Share it! Science : November 2014

Turkey Genome Sequencing: Building a Better Bird

turkey science

Here's a fun fact I bet you didn't know- scientists have been working on sequencing the genome of domesticated turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, since 2008. As of today, this project is almost complete (95%). The drive behind learning more about turkey genetics is to improve traits in the birds we raise to eat. Understanding more about turkey genetics could prevent some of the problems, such as poor immune response, skeletal issues and heart trouble, that have risen recently from the over-doing it with genetic selection.

Researchers recently published a paper explaining this project and its benefits in the journal Poultry Science. Understanding the turkey genome more precisely will help identify better ways to raise healthier birds and provide economic benefits for farmers.
When you are sitting back digesting your Thanksgiving dinner, why not gather up the kids and learn about where your food came from? I am always surprised at how much we don't realize about what we put in our bodies every day! It is a long journey from farm and factory to plate. Or perhaps you're up for a rousing debate with a less informed relative on the age old myth that turkey makes you sleepy? Regardless of your conversation, I hope you have a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving!

Post updated: 11/7/15

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Book Suggestions (these are affiliate links, please see disclosures for further details):

T is for Turkey children's book
learn about turkeys children's book

Solar Power in Space: Real Life Engineering Challenges

Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA
It was thrilling for all to follow the progress of the Philae lander as it approached its comet destination through the European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission. Although this was a historical feat and Philae was able to record and send back some information, due to a "bounce" during landing the lander ended up in an unexpected position in the dark shadows of a cliff. The lack of light prevented Philae from drawing enough solar power to continue running, and for now the lander is in hibernation. Scientists are hopeful that as the comet approaches the sun in the next few months that it may be able to power up again. This is just one example of the myriad of engineering challenges facing space programs. It is rocket science after all...

     After hearing about this issue with the Philae lander, I was reminded of something I learned while visiting Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum this summer in Washington, D.C. NASA's Mars rover, Opportunity, which has been chugging along for 10 years now could easily have been put to a halt due to dust covering its solar panels.
Dusty solar panels on Opportunity. (photo: NASA)
With dust storms on the red planet, it was predicted that this could be an issue with the rover mission. Opportunity has far surpassed all expectations, however, it would be great if the rover could continue traversing Mars as long as possible. From Earth there is only so much that can be done to remedy engineering issues when they arise on a rover like this. Luckily for Opportunity, strong winds last March cleared a lot of dust off of the solar panels. We saw evidence of this from two different "selfies"sent by the rover before and after the cleaning.
     Space exploration is always an engaging topic. Why not use the real-life challenges facing the Philae lander and Mars rovers as a way to inspire students to tackle engineering challenges? There are so many unforeseen issues that arise in a space mission, we can use these instances to spark interest and foster great problem solving skills in our kids. After all, they might be faced with a major challenge someday with only their own ingenuity and a roll of duct tape to help them out!
     There are many ways to introduce engineering, innovation and creative thought at school and home. It could be a building challenge using a kit, or it can be as simple as providing a few supplies, such as marshmallows and spaghetti to build a tower. Each year at my school we engage students in mixed age groups to complete a science challenge on our annual "Science Day". These challenges have included: soda bottle rockets, egg drop, paper airplanes, spaghetti and marshmallows towers, drinking straw bridges, etc. We also give students assignments to build solar cars, solar ovens and popsicle stick bridges during our science classes. The students come up with many different solutions to these open ended challenges. Their creativity always surpasses our expectations. How have you inspired your children or students to be a creative engineer? Comment below!

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Saturday Science Experiment

Bubble Fun!
     Are you looking for an indoor or outdoor family activity for this weekend? How about exploring the science of bubbles? Bubbles are fun AND filled with science and math concepts: surface tension, evaporation, shape, chemistry etc. You probably have all the supplies you need right in your kitchen to play with bubbles: dish soap, drinking straws, and possibly corn syrup. Want to know why bubbles are round, or how to pierce them without popping? Try these easy experiments out. Interested in those swirling colors? Then here is a project for you. If you're feeling adventurous you might want to change your bubble solution and try to make bouncy bubbles or thick bubbles with these other recipes. Maybe understanding the math behind a bubble is more your style. Have you ever tried to freeze a bubble? Yes, freezing a bubble is possible. It just might be the best way to enjoy the polar vortex!

