Predators and Prey – Background

What makes the fox clever and the deer swift, and why do both have a keen sense of smell?  Predators and prey face different challenges in getting their food. Predators must find their prey, chase and catch it, subdue it if it fights back, all before they eat it. Prey animals must forage for food cautiously, always on the lookout for predators. The anatomy and the behavior of predator and prey animals reflect each species’ needs and way of life.

Both predators and prey need keen senses, but the position of eyes and ears, the functioning of noses and sense of smell, can be very different. Continue reading Predators and Prey – Background

Skull Sleuthing – Background

Have you ever stumbled across an animal skull in the woods and found your mind filled with questions about it? What kind of animal was it? What did it eat with those teeth? Were the eyes really that big? Was the brain really that small? Finding a skull tends to bring out the private investigator in all of us. As we examine these bony shells, built to protect the brain, hold the teeth, and house many of the sensory organs, we can find clues about the animal’s life.

The first thing to notice when you find a skull is its size. Is it the length of your thumb (squirrel, rabbit, weasel); does it fit in your hand (fox, bobcat, raccoon, beaver, opossum); is it as long as your foot (deer, bear), or even bigger (cow, horse, moose)? Size can be deceptive since skulls lack the covering of muscles, skin, and fur of a live animal and thus often seem much smaller than you would expect. Still, by considering its size first, you can often narrow down the possibilities. Continue reading Skull Sleuthing – Background

Birds of a Feather – Background

In the fashion world of birds, anything goes. From crimson cardinals to loons in elegant black and white, from portly turkeys with rusty fan-tails to sky-diving falcons in steely gray, birds carry it off with panache. The diversity of birds is amazing, with 10,000 species worldwide living in habitats as different as tropical jungles and frozen tundra, and ranging in size from the tiniest hummingbirds to condors with ten-foot wingspans. Birds’ fashions may seem exotic, but they are also functional, adaptations for each bird’s particular environment and way of life. Continue reading Birds of a Feather – Background

Calling All Owls – Background

Many of us have stories of owls flying across the road in front of our cars, calling eerily outside our windows, or quietly staring at us from a tree on a misty gray day. We recall these encounters vividly, for owls are such fascinating and mysterious creatures. As nighttime hunters, owls have incredibly specialized eyes, ears, feathers, feet, and digestion, all of which contribute to their superior predatory ability. Their calls are unique too, and, though strange and foreign to our ears, they are an important adaptation for owls to communicate with each other. Continue reading Calling All Owls – Background

Daunting Defenses – Background

Plants and animals need defenses to keep from being eaten. Nearly all animals have predators of one kind or another, and eluding capture usually means running away, hiding, or both. But when avoidance fails and the predator gets too near, most animals still have an effective last line of defense. Plants need defenses too, for protection from the many animals that feed upon them. Plants can’t run away or hide, but they have evolved a diverse armory of useful adaptations for fending off herbivores. Continue reading Daunting Defenses – Background

Beavers and Muskrats – Background

Beavers and muskrats, both rodents with round, furry bodies, twinkling eyes, and dexterous front feet, have a certain charm that endears them to us, even though they can be a nuisance. Both animals live in wetland habitats, and, though they are only distantly related, they have many similarities in their behavior and physical adaptations. Muskrats are beneficial to other wetland animals because they keep waterways open and clear of vegetation. But beavers far outshine muskrats in their skill as engineers and in the profound effect they have on their environment. Continue reading Beavers and Muskrats – Background

The Buzz on Bees – Background

The hum of honeybees as they flit from flower to flower from spring through fall carries the promise of summer fruits and autumn harvest. ­­­ Many flowers depend on bees and other insects to transport their pollen, and that pollen is needed to fertilize the flower’s eggs so they can mature into seeds. The relationship also benefits the bees because they depend on nectar from flowers to make honey and to mix with pollen to feed to their young. When we look at the amazing adaptations of honeybees, both physical and behavioral, we learn much about the life and work of these busy, buzzy insects.

Honeybees are social insects, living in colonies of many thousands of bees. Each colony is a single family comprised of the queen and her offspring. Working together in a highly organized way, honeybees accomplish remarkable feats of construction, navigation, decision making, defense, and honey making – far beyond what an individual insect could do on its own.  Continue reading The Buzz on Bees – Background

Insect Life Cycles – Background

When we watch a caterpillar spinning a cocoon or a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, we are witnessing part of the remarkable life cycle of an insect. Insects live their lives in stages, changing form as they develop from egg to adult. In some, young and adult are so different, it’s hard to believe they could be the same species. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a garden grub becomes a shiny beetle, a wingless creature crawling on the bottom of a pond becomes a dragonfly skimming above it. Is there a connection between insect life cycles and the incredible success of this group of animals? Continue reading Insect Life Cycles – Background

Traveling Seeds – Background

Wandering through a meadow, a child stops by a jewelweed plant, on the lookout for its plump seed pods. As she reaches in and touches one, it suddenly bursts open and ejects a seed, startling and delighting her. This child is inadvertently helping with an important part of a plant’s life cycle, the dispersal of its seeds. Producing seeds for the next generation is only part of a plant’s job. It needs those seeds to reach a place where they can grow. Spring-loaded seed capsules like those of jewelweed are just one of the many fascinating mechanisms plants use to disperse their seeds.

A seed is the fertilized, ripened ovule of a cone-bearing plant (gymnosperm) or a flowering plant (angiosperm). Continue reading Traveling Seeds – Background

Birds on the Wing – Background

As days get shorter and cooler in the fall, birds that stay year-round begin preparing for a long, cold winter, while others get ready to migrate. Both face challenges that seem daunting for such slight creatures. Yet birds continually amaze us with their ability to survive the harshest weather, travel incredible distances, and navigate to faraway places.

Some birds are permanent residents, living year-round in one place, while others migrate twice a year, traveling between winter homes and summer breeding ranges. Continue reading Birds on the Wing – Background