Our Wild Backyard {Learning About Herpetology}

IMG_0600Our house has lovingly been nicknamed “the zoo”, because along with our more traditional pet dogs, we also have four tortoises: two sulcatas and two Hermann’s. Everyone knows my husband as the “crazy animal lover guy”, so it’s not uncommon for us to get a phone call about a stray/homeless pet or a wildlife rescue question. Our number of pets may wax or wane at any moment.

Well, because of this reputation, our tortoise family just grew by one more sulcata! Ruby (our human toddler) has grown up with our existing tortoises, who my students named before she was even born. We were excited to let her name this one, while we continued the search for her owners. Ruby has settled on “Happy Thank You”, or just “Happy” for short.

Today, I wasn’t sure what our experiment would be and was pondering as I arrived home… to find an alligator in our yard! That’s right. A real, live alligator, just passing through. So, with that, I decided to forgo the traditional “experiment” and instead, share a little bit about our tortoises, reptiles and amphibians, and the field of herpetology.

 

Our Tortoise Family

IMG_0602Our sulcata tortoises are named Argus, Dumbledore, and Happy. Argus and Dumbledore are both 4-year-old males and Happy is a female (who we estimate is 5 or 6 years old). Sulcata tortoises are the third largest tortoises in the world. The biggest is the Galapagos tortoise, followed by the aldabra tortoise. Sulcata tortoises are also known as the African spurred tortoise because of the spurs on their thighs.

Sulcata tortoises are naturally found in North Africa, along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, down through the more arid countries (like Mali and Ethiopia) and along the coast of the Red Sea.

IMG_0603Although these little hatchlings start out less than 2 inches small, they quickly grow and can end up weighing more than 100 pounds and even live to be older than 100 years. They like warm and dry climates, like their natural habitat, so they’re best kept in Southern areas where temperatures are mild in the winter. Obviously, with a tortoise this size, they must be housed outside, so they can enjoy roaming and grazing on fresh grasses. Because of their size, life span, and habitat requirements, sulcata tortoises are a major commitment for their owners. After all, many sulcatas will outlive them. We actually have included accommodations for our tortoises in our wills!

Our Hermann’s tortoises are named Turbo and George. They are both seven-year-old males. They originally lived in my classroom, before I became a full-time mom.

Hermann’s tortoises are named after French physician and naturalist, Johann Hermann. This species originated from the Mediterranean region in southern Europe, which is a fairly moderate habitat in terms of temperatures and moisture.

These tortoises stay fairly small, only growing to 5-10 inches, so they’re better suited for families with smaller yards and less space to be shared. They still enjoy being outside, roaming, and eating fresh grasses, so they’re not the best suited pets to be kept indoors all the time. In fact, they’re quite feisty, with lots of personality and are excellent climbers. They still require a lot more space than you’d think a little 10 inch tortoise would need! And even though they’re smaller, they can still live to be about 75 years old, so they’re a lifelong commitment for their owners!

 

Tortoises vs. Turtles vs. Terrapins: It’s all chelonian to me!

All tortoises, turtles, and terrapins can be grouped together not only as reptiles, but also as “chelonians”, because they’re all part of the taxonomic order Chelonia, which actually stems from the Greek word for tortoise.

So, if they’re all chelonians, why do we call them different names? Good question. The differences mostly pertain to their habitats. A habitat is where a certain plant or animal naturally lives.

A tortoise lives on land and eats lots of different plants (weeds, grasses, shrubs, even cactus). Their feet are designed for life on land, so they’re short and stumpy. Some people say that tortoise feet remind them of elephant feet! Many tortoises will dig burrows to escape their hot, arid natural climates. The burrows fill up with water when it rains, creating a cool and damp place for them to escape the heat and sun!

IMG_0601A turtle lives mostly in the water, although it can sometimes leave the water to bask in the sun. Turtle feet are different than tortoise feet – they’re usually webbed and better designed for swimming in water than for walking on land. Some turtles live in the ocean (like sea turtles), while others will live in fresh water. When it gets cold outside, some turtles will burrow into the mud until spring brings warmer weather (and water) back.

A terrapin lives both on land and in water and usually lives along the banks or shores of a body of water. They’re often found in swampy areas like the one my family lives in, here in Southeastern Louisiana. The term “terrapin” is for some reason not a very popular one, so most people stick to “tortoise” or “turtle” when classifying these types of reptiles.

