Shell-a-Brate World Turtle Day!

If you are familiar with my writing, you’ll have noticed that turtles are a frequent topic. But wait, you may say, I thought you usually wrote about tortoises? I hate to admit it, but tortoises fall into the category of turtles! Please don’t tell Myrtle, my red-foot tortoise. I wrote my first rhyming picture book, Don’t Call Me Turtle, for her. She kept being called Myrtle the turtle, which she hated. Most people don’t realize just how different turtles and tortoises are. No matter if you prefer terrestrial or sea turtles, or tortoises, join together to shell-a-brate Turtle World Day on May 23. 

World Turtle Day started in 2000 as an event sponsored by American Tortoise Rescue. The purpose is to celebrate all turtles and bring awareness to their disappearing habitats and efforts to protect them. The majority, 61%, of the 356 species of turtle are threatened or have become extinct in modern times.

What Makes a Turtle a Turtle?

Since turtles are a diverse group of reptiles, let’s explore what makes a turtle a turtle. As reptiles, they breathe air, lay eggs, and are ectotherms (their body temperatures vary with the environment). Turtles are all in the order Testudines, which is characterized by a shell developed primarily from their ribs. The shells consist of bone and are covered with scales made of keratin (the protein of hair and fingernails).

Turtles are found on most continents, many islands, and most of the ocean. What continent are turtles not found on? Antarctica, where it’s a bit too cold. They are found in both freshwater and saltwater.

Over Land and Sea

Land turtles don’t travel much, while sea turtles migrate long distances to lay eggs on selected beaches. But the sea turtles don’t travel alone, many other animals travel along with them. Barnacles (one of my favorite animals), other crustaceans, remoras (fish), algae, and diatoms tag along and are dispersed to new locations.

Land turtles are also important dispersers of seeds as well as modifying their environment. They dig tunnels and help. maintain the environment in deserts, wetlands, and both freshwater and marine environs. These seemingly lackluster reptiles have a significant impact on the health of their ecosystems and our quality of life. In my book, Don’t Make Me Rattle, you can learn about how many animals brumate* together in tortoise dens during cold weather. Animals that would be considered predator and prey, diner and meal, spend time together in underground dens. If turtle species are lost, many other species will be impacted, both plants and animals.

*In extreme temperatures, mammals hibernate, while reptiles brumate.

People are easily confused and can’t tell the difference between terrestrial (land) turtles and sea turtles. This results in land turtles being thrown into the ocean. I wrote a book on this difference on behalf of the Cayman Islands where many freshwater hickatees are thrown to their death in the ocean.

green book cover with turtle illustration

But this is also true of tortoises and land turtles. People too frequently throw tortoises into the water, where they drown. Turtles can swim, but tortoises can’t. More on this later.

So, where do tortoises fit into this family? When I ask people if they know the differences between turtles and tortoises, the most common response is that turtles live in water. But the correct answer is, that all turtles can swim, although they may never be near water. Meet Ela, my Sonoran Desert Box Turtle. 

Ela the sonoran box turtle, her tongue is sticking out and she is posing on grass outside.

This turtle will never see a body of water but spent her life in the dryness of the desert. I did have another Sonoran Desert Box turtle who loved swimming in my pool. Every night I’d come home from work and find him paddling happily in the water, even though the water was very, very cold! The chlorine wasn’t an issue to him. I worried about hypothermia, so blocked his path to the pool – he left! His spot in my yard was taken over by Ela. Ela would brumate with Zoe my Sonoran Desert tortoise each winter and they would emerge together in the spring.

For some of the many differences between turtles and tortoises, I humbly suggest you read Don’t Call Me Turtle.

The Importance of Conservation

Why are turtles losing the battle to extinction? After all, turtles roamed about with dinosaurs and were able to survive what killed them off. Many are hunted for their meat and eggs, used in traditional medicine, their shells are used for jewelry, run over on the road, and drowned as bycatch. On top of this are habitat destruction, climate change, and disease. Sadly, this has reduced turtles around the world, something a meteor couldn’t do 65 million years ago. 