If you are making a family trip to the library or book store this weekend here are some excellent books about bubbles to check out, click the image for more info:

Happy experimenting!


See it? Share it! Science Observations and Questions

Wildlife Tracking
     This week we had several snowy mornings. Just a dusting, no lake effect snow here! Sorry Buffalo! The thin layer of snow is the perfect ground surface for animal tracking. Each morning before the sun comes up we strap on our headlamps and take our dog for a walk. She often has her nose to the ground sniffing and tracking who knows what. This week we had the rare treat of understanding what she was investigating with her nose. I quickly identified some red fox tracks with their straight and steady walking gait. Unlike the meandering tracks of my dog, you'll find fox tracks in a direct register pattern, meaning that the back paw lands directly in the track of the front paw, creating a straight line of tracks. Red fox footprints are fairly small, usually less than 2" long or wide. We tracked the fox for at least a quarter of a mile before it ducked off into the woods. There were times when our dog tracked the fox precisely and times when she got distracted by other olfactory wonders.
Tracks spotted during a walk last February. © S.B.F 2014
     Wildlife tracking can be a really fun family activity. You can find tracks in the snow, sand or mud just about anywhere. Once you have identified your animal tracks you can begin to piece together the natural history mystery they have left behind. 

This post contains affiliate links. Please see disclosure for details. 

Some tracking resources I find incredibly useful for tracking with children are: 
Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life Size Tracking Guide by Lynn Levine and Martha Mitchell. 
This guide is one of few that shows life size tracks for mammals large and small. Imagining scale can be a difficult concept for younger children, so this allows kids to see tracks on the page they size they will see them in real life. It is also a weatherproof guide so you can take it on your adventures.

Tracks, Scats and Signs (Take Along Guides) by Leslie Dendy
This is a great introduction to tracking and animal sign geared towards children.

Your state's conservation office most likely offers some sort of tracking guide. There are several printable tracking cards from around New England: 

Here's a video to get you started from the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation 

What sort of science observations did you make this week? Do you have a great resource for animal tracking with children you'd like to share? Please do so in the comment section below. Happy tracking!

Post Updated: 1/4/2016

Turns out the Meteorologists Didn't Stand a Chance

     How often have you been frustrated that a weather report was wrong? I know I am certainly guilty of this. Meteorology is a difficult and evolving science. We put a lot of stock into weather forecasts and then are often disappointed if they are not spot-on. Recent research of raindrop velocity might throw meteorology a curve ball. Michael Larson, an atmospheric physicist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, recently published evidence that showed raindrops moving faster than their terminal velocity. What?? You're right, this shouldn't happen, but apparently, it does. Larson and his team measured the velocity of 23 million individual raindrops during their study. They found that 3 out of every 10 of them dropped faster than their terminal velocity. Terminal velocity is what occurs when the downward force of gravity and the upward force of friction on a falling object are equal, therefore canceling each other out. 

This is not the first time this phenomena has been observed. In 2009 researchers found that smaller raindrops seemed to travel faster than their terminal velocity. The study published by Larson's team in Geophysical Research Letters on October 1st was further evidence this phenomena was occurring. It is still unclear to scientists why this is happening. The speedy drops are all categorized as "small", or those smaller than 0.5 millimeters (0.02 inch). It could be that these smaller drops have broken off of larger drops on their way down and it is affecting our measurement of their velocity. This is yet to be determined. We understand how to calculate the terminal velocity of the larger drops, but maybe we need to recalculate to determine the terminal velocity of the smaller ones. Some scientists are arguing that these smaller drops are "drizzle" rather than regular raindrops, therefore needing different calculations.
     Regardless of the mysterious reason these raindrops are speeding faster than we thought, this discovery could affect meteorology. If we are using the standard equations for velocity of raindrops to predict the amount of rainfall, we could be throwing off the numbers that drive our weather models. This new evidence could cause a shift in how meteorologists predict the weather.

