started, as usual, by simply gathering information about likely candidates that I could focus on: snakes; frogs; birds; vines and lianas; insects; fungi; bromeliads and other aerial plants; and, of course, mammals. It was all coming together nicely...but then I hit on sloths.

three-toed sloth Fernando Flores
(Fernando Flores, Wikipedia)

I've always liked sloths, those sleepy-eyed characters that hang upside with goofy grins on their faces, moving unbelievably slowly or not moving at all. I actually emulated sloths in my teens, at least that's what my parents suggested, though they usually just used the word "lazy."  

J.C.D. Schreber, Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur, 1855, sloth
(J.C.D. Schreber, Die Säugthiere in
Abbildungen nach der Natur
, 1855)*

So I started reading about sloths and it wasn't long before I came across the kind of startlingly wonderful information that makes my heart sing: sloths only poop once a week. And why do they only poop once a week? Because sloths really are slow. In fact, not only are they so slow-moving that researchers' motion sensing cameras are sometimes not triggered when they pass, their digestive processes are the slowest of any mammal.

three-toed sloth, Charles Dessalines d'Orbigny, 1849
(Charles Dessalines d'Orbigny, 1849)*

Sloths primarily eat leaves. Tree leaves, particularly thick, long-lasting tropical tree leaves, are not packed with nutrients, nor are they easy to digest since their cell walls are made up of cellulose and lignin—just like a tree's wood, bark and branches. The only way a sloth can digest this tough stuff is with the help of gut bacteria, and this process takes a long time—a single leaf can take a month to travel from one end of a sloth to the other! 

three-toed sloth Schreber, Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur, 1855
(J.C.D. Schreber, Die Säugthiere in
Abbildungen nach der Natur
, 1855)*

I also learned that some sloths add another fascinating bit of behaviour to this slow digestion. Three-toed sloths only poop on the ground, despite the ground being an unbelievably dangerous place to spend time for a creature whose hanging-upsidedown-from-trees anatomy is ill-suited to walking—more than half of all sloth deaths are caused by predation during these weekly excursions. 

three-toed sloth buddha 1776

And then I found this video of baby sloths being "potty trained" at a sloth rescue centre in Costa Rica—just about the cutest thing I've ever seen. And suddenly I wasn't working on the book I thought I was working on anymore. Now I was writing a picture book called Kyle Goes Alone (Owlkids Books, illustrated by the brilliant Ashley Barron), the story of a young sloth's first trip to the ground alone, cheered on by camouflaged rainforest neighbours. I managed to work much of the above sloth poop information into the book, but I didn't have room for the following, even more entertaining information. 

two-toed sloth, Albertus Seba, 18th Century
Two-toed sloth (Albertus Seba, 18th Century)*

Three-toed sloths carry their very own ecosystems in their fur coats. Their hair is grooved, and in the humid rainforests where they live, these grooves are a perfect place for algae to grow, algae that can be plentiful enough in the rainy season that a sloth can appear to be completely green—not a bad colour if you live amongst green leaves. Along with algae, sloth hair also harbours all kinds of fungi, ticks, mites, and insects. Some of the insects are moths that, as adults, live nowhere else other than between the hairs of a sloth's thick coat. Their other life stages—egg, larva, and pupa—are all spent in...drum roll, please...sloth poop.

three-toed sloth, Frederick P. Nodder, 1789
(Frederick P. Nodder, 1789)*

Here's how this works: The adult moths, which have no mandibles, so likely don't eat, hang around on a sloth, seeking out another moth of the opposite sex. Then they do what they're supposed to do, which is procreate. Pregnant females wait until that happy moment when the sloth's weekly urge to "go" drives it slowly down to the ground. Once on the forest floor, the sloth, which often carries around a third of its body weight in waste (imagine!!), uses its tail to carve a little hollow in the ground, then defecates. This is, of course, the moment the female moths are waiting for. They crawl out of the sloth's hair and flutter down to the hard pellets where they lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae have ample food, particularly since they have the advantage of having arrived before any other forest dung-eaters. They eat to their hearts' content and then pupate. When an adult emerges, it flies upwards to search out some sloth fur to take up residence and seek out a potential mate—a sloth that is likely to be the same one its parents lived on since these animals are very fond of certain trees and don't stray far from them.

