Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Summertime Science Roundup!

We're back from our travels and so are lots of our friends. So many of you found amazing science as you roamed! Including:

Photo by Amy Sirot

Alex and Ben, who went to Vancouver, BC with their parents earlier in August and found this Pacific Banana Slug. Banana Slugs can grow up to 10 inches long! And believe it or not, they are mollusks. That means they are related to such sea creatures as oysters and clams. And it also means that they like it wet; when temperatures get hot, they hibernate. Some people think Banana Slugs are gross. But like everything that lives, they play an important role in life on Earth. They help decompose dead plant matter, and they also disperse seeds from the plants they eat.

Photo by Laura Sainz

In July, Lea and her mom found lots of beautiful mushrooms on a hike they took along the Long Pond Trail of the Willowemoc Wild Forest in Upstate New York. Including the one in the picture above. This is a bracket fungus—meaning, it grows like a shelf on dead or dying trees, helping to decompose them. This one might be a Chicken of the Woods, or Sulfur Shelf, which is very common in the Northeast of the US. But as with all mushrooms, it is impossible to identify it just from a photograph. Even experts use many methods for identification, including its color, where the mushroom is growing, and the color of its spores.

Photo by Monica Gutierrez-Kirwan

Cian and his mom found this enormous (and sadly, dying) dragonfly in Brooklyn. It is probably a kind of Darner—among the largest dragonflies around, with wingspans measuring almost 5 inches! These enormous insects were all over the city this summer, startling pedestrians as they zipped and zoomed over sidewalks and through traffic and often becoming trapped inside stores and apartments. Darners can fly extremely high in the air. They are also considered predatory; they eat termites and ants. 

Finally, Ada and I saw hundreds of these butterflies at her grandfather's house in Putnam County, NY. Oddly, they are both Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, even though their colors are reversed. You can find them all over the Northeastern US from Spring to Fall. They lay 3 separate broods in this time. Like bees, they are pollinators. Here they are drinking nectar from a butterfly bush, and pollinating it at the same time. My favorite fun fact about butterflies is that their coloring actually comes from thousands of tiny scales that line the surface of their wings!

Did you find any cool science on your adventures this summer? Write in and let me know!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

More Weirdo Science from Walden Pond!

The balls in the picture are not roasted potatoes. They are not seeds pods. They are not puffball mushrooms. They are called oak galls. When you find them on the ground, as I did as I walked around Walden Pond, they are hollow and fragile. Each one has a tiny hole in it. Out of each tiny hole, a newborn wasp has crawled.

Oak galls are strange little houses for gall wasp larvae. They work like this: A gall wasp lays her eggs on an oak tree. When she does this, she releases a chemical that causes a reaction in the tree. It forces the tree to grow this weird cocoon-like "apple" around each larva, to protect it. While there's a larva inside it, the apple is dense and spongy. Once the wasp hatches, it drops from the tree and starts to hollow out.

Have you encountered any weirdo science this summer?

Monday, August 12, 2013

City Science Kids Reporting from the Woods of Walden Pond!

We visited a famous pond called Walden Pond in Concord, MA yesterday. An American writer and naturalist named Henry David Thoreau once lived in the woods around the pond, in a tiny house he built himself. As you can imagine, there is lots of science happening here! Including this:
From our past posts and episode about mushrooms, you might think this is some kind of fungus. But it's really a plant called Indian pipe, also known as ghost plant or corpse plant. It's extremely unusual because it has no chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a molecule that makes plants green. It's also what allows them to absorb sunlight, which gets turned into the nutrients that plants "eat" (photosynthesis). As you can see, Indian pipe is white; that's because has no chlorophyll. So, it has to "eat" another way. And actually like some mushrooms, it "eats" nutrients from decaying plants. Or it attaches itself to a fungus, like a this knocked-over and somewhat nibbled Russula, which we also found on our walk:

This mushroom has a special relationship with trees like birches and pines (see all the pine needles under it?)—it "eats" nutrients the tree provides. But in return, the mushroom's mycelia extend the tree's roots, which makes them able to get water and food they wouldn't otherwise be able to reach. The mushroom and the tree have a symbiotic relationship—they help each other. When the Indian pipe attaches to the mushroom, it is actually eating from both the mushroom and the tree. It gives nothing back to either one of them. It is a parasite.

What wacky things have you found growing this summer? Write in to the comments section and let us know!

Friday, August 9, 2013

City Science Kids Reporting from the Beach!

In summer, when we're lucky enough to quit the city and head to the beach, we spend a lot of time hunting for treasures in the sand. On city beaches, we find mostly mussel and clam shells, some snails, jelly fish, and lots and lots of seaweed. A little farther afield we find these—we collected these yesterday:
These weird, stiff black puffs are actually skate pods. They're the (hopefully) hatched (and not eaten) eggs of sea creatures called skates, which are related to sharks and rays. The mother skate lays embryos on the sea floor; these cases develop around them to protect them until they mature. One pod = one baby skate.

Have you found any unusual creatures on the beach this summer?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Ada and her dad spotted these excellent puffballs last week. Puffballs are fungi that look just as their name suggests—like puffy balls, growing, usually without a stem, on dirt or grass or even wood. Some puffballs are small; some grow to giant size, almost 20 inches across. They belong to several families of mushrooms and fungi, not just one. Their spores live inside their globulous bodies, which break open when they mature, releasing the spores into the air. Have you found any interesting mushrooms this summer?