24 Apr 2020

Nenes, Anoles and Dewlaps

Here's a guest post from our colleague Margriet Ruurs, written when she was visiting Hawaii in the winter. There she discovered that Hawaii is home to both Nene geese and anoles!

Ever heard of a Nene goose or an anole and his dewlap? I hadn’t until I traveled to Hawaii.

I love learning new things and animals never cease to amaze me. Each continent has amazing animals that are unique to that part of the world.

We’ve all heard of kangaroos and koalas in Australia. We know that North America has moose and bears and Canada geese.

Strange geese

But have you ever heard of Nene geese?

I hadn’t until I spotted this sign along the road on Moloka’i, a small, sparsely populated island. Turns out that the Nene goose is only found on the Hawaiian islands and is quite rare.

Stranger lizards

If you have been to tropical places, you may have spotted iguanas, geckos or other types of intriguing lizards.

I’m sitting in a garden in Hawaii and notice a little lizard running along the wall. I marvel at how their toe pads are equipped with tiny little hooks that allow them to run straight up the wall.

This little guy is about 12 cm long. It darts along a stone wall on little legs with a long tail and a flicking tongue. Then he stops so I can get a good look at him. But, what I think is just another little gecko, turns out to be quite something else.

Researching this cool little guy teaches me that this is a lizard, but not a gecko at all. It’s a brown, male anole.

A what?

I had never heard of anoles. While geckos and anoles are both lizards, they have evolved in different ways. Anoles didn’t appear on the scene until roughly 150 million years after the gecko. Both have adhesive toe pads that allow them to run straight up walls.

Geckos can live in dry, rocky areas while anoles prefer living among more trees. While they can live near each other, they are competitive. Anoles are active during the day, while geckos are more nocturnal.


But the coolest thing I notice about my little anole friend, is his dewlap.

His what?!

A dewlap is a flap of skin underneath the lizard’s chin, which he can extend and retract. It’s not an air sac, just a flag he waves when staking out his territory or when trying to attract a female. He also waves it to warn off an intruding gecko.

Watch him raise his warning flag in the sequence of photos below:

©Photos copyright: Margriet Ruurs

You can learn more about Nene geese here: http://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id/hawaiian-nene-goose

For more details on anoles, click here: http://www.anoleannals.org/2018/03/26/anoles-versus-geckos-the-ultimate-showdown/

Margriet Ruurs is the author of Amazing Animals (Tundra Books). You can find out more about her work at her website, www.margrietruurs.com

17 Apr 2020

The Great Big Boreal Forest Resource List

by L. E. Carmichael

I hear it's a long weekend? I'm not sure how to tell, really, since we will all (hopefully) be doing exactly what we've been doing for the last couple of weeks: preventing the spread of potentially deadly viruses by eating too much while watching Netflix in our jammies.

Jammies are a long-standing Easter tradition in the Carmichael family, because the Grandparents Carmichael used to give my brother and me a new pair of PJs with our baskets of chocolate and kids' books every year. And it occurred to me that once you and your kids recover from your chocolate comas, and have finished reading your shiny new copies of The Boreal Forest, you might find yourselves in need of more fun and educational things you can do at home. And thus I present:

The Great Big Boreal Forest Resource List

First - it's a video of me reading from the book!

Thank you to my publisher, Kids Can Press, for permission to keep this video available online until the end of the school year. May it bring the outdoors inside to you.

The Official Boreal Forest Activity Guide

Click here to download a free activity guide for use with your copy of The Boreal Forest. It includes suggestions for science, social studies, and language arts, and will help support a variety of elementary school curriculum outcomes. Not to mention a little creativity and fun.

But why stop there?