three-toed sloth, 1889
So what do three-toed sloths get out of this relationship? No one yet knows, but one possibility is that the moths somehow fertilize the algae that grows in the fur, which the sloths in turn might eat to supplement their otherwise poor diets. Unfortunately, no one has observed sloths eating algae from their coats, but it's possible they might do this as night when they are notoriously difficult to observe. 

three-toed sloth, Maximilian Wied, Abbildungen zur  Naturgeschichte Brasiliens, 1822
(Maximilian Wied, Abbildungen zur
Naturgeschichte Brasiliens, 1822)
Other researchers are unconvinced that there is a symbiotic relationship between the moths and the sloths. They think that the sloths' habit of pooping on the ground at the base of their favourite tree is more about communication and procreation with other sloths, especially since a female in oestrus will go down to the ground every day. If this is true, the moths might just be opportunistically hitching rides on sloths so they can be "delivered" to the poop their offspring need to survive. 

Ashley Barron cover illustration, Kyle Goes Alone
(Ashley Barron)

Kyle Goes Alone (written by Jan Thornhill, illustrated by Ashley Barron), Owlkids Books, 2015

Baby Sloths get Potty Trained Video

*Many early animal illustrators never saw the animals they depicted, hence some pretty fabulous sloth pictures!

29 Jan 2016

Raptors in residence: The fun way to learn about hawks, falcons, and other birds of prey

By Marie Powell

As the author of a book called Hawk, I was naturally interested when the Canadian Raptor Conservancy came to Regina earlier this month.  This group has a focus on conservation and education, bringing live bird shows across Canada.

Many of the species are endangered, so the shows offer a unique opportunity for the public to see these birds up close. In Regina, we saw a great horned owl, several species of falcons and hawks, and even a bald eagle.

During the shows, the handlers use posts for the birds set in strategic areas around the room. They carry the birds to the posts, then walk away. At a signal, the birds swoop through the crowd -- often right overhead -- to fly back to the handlers for their reward. The show set up in Evraz Place in Regina to get enough room for these dramatic flights that quickly won over the crowds on a cold January weekend.

That also let them set up displays of falconry equipment, wall-sized photos, and display cabinets of bird feather, bones, anatomy, and a full-sized mural of bird wingspans for children to compare against their own outstretched arms.

The combination of macabre and informative displays made for exciting set-ups to catch the attention of the crowd between shows.

Between the shows and the displays, people who attended had many opportunities to learn a few facts about the birds and their handlers. For example, the peregrine is the fastest bird in the animal kingdom. In a dive (or stoop), peregrines tuck in their wings in a teardrop shape to reach speeds of over 300 k/h (200 mph). With breeding programs for more than 15 species, the Ontario facility houses some 200 birds bred in captivity, and releases some of these birds back into the wild.

In Regina, the group teamed up with Little Ray's Reptile Zoo and the Backyard Conservation Fund of Canada, alternating the raptor shows with live snakes and reptile demonstrations. Reptiles of all kinds were also housed in display cases throughout the show area.

Large poster boards and displays also gave the conversation message, and the handlers were ready to talk about their message during and between shows. Many raptor species face habitat loss from such human activities as urban sprawl and pesticides, so these shows offer a unique opportunity for the public to interact and learn a little about ecology and conservation at the same time.

Here are some more websites to check for information about raptors:

Canadian Raptor Conservancy

Audubon: Identify Raptors in Flight:

Watch a video of a peregrine falcon in flight:

Amazing Planet: Five fastest birds

Watch for the Canadian Raptor Conservancy shows as they move across Canada. Have you seen a show yet? Leave a comment and let's discuss it.

Marie Powell is the author of the young adult fantasy Hawk (Five Rivers),  as well as 30 other books for children and youth on a variety of topics. More information about her and her books can be found on her website at www.mepowell.com.

