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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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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5 Fun Kids’ Science Experiment Books

As much as I love Pinterest, it can be time consuming to sort through all of the boards and pins and blog posts to find experiments to try. By the time I find them, I’m done! I don’t want to experiment anymore!

So, that’s when I turn to my trusty collection of books to look for experiments.

Here are my five favorite books on my shelf!

1. 365 Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials

61d0SZTwUWL._SX436_BO1,204,203,200_This book is chocked full of truly simple science experiments, most of which only require basic supplies already floating around your house (like a bottle and wad of paper, for instance). It’s the perfect book to grab when you’re faced with a chorus of “I’M BORED!” this summer.

Bonus: Grab “365 MORE Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials” when you work your way through the first 365!

2. Kitchen Science Lab for Kids

61nYRSXSiPL._SX496_BO1,204,203,200_No, this isn’t a cookbook, exactly. But it is full of exciting projects that will entertain the youngest and oldest scientists at your house with “ingredients” found in your kitchen. The safety moms among us will enjoy her safety tips and attention to detail throughout the book.

Can’t Miss Experiments:
Frankenworms
Rock Candy
Pizza Box Solar Oven
Vegetable Vampires

 

3. The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science: 64 Daring Experiments for Young Scientists

61slzmdLAxL._SX294_BO1,204,203,200_Who could resist a title like that, right? If there’s anything that can engage an uninterested young scientist, it’s promise of irresponsibility and daring adventure. This book delivers with a lot of fun explosions and messes, best intended for an outdoor setting. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted experimenters (potato guns, Frankenstein hands, homemade lightning, and more)… which is precisely what we love about this book!

On a side note, the book is really aesthetically pleasing too. It doesn’t look or feel like a science book, which makes it all the more appealing for your hesitant scientists.

 

4. Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments

518O7IuSl-L._SX403_BO1,204,203,200_Admittedly, I am the science experiment nerd of this household, with my husband being the nature/conservation nerd, so I wasn’t sold when I looked at the title of this book. However, it is really well written to engage a wide range of ages, not insulting anyone’s intelligence, but still presenting the science in understandable terms for kids.

This book will have your scientists doing everything from polishing pennies to making straw balloon rocket blasters. With only 30 experiments in the book, they’re all well detailed, with color photos to help guide you through the process.

5. Kids’ Book of Simple Machines

61Augt7G+uL._SY498_BO1,204,203,200_I love this book on simple machines for many reasons, but especially because it’s a topic usually ignored for the more glamorous chemistry-based reactions. Just like in the movies, the explosions get all the attention!

The six simple machines are made equally thrilling here, with fun projects and detailed explanations to really show their worth!

 

Have you used any of these books with your families? Have other favorites? Let me know in the comments! I always love book suggestions.

Now, go forward, read, and experiment!

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