You may notice that all of these cold-blooded animals (also called ectothermic animals) have a mention about what they do to cool down or warm up. That’s because cold-blooded animals react to the temperature of their surroundings and can’t regulate their own body temperatures. So, if they need to warm up or cool down, they must change their surroundings and go somewhere else!

 

About Herpetology

Herpetology is a branch of biology/zoology that studies reptiles and amphibians. The word stems from the Greek word “herpeton” which means “creeping creature” and “herpien” which means “to creep”. Pretty appropriate, right?

Reptiles are cold-blooded vertebrates like snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and turtles. They usually have dry, scaly skin and breathe air. They also lay their soft-shelled eggs on land, instead of in the water.

Amphibians are also cold-blooded vertebrates, but they have gills to breathe and live in water as larvae, before developing lungs to breathe air as they grow older. They have moist, slimy skin without scales, like frogs, toads, and salamanders. Another fun amphibian fact? Their skin also helps them breathe through a gas exchange. They actually can absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide gas right through their skin!

IMG_0604Like many scientific fields, herpetology can be a tricky one to enter professionally. So, if you really love reptiles and amphibians, expect a harder road to finding a job working with and studying them. If you succeed, you’ll be called a herpetologist, a person who studies, you guessed it, reptiles and amphibians. You’ll likely work in a research lab, zoo, or university. There aren’t really college programs designed to study herpetology exclusively, so you’ll likely find a related major and build expertise through specialized projects and independent studies with qualified faculty.

If you choose not to study reptiles and amphibians, you still might end up a herper (a person who catches reptiles and amphibians in the wild as a hobby) or a herpetoculturist (a person who breeds and/or keeps reptiles and amphibians as a hobby or to sell them).

 

Are you a reptile and amphibian fan… a herper maybe? I’d love to hear from you!

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The Science Mom’s New Obsession {Project Mc2}

IMG_0430I spent the morning doing my favorite thing – aimlessly wandering the aisles at Target. That’s where I stumbled upon my new obsession and that obsession is Project Mc2. I had NO idea that this show or toy collection existed! Cool STEAM girls? This was made for my family.

And before you ask, NO. This is NOT a sponsored post in any way. Project Mc2 doesn’t even know the Science Mom Blog exists, as far as I know!

We are streaming our first episode on Netflix, as I type. The first season is airing now, with the second set to debut in August. The show follows teenage spy McKeyla and her brainiac friends as they use their STEAM skills to save the day. They’re stylish, witty, and super smart, which are all qualities that I want for my girls as they grow up! While other girls are cooing over a space traveling prince coming to town and wanting to be his “space princess”, the Project Mc2 girls are wanting to “pick his brain about his spacecraft’s orbital velocity”.

IMG_0431As for the toys, well, my daughter was just excited to see a Barbie-esque doll with a dinosaur shirt on. In fact, I’m not sure that she’s ever seen another little girl with a dinosaur shirt on, in real life or toy life. The Project Mc2 dolls are sold separately or with exciting experiments. You can also check out their separate branded kits (sans dolls) to make soda can robots, rock sugar jewelry, lip balm labs, and more! You can check them all out on their website here.

Once you’re browsing their website, you can play games, take fun quizzes, ask the girls questions, and find videos on cool experiments, ideas, and Q&As.

Anyway, the Science Family is officially obsessed! Let us know if you are too!

 

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Making It Rain {Learning About the Water Cycle}

IMG_0127Another day, another project as we experiment our way through the summer! We hope you’re joining us – or at least getting tempted to.

You can, of course, follow our experiments here, but also on the Science Mom Facebook page! You can also find other fun experiments on the Science Mom Pinterest boards or scrolling through this summer series here on the blog!

FullSizeRender 2Today, I decided to use Mother Nature for inspiration. After all, the radar was looking like this. Bah! The forecast kept getting pushed back further and further, but we skipped our trip to the splash pad anyway. Who needs a splash pad when you’re getting wet in your own kitchen and backyard, right?

I decided on not one, not two, but three projects today, as a splash pad apology to my toddler. I’m still not sure she forgave me for missing out on the fun with her best friend, Jax, but we had fun anyway!