22 Jan 2016

You and Your School Library Need These Books

by Helen Mason

I love reading Science books, especially those written for kids. That's because authors have to know a lot about their topic in order to distill the information into interesting and understandable communications that appeal to young readers. In the following titles, Jennifer Gardy and Tanya Lloyd Kyi make challenging scientific information readily available to young readers. These books should be in every elementary school library — and the collections of all teachers who hope to interest students in modern science.

It's Catching: The Infectious World of Germs and Microbes written by Jennifer Gardy and illustrated by Josh Holinaty (Owl Kids, 2014) uses a combination of text, visuals, and anecdotes to introduce readers to the many germs with which we share this planet.

The author, herself a disease detective, introduces past disease detectives, such as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the first person to see the microbial world. She explains that microbes exist both in the world around us and in our own bodies. Some of the details provide the necessary gross factor that kids love.

Without boring the reader, Grady outlines the difference between viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. There's also a dangermeter for diseases that range from the common cold and influenza to malaria and ebola.

Discussing why doctors are so worried about parents who don't have their kids vaccinated against measles? Mention the 165 BCE measles plague that killed off about one-third of Rome's population. Have students of Irish descent? Suggest researching family trees to find out how many have ancestors who came to Canada following the 1845 Irish potato blight.

DNA Detective by Tanya Lloyd Kyi and illustrated by Lil Crump (Annick Press, 2015) is equally interesting. The intro draws kids right into the topic by showing a crime scene. Someone broke into a jewellery store and got away with valuable jewels. The perpetrator wore gloves. One was left at the scene. There are no other clues.

Readers will enjoy trying to pick the culprit from a list of suspects who include the store's manager, bookkeeper, custodian, and two cashiers, as well as three customers (two of them identical twin supermodels), a sales rep, a security guard, the owner of the store next door, and a convicted thief. They can follow the thinking processes of a young detective on her first case as she collects DNA evidence in an effort to identify the culprit. 

The author compares DNA identification to a high-tech fingerprint. Both can be inadvertently left behind and collected from crime scenes. The book includes profiles of past DNA rock stars, such as Gregor Mendel and Rosalind Franklin. A cartoon page or spread at the end of each section brings readers back to the crime in question. The detective outlines what she's learned. In most cases, readers can use this information to eliminate suspects. By the end, the detective — and readers — have their man — er, woman.

Books such as these provide excellent introductions to topics kids will continue to learn about throughout their student years — and likely their entire lives.

15 Jan 2016

Six Reasons (Science) Writers Should Be in Schools

by L. E. Carmichael

I attended junior high in Yellowknife, which is not the most isolated place in Canada, but definitely felt like it sometimes. Fortunately, the school library was huge, and offered a portal to endless worlds I couldn't visit in the flesh.

And then there was the time Sheree Fitch came to visit.

To this day, I vividly remember watching in awe as she recited parts of her work-in-progress to us - a work that later became There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen. It was the first time I'd really understood that the books I loved were written by actual human beings. From there, it was a very short leap to the notion that I could write books, too.

I was thinking about that moment yesterday as I stood in the library of Ridgecliff Middle School, waiting for the first class of grade 7s to file in for their author visit. I was also thinking, I am the author they are coming to see. How weird and awesome is that? And what an incredible gift, to be given the opportunity to inspire a child the way I was inspired so long ago.

That's me in the crime scene scarf. Several kids asked me where to buy one!

After four back-to-back renditions of my Forensic Science: Digging Into DNA presentation, I finished the day both exhausted and exhilarated. The kids were alert and engaged, asking great questions. When I told them that Alec Jeffreys, who discovered DNA fingerprinting, simulated crime scene stains by cutting himself and smearing his own blood around the lab for later testing, they were so caught up in discussing his scientific bad-assery, I had a hard time reigning them back in for the rest of the talk.

The librarian said she'd never seen the students so excited about an author visit. While I'd love to take the credit for that, the real reason for their response wasn't me - it was the science. Because science, as all Sci/Why readers know, is COOL.