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Rain and Terminal Velocity Resources:


See it? Share it! Science Observations and Questions


     We woke up to a very thin blanket of snow this morning at my house. Although the onset of a snowy winter leads to thoughts of dread for many, I can't help but take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the white stuff. I enjoy teaching about snow and snow crystals in my science classes. One of my favorite web sites for snow science is Cal tech's  This page was created by physicist Kenneth G. Libbrecht who studies the physics of ice crystal formation. There are some pretty cool videos of snowflakes growing in the lab that I show my students year after year. Check them out! I promise it will make you forget about the shovel and ice scraper for just a few minutes!

© Sarah Benton Feitlinger 2013
Do you have a favorite resource for learning or teaching about snow? What are your favorite resources about the other Share it! Science topics of the week: bats and echolocation  and animal behavior and play? Have you made an interesting science observation this week? Share in the comment section below!  

It's Play Time!

A playful brown bear? (source)
Do animals play? What exactly is play in the scientific sense? Well, if you have a pet you probably think the first question is a no brainer. Of course they do! The second question is not quite as easy to answer. In the past, scientists who studied animal behavior were hesitant to label behaviors as play because it would seem like anthropomorphism (or related human characteristics to animals). I do recall the professor of my Animal Behavior class in college repeatedly warning us against describing behaviors this way. This way of thinking is becoming more and more outdated in the animal behavior world. Scientists now are more comfortable with describing a behavior as "play" if it does not have a function or benefit. In other words, if it isn't something that has to do with finding food, survival or reproduction it might fall into the category of "play". Play has been observed in a wide range of animals from wasps to chimps. 

     A recent study observed a new play behavior in cichlid fish. Gordon Burghardt  is a scientist who studies play in animals, amongst many other things. He heard about an interesting behavior observed by James Murphy a herpetologist at Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Murphy observed a cichlid fish in his aquarium at home bumping into a weighted floating thermometer over and over again. The fish would strike it, then once it popped back up, it would hit it again. They filmed this fish and others in similar situations exhibiting this behavior again and again. The fish all did it, but had different methods of going about it. Was this play, or another behavior?
Cichlid Fish (source)
In order to find out, they tested to be sure they could rule out hunger, aggression and mating rituals. They found that the fish knocked the thermometer whether they had been fed or not, they were not showing aggression to other fish, and they were not exhibiting the full body vibrations that male cichlids do to attract a mate. The fish seemed to be using the thermometer as a punching bag because it was fun! The scientists published their results at the end of September in the journal Ethology.
      No one is quite sure what the purpose or role for the cichlid play was. We can certainly see the role in other types of animal play, particularly when we see it in mammals. Play seems to strengthen social bonds, gives opportunities for young animals to practice adult behaviors like hunting and is an outlet for surplus energy. Animals play in groups, such as dogs at a dog park, or groups of young chimps. This is not surprising if we imagine a group of children together. They find all sorts of ways to play. Animals also play by themselves. An intriguing example of this is the observation that ravens "snowboard" down snowy rooftops in Alaska and Northern Canada. Ravens are known for their intelligence. After they slide down the snowy roof, they will head back up to the top and do it again. There seems to be no practical purpose for this behavior, therefore we can describe it as play. 

These are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to examples of animals exhibiting play behaviors. The animal world never ceases to amaze!

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Animal Behavior and Wildlife Resources:

Jam Masters

     As most of us know bats use their excellent sense of hearing and a system of echolocation to navigate and find food. Bats are not blind, however, they have poor vision and are active during the night, so they must depend on methods other than sight to maneuver and hunt. Echolocation is a method where an animal emits a sound, and then the echo of that sound bounces back to the animal. They can then determine the distance of an object based on the echo. Bats, dolphins, whales and shrews use echolocation.
     A bat's ability to hone in on very small objects, such as insects, is amazing. In a paper recently published in Science there is evidence that bats are not only excellent at hunting this way, but the Mexican free-tailed bat is also able to thwart their competition from catching their food through sound. These bats "jam" another bat's echolocation so that they are 85.9% less likely to catch their prey. When a hunting bat is approaching its prey the echos become more frequent, creating what is referred to as the "feeding buzz". If another bat detects this feeding buzz, it emits very quick clicking sounds that "jam" the hunting bat's signal, thus causing it to just barely miss its prey. 