 

Making It Rain, Part One

Materials:

  • A shallow dish (or any kind of pan, tray, bowl, or water-holding vessel)
  • Cotton balls
  • Water

Procedure:

  1. IMG_0310Fill your water-holding vessel with water. An inch or so should do it.
  2. Take a cotton ball “cloud” to explore. Note that the cotton ball is fluffy and doesn’t weigh much. It’s also very dry.
  3. Slowly, dip the cotton ball “cloud” into the water, allowing the water to slowly soak the cotton ball. Now your cloud is filled with rain-to-be. Note that it feels heavy and may have even changed shapes.
  4. Lift the cotton ball out of the water. The cotton ball is so saturated that water droplets will begin to fall back into the water-holding vessel. The more saturated, the faster the rain drops fall.
  5. Explain that this is [roughly] how the water cycle works. Not sure how the water cycle works exactly? No worries. Read on!

 

Making It Rain, Part Two

Materials:

  • Clear cup or jar (plastic or glass is fine)
  • Shaving cream
  • Water
  • Food coloring

Procedure:

  1. IMG_0315Fill your cup with water, leaving a small space at the top for your shaving cream.
  2. On top of the water, squirt shaving cream to create a nice, fluffy “cloud”.
  3. Carefully add drops of food coloring to the top of your shaving cream cloud.
  4. As the cloud gets heavier with the added food coloring, it will slowly begin to “rain” food coloring down into the cup. (Make sure you’re adding the food coloring slowly. Once it makes its way through the shaving cream, it will spread through the water quickly. If you’ve added too much, the water will rapidly change color and the experiment gets decidedly boring instantly!)

 

Making It Rain, Part Three

Materials:

  • Large glass jar (or bowl or measuring cup)
  • Paper plate or bowl large enough to cover the opening of the glass container
  • Water
  • Ice cubes

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Procedure:

  1. Heat water, either in the microwave or bring to a boil on the stovetop. (I recommend that a parent take care of this step and warn little hands that the glass jar will be hot hot hot!
  2. Transfer the water to your glass jar.
  3. Quickly, top the jar with a paper plate. Cover the plate with a pile of ice cubes.
  4. Watch as a mini water cycle emerges inside your glass jar!

 

The Science:

Rain is just one small part of the water cycle, the really awesome loop that Earth’s water has been traveling through from the ground to the sky and round and round again for billions of years. Water is never really “still”, even when it’s not actively going through the water cycle. Most of Earth’s water is stored in our oceans (roughly 96.5% of it, or 321,000,000 cubic miles) and we know the ocean is never still!

Water-Cycle-Art2A_mediumTo explain the water cycle to kids, it’s easiest to break it down into four stages: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and collection.

Let’s start with evaporation. That’s when the sun heats up collected water, which turns it into water vapor (a gas that we usually can’t see). This is how water begins its journey from the ground back up into the atmosphere. There are a couple of other ways that water can leave the ground. One of those ways is sublimation, which is when solid water (ice or snow) is heated and turns directly into water vapor. This is the process you see when dry ice turns into a big cloud of water vapor, or directly from a solid into a gas, without making a pitstop and becoming a liquid. (To be clear, this is not like when ice melts and turns into water and then eventually would evaporate into water vapor!) Another way that water evaporates is through transpiration, which is basically plant sweat! Water travels from the soil, through the plant roots, and transpires (sweats) through the plants’ leaves to become water vapor and head up into the atmosphere. It’s estimated that about 10% of the water in Earth’s atmosphere is from plant transpiration.

The next stop for all of that water vapor is condensation. As water vapor moves higher and higher into the atmosphere, it finds colder air. That colder air turns the water vapor back into a liquid. Those cooling water molecules find tiny particles in the air (like dust, smoke, or dirt) to cling to and form cloud droplets (very, very tiny drops of condensed water), which collect and grow to form clouds (this part of the process can be called coalescence). You see condensation all the time. When you pour a cold drink into a glass, you may see condensation form on the outside. That’s warm water vapor from the air around your glass being cooled by your drink and turning into water droplets. Your glass is kind of your own personal cloud!

As the cloud grows and gets heavier, we prepare for precipitation. The condensed water falls back to the ground in the form of rain, hail, snow, or sleet. This is no small task, as it takes millions of those little cloud droplets to collide and form a single rain drop. Once a rain drop is formed, it then has to have enough velocity to make it out of the cloud and fall as precipitation! In a really heavy rainstorm, the drops are falling at a speed of 24 feet per second – that’s a little over 16 miles per hour. There are some parts of the world where hardly any rain at all falls (less than 0.1 inches per year) and some where tons and tons of rain falls (900 inches per year). There’s a place in Chile where no rain (none!) fell for 14 years! 14! Rain is a pretty incredible thing when you stop and think about it all, right?