General Information, Online Articles, and Websites

Borealforest.org – Canadian website produced by Lakehead University

Natural Resources Canada: Boreal Forest Pages

NASA Earth Observatory: The Carbon Cycle – A detailed overview of the global carbon cycle, in which the boreal forest plays a crucial role

NASA Precipitation Education: The Water Cycle – A kid-friendly resource that includes activities and lesson plans

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – Find the conservation status of your favourite boreal plants and animals

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Birds of the World – This is a superb resource, but note that it does require a paid subscription

Keeping the Carbon in Alaska Forests

Coronavirus Toilet Paper Hoarding “Totally Unnecessary,” What You Need to Know

A photographer who discovered baby bears dancing in a forest thought he was imagining it

Bird that looks like it died yesterday turns out to be 46,000 years old

Time to vote for Canada’s national lichen – the “spectacular” organisms that carpet the country

How deforestation drives the emergence of novel coronaviruses

What do wild animals do in a wildfire?

Totally bizarre facts about the star-nosed mole

Lesson Plans, Activities, Projects

Borealforest.org – Educational Resources Section

Canadian Geographic: The Boreal Forest “In the News”

Canadian Wildlife Federation: Boost the Boreal Forest

Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory: Boreal Forest Lesson Plans for Elementary, Junior High, and Senior High

Boreal Songbird Initiative: Provincial and Territorial Forest Facts

Nature Canada: For Children Section – Articles and a Resource Section

Forests Ontario: Community Engagement Section

NASA Precipitation Education: The Water Cycle

Utah State University: Water Cycle Lesson Plans

Scholastic: The Water Cycle Teaching Guide

California Academy of Sciences: Carbon Cycle Role Play

University of Colorado Teach Engineering: Carbon Cycles

Indigenous Peoples of the Boreal Forest


Worldwide, hundreds of Indigenous peoples live in the boreal biome. I’ve included resources for those peoples featured in my book, but I encourage you to learn about the Nations nearest you!


Gwich’in Social & Cultural Institute – a repository of Traditional Knowledge, including audio recordings of Gwich’in words and information on Gwich’in medicine plants

The Whitefeather Forest Initiative of the Pikangikum First Nation – general info and links to research involving Traditional Knowledge


Reindeer Herding – information on reindeer (caribou) and the many Indigenous peoples of Europe and Asia who herd them

Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation – This site is in Russian, but Google translate will give you a starting point for further research


Tree Canada

Nature Canada

Forests Ontario

Ontario Nature – Boreal Forests Section

Boreal Songbird Initiative

The PEW Charitable Trusts: International Boreal Conservation Campaign

Science Books for Adults

For teenagers that want to learn more, or for adults who want more knowledge to help support their children's learning - here are some of the adult-level books I consulted while researching The Boreal Forest. Check your local library for ebook options, or see what you can find online!

Bannick, Paul (2008) The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America’s Most Iconic Birds. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers Books.

Bondrup-Nielsen, Soren (2009) A Sound Like Water Dripping: In Search of the Boreal Owl. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press.

Chang, Mingteh (2013) Forest Hydrology: An Introduction to Water and Forests. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Crawford, R.M.M. (2013) Tundra-Taiga Biology: Human, Plant, and Animal Survival in the Arctic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gawthrop, Daniel (1999) Vanishing Halo: Saving the Boreal Forest. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.

Lynch, Wayne. (2001) The Great Northern Kingdom: Life in the Boreal Forest. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

Do you know of additional boreal resources? Drop them in the comments for others to explore!

10 Apr 2020

How You Doing?

By Raymond Nakamura

I hope you are as well as can be expected under the circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us into a new world. Dealing with the pandemic has spread beyond an issue of science communication to sharing an historic experience.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the threat and the many impacts of self-isolating, other posts on this blog have already shared some helpful information. Increasingly, the importance of finding common ground with your audience is being recognized as an important part of science communication. This post is more about sharing my experiences with some little comics I have been posting online, as my way to stay connected with friends and perhaps offer some encouragement.
Many people seem to be working from home for the first time. As a freelancer, intermingling work work and house work is normal, other than having to avoid people who usually aren’t there while I’m walking my dog.
What has changed for me has been the act of buying groceries. Deliveries of groceries have skyrocketed, but to leave that service to those more desperately in need, I have gone in person, only to realize how things have changed.

