17 Feb 2023

Deer Sleeping in Snow

by Jan Thornhill

Deer sleeping forms. 

They're pretty compact when it's below freezing, with their back legs tucked under. Deer put on a lot of fat in the fall, and their winter hair is hollow for added insulation. 


Their skinny, uninsulated legs are heat exchangers – warm blood pumped from their core runs alongside veins filled with cooled blood. This arrangement preheats the cooler blood so it's not super-cooled before it returns to the deer's heart.

Jan Thornhill is an award-winning (multiple awards!) Canadian author and illustrator. Her books include The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow, The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, and she has rescued a turtle (read about it at this link). These photos are by Jan Thornhill.

10 Feb 2023

Sea That?

by Margriet Ruurs

Not long ago I was at the Dead Sea in Jordan.
This large ‘lake’ is about 65 KM from the capital city of Jordan, called Amman. Amman is at 700 meters above sea level and can be chilly in Fall or Winter. But a one hour drive to the floor of the Jordan River Valley takes you to the lowest point on earth: about -400 meters. The temperature differences can be impressive. You can go here in one hour from cold, even snow, to warm enough to sit on the beach and swim!


Along the main road south I spotted vendors selling inflatable beach floaties. But you don’t need a flotation device to float in the Dead Sea. Because the water contains more than 35% salt, its density allows you to float! The high salt content also makes it impossible for anything to live in such salty water, which is exactly why it is called the Dead Sea.
As we drove to the lowest point on earth, we suddenly noticed that our water bottles went completely flat as the air pressure changed.


When we got closer to the water’s edge, what looked like a sandy beach turned out to be salt crystals. And the ‘frost’ build-up along the edges of the ‘sea’ were salt formations. This water came from the Mediterranean Sea about 3 million years ago. A million years ago the access was cut off but the salt water remained inland, although it is slowly drying up and the Dead Sea grows smaller in size each year.

We had fun discovering what it was like to float. The water felt normal but its density allowed us to put our feet up and wave with two hands without sinking. Getting up was harder… I had to force my legs down before I could stand up.

For $3.- US you can buy a Dead Sea mud rub here. Once you get rubbed down in black mud, it looks like you’re wearing a dive suit! Dead Sea mud is rich in salts and minerals, including sodium, chloride, magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium and is said to be rejuvenating for the body.


On the way back to Amman, suddenly we heard loud popping sounds as our water bottles expanded again! An interesting side effect that we had not expected!

Next I traveled to a beach on the other side of the world: the Andaman Sea in Malaysia. Here, I discovered another interesting thing. This sea is also salty but not at all ‘dead’: there are coral and fishes, squid, crabs, even Irrawaddy dolphins.

Every time I walk on the beach at low tide, I notice that the sand looks all raked in an interesting pattern. I am curious so I researched what causes this change in the sand. And this is what I learned: tiny little crustaceans called Bubbler Crabs live in the sand. Each one is about the size of the nail on your pinky finger. At high tide, they live in burrows deep in the sand under the water. But at low tide, it’s time to eat. The tiny crabs scurry out of their burrows and get to work. They search each grain of sand, eating its edible content like detritus and plankton, stripping the sand with their pinchers, rolling the rest of the sand into a tiny ball and discarding it. They work fast since the tide will be coming in again soon. As they search and discard the sand efficiently and systematically, these tiny balls form an intricate pattern on the beach around each burrow hole.

So, next time you SEE something interesting by the SEA, be sure to be curious and do some research!

Click here to see bubble crabs at work:

Margriet Ruurs is the author of books like Wild Babies and In My Backyard. She lives on Salt Spring Island BC. Photos here are by the author and her family.

3 Feb 2023

Dogs and Smell

If you ask someone what animal has the best sense of smell, chances are that most people will answer “Dogs”. Not a bad answer, though not quite right. At least two others are better.



Dogs have an amazing sense of smell. That's why we use dogs to track and find people who are lost, buried in avalanches, trapped in earthquake- or bomb-damaged buildings. We use dogs to sniff out illegal drugs, explosives, buried landmines, soil contaminants, animals of specific endangered species, black truffles, and even diseases. They couldn’t do it without their remarkable ability to smell. But what’s also significant is that dogs are so willing to be trained for these tasks. Some other candidates with great noses are less convenient and obliging. More on that, later.

Why are dogs are better at smelling than human?

·         Humans have 5-6 million smell receptor cells in our noses; dogs 100-300 million.

·         The area of the brain devoted to processing smells is 40 times larger in dogs than in humans. 

·         Dogs have a special organ — the “Jacobson’s Organ” devoted to processing smells. We don’t. 

·         As humans breathe in, we get new smells. As we breathe out, nothing. As dogs breathe out, their breath causes some turbulence which pulls new scents into the smelling area of their nostrils. 

·         Dogs can distinguish whether smells are coming from their left or right nostril. The difference of smell between the two nostrils lets them know the direction a smell is coming from. 

Professor Alexandra Horowitz, head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Columbia University summarizes a dog’s ability to smell: “while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.” Alexandra Horowitz has written a number of fascinating books about dog cognition, most recently The Year of the Puppy, and  Our Dogs, Ourselves.

Dogs can identify the intensity of a smell with incredible sensitivity. By smelling 5 footprints they know which are less intense and therefore older. From this they know which direction the person was walking.

 Scientists also believe that this is how dogs know when to expect owners back from work. If the owner has a regular routine and returns, say, 9 hours after leaving, the dog knows that when the owner’s smell has dissipated to a 9-hour-old level, it’s time for their return. Ingeniously, this hypothesis was tested by quietly reinforcing the owner’s scent during the day, by introducing clothing worn by the owner. Dogs who habitually waited at the front door at the right time, were fooled.

