23 Nov 2013

Who's that chit-chatting outside my door?

When I went to the Nature House at Elk/Beaver Lake, I expected to use my science talents, but I never expected to meet a new neighbour. A small neighbour, and new to me but a long-time resident of the area.
First sign of the little neighbour was a loud, repeated "CHIK!" sound from outside and behind the Nature House. I put down my gear -- a folding inflatable kayak in its bag, and a small drybag holding my wallet and spare dry shirt -- and walked round to the back of the Nature House. Up in a poplar tree was a small animal running from branch to branch, occasionally pausing to declare "CHIK!" in indignant tones.
Eventually I saw glimpses of it through the branches. It wasn't a bird as I'd thought; it was a furry four-footed animal. It wasn't a squirrel, either a red squirrel or a grey squirrel. Squirrels have long bushy tails. It wasn't a rat, either -- this animal's tail was shorter and furry, not long and bald. This little animal had a neat small head, and its furry coat was dark on the back with a white underside. I watched it scurry high in the branches, scolding another animal that was unseen; perhaps it was scolding a crow or raven.
Then I went into the Nature House, curious to figure out what I had seen. It was time for a little simple science research. But with no computer access to the internet, it was time to hit the books.
This photo is from ZooChat.com - check out their website!
First book I found on the Nature House shelves was Mammals of British Columbia. It's a great resource, with photos as well as descriptions of the animals and their habitats. The second book I opened was Carnivores of British Columbia. I had an idea what kind of animal this might be.
The sound this animal made reminded me of the sound I'd heard a baby river otter making on a seashore one day, and otters are carnivores. I wondered what kind of animals are related to otters, and are found in trees? Was this animal a pine marten, or maybe a fisher? It wasn't anywhere near big enough for either.
The little animal turned out to be the smallest member of the mustelidae family: a least weasel.
How wonderful it was to see this neat, bright little animal in the photos, and match it to the little fellow scrambling quickly through the trees. Small books like the ones in the Nature House or the public library are so useful for understanding more about our animal neighbours. I'm so glad that when I heard the sound of the weasel in the tree, I didn't just assume it was one more crow among many.
Later at home, I was able to find all sorts of interesting websites that can help us figure out what animals we're seeing in the woods, or traces that animals leave behind. One of them is the Canadian Museum of Nature website, which has lots of resources for learning a little or a lot. And it's bilingual!
The University of British Columbia has posted a list of animals. Canadian Geographic magazine, which has many educational materials available, has a website listing animal fact sheets for free download in English or French. And the Ministry of the Environment has a website that's an Identification Manual to the Small Mammals of British Columbia, with a link so that you can download the entire manual and print it if you like. This manual is really detailed, right down to five drawings detailing key differences among chipmunk genital bones. That's a little more detail than I needed to identify my neighbour, the least weasel.

12 Nov 2013

So What DOES The Fox Say, Anyhow?

Sci/Why alum L. E. Carmichael was on TV last week, talking about domesticated foxes and her new book, Fox Talk: How Some Very Special Animals Helped Scientists Understand Communication.

For the real answer to the question, "What does the fox say?" check out this clip:

Lindsey's book is available in soft and hardcover editions from Chapters, Amazon, or your favourite independent. If you're interested in the enhanced ebook, consider buying it direct from the publisher, with a bonus stuffed fox!

8 Nov 2013

The Man Who Made the Earth Move

Claire Eamer

Just about this time of year, back in 1930, one of the most famous figures in modern geology lay down to die on the snow-covered ice cap of Greenland. On November 1, Alfred Wegener celebrated his 50th birthday with friends at a tiny, temporary meteorological station on the glacier. The next day, he and one companion - a young Greenlander named Rasmus Villumsen - hitched up the sled dogs and headed back to the coast to rejoin their main party.

They never made it. In the spring, his friends found Wegener's body, laid out carefully on a reindeer hide and buried in snow. Villumsen was never found.

Wegener explaining continental drift - as depicted by
illustrator Sa Boothroyd.
From Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science
Unsung Hero

Today, Wegener is a celebrated hero in the world of geology, but that wasn't true when he died. Then he was a meteorologist and polar scientist with a weird idea that drove many geologists into a frenzy. The continents, Wegener said, weren't stuck in place. Instead, they moved - ever so slowly - around the globe, breaking apart to create oceans and coming together to create mountain ranges. He called his theory Continental Drift.

Most geologists hated the idea. They couldn't see how continents could move (and Wegener couldn't explain that either), and they were deeply offended that a mere meteorologist would stick his nose into their science. By the time of his death, Wegener had been amassing evidence and arguing his theory for 20 years without convincing them.

It would be another 30 years after Wegener's death before the geological world took him seriously. What it took was the discovery of a mechanism that explained the movement of the continents.

Marie and the Ocean Floor

Mapping the sea floor with sound waves.
Illustration by Sa Boothroyd, from
Before the World Was Ready (Annick Press 2013)
One of the first to recognize the mechanism was an American geologist, Marie Tharp. In 1952, an American survey ship was trundling up and down the Atlantic Ocean, using new technology involving sound waves to study the ocean floor. Back in the lab, Tharp was drawing ocean-bottom maps based on the ship's data.

She spotted a formation more familiar from land - a rift valley, created when two bits of earth's crust pull apart. And it meant, she realized, that the ocean bottom was spreading, getting wider. That meant that the continents on either side were moving apart, just as Wegener had said.

It took months before Tharp could convince her colleagues that the ocean really was growing wider. Even then, most geologists still considered Wegener sadly mistaken - at best.

The Canadian Connection

One of the scientists who took the evidence of ocean spreading a bit more seriously was Canadian geologist and physicist John Tuzo Wilson. He later said it took him almost a decade to accept the idea that the continents move, but once he did, there was no stopping him.

Tuzo Wilson realized that Earth's surface is made up of massive plates that move around, pushed and pulled by the forces in the planet's molten core. He pioneered the study of what is now called plate tectonics in a now-classic 1965 journal article called  "A New Class of Faults and their Bearing on Continental Drift." It was the vindication and elaboration of Wegener's much-despised theory from 35 years earlier.

And if Wegener hadn't died on that remote icefield in 1930, he might still have been around - a hale and hearty 85-year-old - to enjoy the triumph.

Want to Know More?

The story of Alfred Wegener and Marie Tharp and a few others is in my new book, Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science (Annick Press 2013).

There's plenty of information about Wegener on the Internet. Here's a good site, with links about different aspects of plate tectonics. And here's a lovely bio of Marie Tharp, in her own words.

John Tuzo Wilson was a science communicator as well as a scientist. He spent more than a decade as director general of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. Here's a short biography of J. Tuzo Wilson (as he was usually called), and here's a longer one.