Teacher and librarian friends, if you haven't considered bringing a science writer in to talk to your classes, here are my favourite reasons why you should think about it next time you book guest speakers:

  • Science is cool (bears repeating!)
  • Kids who say they don't like to read might just be kids who don't like fiction. Once those kids discover fact-based books, however, they can become some of the most avid readers around
  • Science writers support both the Language Arts curriculum (because writing), and the science curriculum, making them a great bargain - two for the price of one!
  • We can talk about research skills, too.
  • With small classes, we can lead experiments
  • Like any author, we can inspire kids to think about becoming writers. But the topics we present might also inspire them to become scientists. And how great would that be?
Check your provincial Writers in the Schools program, the CCBC Author Directory, or the Writer's Union's National Public Reading Program for listings of science writers who do presentations. If you can't afford speaking fees, most authors will be able to direct you to funding sources that will cover the cost of bringing a guest speaker into the classroom or library.

Your turn, fellow science writers - what great experiences have you had giving school presentations? Teachers and librarians, have you ever booked a science writer for a presentation? What impact did you notice on the kids?


My forensics presentation is based on two of my books for junior high and high school readers - Forensic Science: In Pursuit of Justice, and Fuzzy Forensics: DNA Fingerprinting Gets Wild. I'm currently offering deep discounts on first-edition copies of Fuzzy Forensics for educational use. Check out my website and contact me for details.

2 Jan 2016

Get Inspired for 2016!

Post by Helaine Becker

What better way to start the New Year off here at Sci-Why than with some inspiration?

I recently had the happy occasion to meet Filipe Deandrade, a nature filmmaker, while he was gathering footage for a new project with National Geographic. DeAndrade had won the 2015 Wild to Inspire film award, sponsored by the American Wildlife FoundationNational Geographic and the Sun Valley Film Festival for his short film, "Adapt." I think you'll like it, and hope we all find as much inspiration in our own work/lives in 2016!

 Happy New Year, everybody!

24 Dec 2015

Deck the Halls With Boughs of Ilex!

Winter can get really cold in Canada!
By Claire Eamer (and the Sci/Why crew)

‘Tis the season to be jolly…. And to take a little time to relax, and maybe dip into a favourite book or website. We thought - as a present from us to you - that we’d tell you about a few of our favourites. And since we’re all science geeks here at Sci/Why, there’s plenty of science involved.

(Speaking of science, did you know that there are about 600 species of the genus Ilex? That’s holly, for those of you who are still decking your halls.)

So, here we go!

From the excellent science book writer and this year's Lane Anderson Award winner, L. E. Carmichael:
Here's a link to my favourite science story of the year – about a cure for a kind of blindness.

I discovered this treatment to cure a form of congenital blindness while researching GENE THERAPY in 2012, and it became the first chapter of the book. At that time, it had only been tested on dogs and a small group of patients, including a young boy named Corey Haas. Now the therapy is about to be approved, offering hope to all the people who suffer from the condition.
(Claire speaking: Actually, Lindsey liked this story so much that she wrote a blog post about it.)

From Margriet Ruurs, who sends in Sci/Why posts from the far corners of the world:
I love YOU ARE STARDUST by Elin Kelsey because of the gentle voice in which this story is told (in the ebook). It is the story of evolution, of how we all came to be here on this planet. There are lots of activities on Elin's site linked to the book. 
(Claire speaking: I love this book too – and the illustrations are beautiful. It really does work for readers of any age, from toddler to senior.)

Sometimes, it's not so cold. This is Canadian shirt-sleeve weather.

From Helen Mason, a recent and welcome addition to the Sci/Why ranks:
Here's my current favourite – an interview with a rock-snot scientist who wasn’t allowed to talk about his work until recently. 
Not only am I happy about Canadian scientists being unleashed, I'm looking forward to learning more about rock snot. A scientist who understands how such a term would interest listeners must have some interesting things to say.
Jan Thornhill couldn’t stop at one favourite. She gave us two:
If Children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it - an article in the Guardian by George Monbiot about "the collapse of children’s engagement with nature.”