After the rain falls, the next stage is collection. That’s where the water settles here on Earth. Like I said before, about 96.5% of Earth’s water is stored in the oceans. The rest of that water (3.5%) is what we have in the atmosphere, lakes, ice caps and glaciers, rivers, streams, puddles, and everywhere else in the world! That really gives you an idea of the huge volume of water in the ocean.

And just like that, we are looping our way back through the water cycle. There are tons of other fun experiments and projects to learn more about it… and we will definitely revisit all of this again soon! For now, it’s time to check our rain gauge one last time and call it a [rainy] night!

I’ll leave you with one last thought. The water that you’re taking a bath in tonight could be the very same water that a dinosaur bathed in too. RAWR!

 

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Sandwich Bag Blasts {Learning About Acids and Bases}

IMG_0127Today marked our first project, as we experiment our way through the summer. We hope you’re joining us!

If you’re spending your summer with science, let us know on social media or in the comments section here. We’d love to hear about other families’ experimental summers!

These sandwich bag blasts were our version of celebratory fireworks this afternoon. Lucy (daughter #2) is currently in utero and there were concerns about her cerebellum development at our anatomy scan. Today, our MFM specialist gave her a clean bill of health and released us back to my regular OB-GYN. It’s a major weight off of our shoulders, so we were thrilled to celebrate the news with some backyard explosions! BANG BOOM POP HOORAY! BABY LUCY IS OKAY!

 

Sandwich Bag Blasts

Materials:

  • Zip lock sandwich bag
  • Paper towel
  • Baking soda (1-1/2 tbsp)
  • Vinegar (1/2 cup)
  • Warm water (1/4 cup)

 

Procedure:

  1. Check your sandwich bag for holes. If it’s not water-tight, you won’t get that magnificent BANG that young scientists crave. You can check it by filling it with water and shaking it around to spot leaks – or just rely on your eyesight to identify any holes.
  2. Rip your paper towel into a 6″ square (roughly, into quarters).
  3. Pour 1-1/2 tbsp of baking soda into the middle of one paper towel square.
  4. Fold up the paper towel, so the baking soda is safely nestled inside a pocket.
  5. Add the 1/2 c of vinegar and 1/4 c of warm water to the sandwich bag.
  6. Quickly, add the paper towel pocket into the sandwich bag and seal it. Emphasis on quickly.
  7. Shake, shake, shake your bag to get the reaction really going.
  8. Set down your sandwich bag, step back, and watch it swell, before BANG! The bag pops and you can call yourself the Sandwich Bag Bomb Squad.

 

 

The Science:

Almost all liquids can be qualified as either an acid or a base. Acids produce more hydrogen  (H+) ions when added to water, which deems them more acidic. Meanwhile, bases produce more hydroxide (OH-) when added to water, which deems them more, you guessed it, basic. You can thank chemist Svante Arrhenius for this classification system!

Acids (the ones with more hydrogen ions) have a sour taste and can even dissolve other materials (we call that “corrosive”). In fact, the word acid is derived from the Latin word acidus, which means “sour”. The best example of an acid is our own stomach acid, that helps us break down the foods we eat.

Bases (the ones with more hydroxide ions) can have a bitter taste and tend to be on the more slimy (think: icky) side. We also call bases “alkali” because they are “alkaline” (not acidic). An example of a base would be soap – the soap we wash our bodies with and even laundry or dish soap!

Acids-and-Alkalis-The-pH-ScaleAll of these liquids have a place within the pH scale, which ranges from 0-14. Strong acids make up the lower part of the scale (0-4), while strong bases make up the higher part of the scale (10-14). In the middle of the pH scale is 7, which is “neutral” and is neither acidic or basic. The best example of a neutral is water

Both very acidic and very basic liquids can be equally dangerous, so it’s best to work with items within the middle of the PH scale when we do experiments like this! Professional chemists use those strong acids and bases to create big reactions in chemistry labs, so if you like explosions and reactions, you might have found your future major or career!

In this particular experiment, the vinegar (acid) and baking soda (base) cause a chemical reaction that produces carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide fills the bag and, after running out of room to continue expanding, pops the bag open with our thrilling BANG!

 

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