For dog owners it’s important to understand that dogs’ sense of the world is primarily through smell, not sight, as ours is. Your dog will be happier and better adjusted if you allow it to spend a lot of walking time following the interesting smells which are all around. And which you are unaware of. When we meet people, we naturally look at them to get a sense of who they are. Dogs smell each other to get that. Females tend to smell the front end of other dogs; males the back ends. By smelling they can tell the age, gender and health of the other dog. And more – like sexual attractiveness.  But while we need the person present to see that information, dogs can smell that information by sniffing where the dog has been. When dogs sniff a tree, hydrant or telephone pole, they’re identifying who has been there. And when they pee on it themselves, they’re leaving a message to say “I was here”.

By the way, our vision is not just better than dogs’ — it’s better than most of the animal world. Eagles can see more acutely than we can (“eagle eyes” is an apt expression), but few others even come close.

So what animals out-smell dogs? In hindsight it’s not surprising. Elephants’ noses are astonishing, not just for being long, but for being sensitive.

Elephants have been known to smell water from a distance of 20 km. They were tested for their ability to smell after it was noticed that they avoided land mines in Angola. Elephants can smell the difference between people from two Kenyan tribes: the Masai, who traditionally hunt elephants and the Kamba, who don’t. Elephants have been tested on their ability to tell, by smell, the quantity of sunflower seeds in a bucket with a perforated lid. The elephants consistently choose the fuller container.

In a really interesting experiment, described by Ed Yonge in his fascinating book An Immense World, scientists tested the ability of elephants to tell the identity of other elephants by the smell of their urine. The scientists would follow a herd of elephants and wait for one of them to pee. Then they would scoop up the pee-soaked earth, guess where the herd was headed, and dump that earth in the expected path. When the elephants reached that area, they would smell the pee-soaked earth. Those elephants who were walking ahead of the donor of the specimen were clearly confused by it. It was obvious that they knew whose pee they were smelling, but that individual was behind them, so couldn’t have just peed in front of them.

The other animal that can out-smell a dog is a bear. There are lots of stories about bears being able to smell animal carcasses from huge distances (some say up to 32 km), and male polar bears have been known to trek 100 miles (160 km) following the scent of a sexually receptive female.

But for very practical reasons we do prefer using dogs to help us with smell-related tasks, rather than elephants or bears.


5 Jan 2023

Branching Out
by Joan Marie Galat

I love spending time in forest habitat. The air is fresh, animals signs are everywhere, and the world feels like a quieter place. My interest in these giants of the plant world led me to write a book for ages 8-12 that explores how people and animals depend on trees. Branching Out: How Trees are Part of Our World (Owlkids) is full of surprising facts about trees, but it is just as much a book about the animals (even fish!) who use them for food and shelter.

India’s national tree—the banyan (Ficus benghalensis)—is one of eleven featured species. This tree is an evergreen with roots that grow in the air toward the ground, where they eventually anchor. They look beautiful but are also deadly. The new trunks will one day strangle the original tree.

A banyan's aerial roots may be used to make rope, tent poles, and cart yokes. Its leaves can serve as handy plates and its twigs make good toothpicks! People also harvest banyan wood and bark to create paper and the tree's sap to make rubber.  

A banyan tree will produce figs throughout the year. This species often serves as a meeting place, thanks to the shade it produces. One of my favorite things about banyan trees is that their many leaves help reduce air and noise pollution. 

Watch the Branching Out book trailer to discover more about how trees are part of our world!


Joan reading in a spruce tree.

Upper right: banyan tree

30 Dec 2022

Learning About River Mapping

 Did you ever wonder what path a raindrop takes when it falls past your window? Will it reach the ocean? WHICH ocean? I asked that question when we were living on a farm north of Edmonton in Alberta, and investigated with maps and online maps. Turns out, the stream on our farm trickles into a little river called Redwater, which runs into the North Saskatchewan River, out of Alberta, and many many kilometres of rivers and lakes later reaches Hudson Bay via the Nelson River. 

But that journey is not the path taken for ALL the water draining from land around that Alberta farm. About two miles north of the farm is Fairytale Creek. As my friend Billie Milholland confirmed during her mapping project, that creek is part of the watershed for Athabasca River. Many kilometres of rivers and lakes bring that water to the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean. 

Billie's project led to the publication of Living In The Shed, about Alberta's North Saskatchewan River watershed. This is a fascinating book, not only for people living along that waterway, but for people wanting to know more about the natural world where they live. There are many photos and maps which make this book a tremendous resource for learning about rivers and recent history. Here is a link to read more about Billie's book https://www.nswa.ab.ca/resource/living-in-the-shed/ **which includes a link to look at a digital version of her book online!**  And here's another link to read a web page about her other writing https://billiemilholland.ca/

Not everyone is so lucky to have a friend who has mapped the local watershed so thoroughly, but there are many open source projects and datasets for people wanting to learn more about river knowledge. Public libraries and university libraries might have access to paper maps and computerized electronic maps, and online resources. Kayaking and canoeing groups can offer practical knowledge as well as the best maps for paddling and hiking adventures.

Here's a link to River Runner, a terrific website by Sam Learner and his team. Their project is still in beta, which means that though there are improvements to make, a person can have a lot of fun with it already. Check it out at https://river-runner-global.samlearner.com/ and see where a raindrop that falls anywhere on Earth might end up! They have over 20 interesting routes listed at this page.

If you're looking for more details about River Runner, such as the software behind this project, you can go to this link: https://ksonda.github.io/global-river-runner/ 

Good luck learning about your own watershed or interesting places around the world! Water resources are vital for humans and for the natural world.