It is thought that this must improve the signal jammer's ability to catch more food, but this has yet to be tested. Thus far the Mexican free-tailed bat is the only bat known to do this.
     The use of echolocation and the ability to pinpoint such small objects is incredible. In addition to creatures in the animal world using this tactic it was recently determined that blind people may have the ability to use a form of echolocation to navigate as well. Researchers from the University of Southampton's Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (UK)  and the University of Cyprus completed studies with blind and sighted test subjects to see how they could navigate using echos and clicks. This phenomena does not necessarily have to do with lack of sight, it involves the quality of one's hearing as well. National Geographic's Brain Games recently explored this phenomena as well. See it in action here. Pretty awesome! It makes you wonder how many other things humans and animals are capable of that have yet to be discovered.

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Echolocation Resources and Activities

Weather: Authentic Science- Not Just Small Talk!

     What do you remember from your science classes? Film strips? Textbooks? Science Fair Projects? Did I even have science classes before High School? Yup. That is what I thought. If you are like me, most likely your passion for science was inspired early on by experiences outside of school. Although it might not be the case everywhere, in general I believe we have found much more effective ways to engage students in science. It is so important to get kids involved in authentic science projects where they are able to make meaningful, real-world connections. I was inspired today by an article on Eureka! Lab,  a feature of Student Science News on Teachers at the Governor's STEM Academy at a Harrisonburg, Virginia High School purchased weather balloon kits from Stratostar.  They used these kits to inspire their students in a wide range of concepts including atmospheric science, chemistry and engineering.
The Stratostar high altitude weather balloon kit is customizable to allow to for data collection in many different ways from weather conditions, to monitoring atmospheric radiation or even changes to the speed of sound as it moves through the atmosphere. The kits are customizable to fit the needs of the program. This particular school project got the kids so jazzed up they were willing to come in on weekends and take on the planning and execution of their weather balloon launch themselves! The big caveat here is the price tag of the kits. Running upwards of $12,000 you'll most likely need a sponsor or a good grant-writer to help fund a project like this. However, once you've obtained a kit, you can reuse many of the components. Although this particular kit might be out of reach for many of us, it begs the question- How can we find ways to connect students to affordable and authentic science experiences? The possibilities are out there!
      Studying the weather is an excellent place to start. We experience the weather each day and it will impact students throughout their adult life. Whether it is an impending polar vortex or a super storm, weather is an accessible real-life concept. I have incorporated the NASA S'COOL program into my 5th grade weather curriculum for several years. This is a free program that allows students to learn about clouds and their impact on weather and climate, while contributing data to scientific research. S'COOL, or Student Cloud Observations On-Line, teaches educators and students how to observe and identify cloud types to provide "ground-truth" data for the CERES (Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System) satellites. The CERES satellites are gathering data and cloud images from their orbit above the Earth's surface. This is only one side of the picture. Students collect and provide data from the ground, to corroborate what is seen from above, hence: ground truth. In combination you then see the whole picture. Students can learn a lot from clouds- including how to predict the weather from them. Once my class has collected data during a CERES satellite overpass they input it on-line and receive a report back. S'COOL requests students analyze these reports to see how their data matches (or doesn't match) the CERES data. It is a dynamic, authentic process. The coordinator of the project, Dr. Lin H. Chambers, is always helpful and at times has even sent the students messages about their data. Once we noted that it began to hail during an observation. Lin wrote back a simple "Be careful out there!" and the kids thought it was great. Knowing that they were sending their data to a scientist who then communicated back to them solidified that this was the real deal! 

      NASA S'COOL certainly isn't the only project out there to engage students in meteorology and atmospheric science. Digital weather stations can be great way to collect weather data and share it with others. Many schools have weather stations linked to Weather Underground so they can monitor, collect and share real-time data. Even something as simple as building a rain gauge can engage students outside of the classroom. We recently made one out of a transparent container with our Kindergartners and placed it by the walkway so they can see it as they leave school for the day. The kids are excited and inspired to check it each day, and it was virtually free to build. I repeat...the possibilities are out there!
      How do you involve your children or students in experiential science? Comment below!