And I loved the mesmerizing video of this amazing deep sea jellyfish.
Joan Marie Galat loves astronomy, so her favourite is not really a big surprise:
Here's my contribution. It was a thrill to see the world's first close-up views of Pluto this year, thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft. Its pictures provide sharp views of breath-taking mountains, icy plains, and impact craters.
Paula Johanson didn’t stop at two favourites. Or three. She has four!
While I've been writing an introduction to the Paleolithic Revolution, it's been fun to find archaeology stories in the news. There was the hiker who found a Viking sword by a path in Norway. And it was fun to go to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre’s website.

But for interesting images of hominid bones, my favourite resource is Morpho Source. MorphoSource is a project-based data archive where researchers store and organize, share, and distribute their own 3-D images of hominid fossil bones. Anyone can register and download 3-D images to use in their own studies. The website is designed to be self-explanatory, but young students will need assistance browsing the archive

And last, but definitely not least, my favourite of the day is the fossil bird found on a beach about five miles from my new home in Sooke, British Columbia.
And sometimes (and some places), it's not cold at all, even at Christmas.

Claire here again. I'm back! And not to be outdone, I have four favourites to offer too.

For an ever-changing set of science stories from around the world – and some wonderful photos and photo collections, try the Science and Environment pages of the BBC.

And for another take on the day’s science stories (also with some great pictures), but with a Canadian perspective, go to CBC Technology & Science pages.

The host of CBC Radio’s great science magazine, Quirks and Quarks, Bob McDonald, writes a weekly blog about a science issue or story that caught his eye – and he’s great at explaining things in a way that all of us can understand.

Finally, if you’re as fascinated as I am by the unseen, unsuspected microscopic world around us, go to Nikon’s Small World and see the beauty, adventure, and high drama visible only through a light microscope.

Now grab a Christmas cookie and hot chocolate, relax, and have a science-y good time.

Falalala la lala la LAAAA!

All photos by Claire Eamer

18 Dec 2015

Solstice Sunrise at Newgrange

by Helen Mason

From December 18 until December 23, thousands of people will assemble at sunrise outside the entrance to Newgrange, an ancient Passage Tomb in Ireland's Boyne Valley. Fifty of these people, chosen by lottery from among 30,475 ballots in 2015, will get access to the inner chamber of the tomb.

The winners will enter the east-facing door of the Newgrange mound. They will make their way down a narrow 60-foot passage towards a domed inner chamber. This is where archaeologists believe that cremated bodies were interred. During the Winter Solstice, as part of what is believed to be a celebration of new life, the winter sunrise sun shines down the passage and into that inner chamber.

The sun's rays enter through a roof box located just above the main door to Newgrange. They move down the corridor and gradually illuminate the inner chamber, a process that takes about 17 minutes.

Since the chamber is small, it can accommodate a limited number of people — thus the reason for the lottery. Depending on weather, even these winners may not see the phenomenon.

For what lucky winners do see, go to http://www.newgrange.com/newgrange/winter-solstice.jpg.

Imagine the knowledge and skill needed to build and locate such a structure. Newgrange and the nearby passage tombs at Knowth and Dowth suggest that the farmers of 3000 to 2500 BCE were far from primitive. Ireland's Neolithic peoples had enough architectural knowledge to build Cathedral-sized mounds 500 years before the Great Pyramids and 1000 years before Stonehenge. 

These mounds have vaulted inner chambers with stone slabs and rocks placed so carefully that the upper layers push down on the lower ones, holding them in place. These chambers have remained intact despite 5000 years of neglect. Even more intriguing is the combination of fill, clay, and turf that cover the structures, keeping them water-tight.

The kerbstones that surround the mounds were brought from long distances. Archaeologists hypothesize that workers rafted the giant boulders along the coast and up the Boyne River, before moving them to their current site on rollers.

The stones were decorated with intricate geometric shapes. Archaeologists have been unable to interpret these designs. There are several theories, including that the designs represent the changing of the seasons, maps of the stars or the afterworld, or music.

Whatever the meaning of their artwork, the tombs continue to prove that supposedly primitive farmers were intimate with the changing location and slant of the sun. The structures they built make up Brú na Bóinne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a prime venue for tourists, and a great place to be indoors during the Winter Solstice.