Even before this situation, I did not get out much, but have been meeting with my writing group every Monday for the past twenty years. Recently, we did our first videoconference. It worked out quite smoothly, but of course we missed the snacks and hugs.
We are still learning about the effects of this novel coronavirus, but in my case, just the possibility of it seems to have affected my senses.
It does seem that the reduced traffic and general mayhem makes it easier to hear the birds when I go out to walk my dog.

If you can, get outside a little without your devices and maybe it will help your frame of mind. Take care.

For those of you interested, I drew these cartoons on an iPad with an Apple pencil, using an app called Tayasui Sketches.

3 Apr 2020

Testing for COVID-19

By Yolanda Ridge

It’s hard to write about the science of COVID-19 right now because our understanding of the virus is still evolving. But it’s also hard to think about anything else.

One thing everyone wants to know is how and when this pandemic will end. In the best-case scenario, a vaccine becomes available and life goes on as normal. The problem is that it will take at least a year – even with international cooperation, dedication and determination – to develop, test, and then distribute the vaccine worldwide.

To find out more about viruses and vaccines, click on this link to read Virus VS Bacteria – Know Your Enemy on Sci/Why, written by our own Adrienne Montgomerie.

In the meantime, everyone will have to stay at home unless we can find a way to quickly and accurately identity who has the virus and who doesn’t. Unfortunately, testing for COVID-19 has been difficult.

There are two main steps to testing a person to see if they’ve been infected with COVID-19.

Step One: Collect the Sample

The sample must be collected by someone wearing a mask that can protect them from getting infected. It’s done with a nasopharyngeal swab, which is basically a long cotton swab that goes into the nose. 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Unfortunately, both face masks and swabs have been in short supply due to huge demand and manufacturing disruptions. One of the largest makers of nasopharyngeal swabs is in Lombardy, Italy where a lot of people are affected with COVID-19.

Step Two: Test the Sample

Getting enough lab space to do the testing has been difficult as well, since the lab has to be specially designed so the virus won’t spread. The test itself requires specific chemicals and machines, which have also been in short supply.

To find out whether there’s any COVID-19 virus in the sample, scientists look for its RNA. Like DNA in humans, RNA is a set of instructions that makes each type of virus unique. To cause an infection, the COVID-19 virus injects this genetic material into a human cell (it really likes lung cells) along with instructions on how to make copies of it. This allows the RNA to be copied over and over again until the cell dies. Then all those copies of RNA are released in the form of new COVID-19 viruses that can attack other cells.

To find out more, click on this link to watch The Coronavirus Explained & What You Should Do on Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell.

If someone has the COVID-19 virus, there will be pieces of its RNA in the sample collected during step one. The most common way to test a sample for viral RNA is by something called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It sounds complicated but PCR is really just way of making more RNA using the virus’s genetic material as a template – not that different to what the virus does itself when it causes an infection. If the virus is in the sample, PCR will produce enough RNA to been seen using a special microscope.

Artist's image of DNA, from the National Institute of Health
Scientists all over the world are trying to find different ways of making step two faster and more efficient. One way is to use CRISPR, a gene editing tool that works like the find and replace function in a word document to change DNA in ways that have never been possible before. With cool names like SHERLOCK and DETECTR, these tests could get results in as little as 5 to 10 minutes by a process that may eventually be used to not only detect the virus but destroy its genetic material as well.

My book, CRISPR: A Powerful Way to Change DNA, comes out this fall from Annick Press. It will go to press before we know how much CRISPR will be used in the fight against COVID-19.

It’s exciting to think about how new technologies might stop future viruses through testing, treating and even developing vaccines. But the current pandemic is teaching us that the supply of basic stuff - masks, swabs, lab space and equipment – is really the most important thing of all.