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Weather Resources

Weather Wiz Kids- Activities and Info from Meteorologist Crystal Wicker

Weather Activities- excellent Lesson Plans from

Bird Song's Harmony is Music to Our Ears

The Hermit thrush (source)
      A harmonious blend of math, science, music and nature came together this week in a study on the songs of Hermit thrushes published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Thrushes have long been favorites of birders for their musical songs. Researchers have now found that the Hermit thrush prefers to sing songs in harmonic series. This is a musical preference that humans share with the birds. A harmonic series is a music and mathematics concept where a musical series begins at a base note and continues with a frequency in multiples of that note. For example: a series of notes begins with a frequency of 1,000 Hz, proceeds to 2,000 Hz, 3,000 Hz, and so on.
     The question of whether bird songs follow the patterns of human music has been an interesting research topic that has yielded mixed results. Although we cannot prove that birds are basing the structure of their songs on scales, it seems that this thrush has a preference to do so. The hermit thrush is not limited to the notes it sings by any physiological constraint of its vocal chords, it is indeed choosing the notes it sings from its vocal repertoire. They could be choosing to sing this way because they find it pleasing to the ear, as we do, or it could simply be because harmonic scales are easier to remember, as they are for us. We have often toyed with the question of whether human music is a construct of biology or culture. Perhaps this is an indication that there is more biology at work than we realize.
     Studying bird songs can be a fascinating way to identify birds and enjoy nature. Cornell's Lab of Ornithology is a treasure trove of information, educational materials and fun activities for the science classroom or the casual birder. A new tool available from Cornell is "Bird Song Hero". Bird Song Hero is a bird song matching game that allows you to hear and visualize the songs of various birds. Playing it is a great way to hone your bird identification skills. 

This is an excellent opportunity to meet several learning styles, auditory and visual in the science classroom. The tutorial shows you how to "read" the visual spectrogram of a bird song and match it to what you are hearing. Maybe a mnemonic device is more your style? Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia has put together an extensive list of bird song mnemonics. You may already be familiar with some of these, for example: "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" (Barred Owl), "Cheerily, Cheer up, Cheerily" (Robin). Try Bird Song Hero or these mnemonics to determine which method is best for you to remember, identify and appreciate your bird songs. We might have more in common with our feathered friends than we realize!

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Bird Song Resources and Activities:

Meet "Robochick" and "Flipperbot"

     Wildlife biology can be tricky business. In order to study different animals in their natural habitat you must get close to them. Getting close to them can cause them to act in an unnatural way- potentially defeating the purpose of the research. More and more often biologists are finding ways to use technology to aid them in obtaining the data they need in less intrusive ways. Scientists studying Emperor penguin populations found that they could use robotic rovers to get up-close without causing stress amongst the penguins. In order to read the tags used in wildlife monitoring studies, scientists need to get within 60 centimeters (2 feet) of the animals. When scientists try to get this close to the penguins, it elevates their heart rate. They found if they sent in a rover, in this case a rover disguised as a penguin chick, (or robochick) the penguins reacted the same way they do when another penguin walks by. The penguins even tried to vocalize with the robochick

     Robotics can also help scientists to understand wildlife physiology. Researchers at Georgia Tech  were studying the locomotion of sea turtle hatchlings over different substrates. During the research the students observed that the hatchlings used a particular motion of the wrist of their fin to move effectively over the loose sand and gravel. Back at the lab they engineered a robotic turtle or "flipperbot" to examine how this motion might help the turtle move over different types of terrain. The idea is to use what they have found in the lab to predict what they might see in nature, and then make further observations to see if these predictions come true. Additionally, there are applications in robotics and engineering that can be derived from learning about effective motion in wildlife. 

     Robotics is certainly only one of the ways technology is used in wildlife biology. GPS tracking, motion cameras and other devices have made observing animals in less invasive, and in turn, more accurate ways possible. The possibilities are endless when we are willing to reach across disciplines and use all the tools available to us.

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Wildlife Biology and Robotics Resources