We have witnessed turtle extinctions in our lifetime. I had the honor of meeting Lonesome George in the Galapagos, the last surviving Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii). His death in June 2012 was the end of a species. Although his death was publicized and mourned around the world, many reptilian species die without any notice.

But they’re just turtles, tortoises, and terrapins, right? How much impact could they really have? When the giant tortoises were reintroduced to islands in the Galapagos (Ecuador), the savanna ecosystem was restored. This allows for the survival of other native plants and animals. One keystone species can accomplish a lot.

People look at turtles and tortoises and see moving lumps. Nondescript lumps that make a nice pop when you run over them on the road. However, if you’ve ever gotten to know a tortoise or a turtle, you know they have a lot of personalities. They don’t hesitate to let you know their likes and dislikes. They are not “shrinking violets.” No, these reptiles bite each other, ram each other with their gular horn, and chase each other at surprising speeds.

A bobcat leers at an oncoming tortoise, the image is distorted by a screen door.

If you look closely at this photo, you’ll see a bobcat on the right about to flee for its life from the rampaging sulcate tortoise on the left. Duke, the tortoise, was very proud of himself, strutting around the yard, looking for other predators to chase off. I should put up a “Beware of Attack Tortoise” sign on my gate.

Now, are you ready to shell-a-brate?! These fascinating reptiles deserve our support and admiration on May 23 and every day. My twelve tortoises and two turtles agree. If you have any questions about turtles, please reach out to me. You might also enjoy my turtle and tortoise videos on my YouTube channel.

Having Fun with Shadows!

Do you enjoy shadows as much as I do? As a child, I fondly remember making shadow puppets with my family, creating animals out of our hands. My shadows were always very simple and I admired people who could make more complex animal shadows. Little did I know that shadow puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling. That makes sense, though; as long as you have a surface for a light to be pointed at, you can make shadows. Hopefully, this blog will shed some light on the shadowy business of shadows. 

A Shadow by any Other Name

One of my favorite shadows is in that popular poem that I recited repeatedly as a child and, I confess, I still do today. You can’t go wrong with the poems by Robert Louis Stevenson.

My Shadow

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;

And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

 

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—

Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;

For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,

And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

 

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,

And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.

He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;

I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

 

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,

I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;

But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,

Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Me and My Shadows

I, too, delighted in the diversity of my shadow’s forms, and still do today. I even use shadows to examine my horse’s stride, since I can’t always determine what its feet are doing from my perch on its back. It’s so much easier when I can look at the horse’s shadow for confirmation that we’re moving correctly.

From my home in Tucson, I can see Pusch Ridge in the Santa Catalina Mountains, east of the city. When the sunsets, not only do the mountains change colors, orange to maroon, but shadows darken the indentations. These shadows give the ridge an air of harshness and mystery.

One mountain shadow near Phoenix is quite famous. From the third week of March through the third week of September, a shadow forms that looks like a mountain lion chasing a prey animal. This shadow forms in the Superstition Mountains, east of Mesa. The sun must be at the correct latitude on the western horizon to create this shadow. It’s amazing and spectacular to use one’s imagination on such a large scale. I wonder if the Native Americans enjoyed this phenomenon as much as modern people do.

A shadow that resembles a cougar lies between two mountain peaks.

Photo credit: Paul Fiarkoski for AZ Wonders

Shadows of the Wild

Shadows of trees can create a mysterious setting for a story. Moonlight on the desert’s sparsely leaved trees provides a satisfying effect.

An eerie shadow of a bare branches on asphalt.

My iguanas are also involved in my shadow observations. Calliope Green Iguana’s shedding skin created an interesting pattern along her back.

AN iguana with striped shadows on her side created by her shedding skin.

However, my rock iguana, Blue, did the best job of creating impressive shadows. The shadows of his claws are good enough for a horror movie!

The claw of an iguana, the shadow exaggerates the hook and sharpness of the nails.

And even though he is five feet long, his body’s shadow produced a huge reptilian creature! I especially like how his spines came out, too.

An iguana with a shadow that is twice its size with exaggerated spines.

What are your favorite shadows? For me, Shadows can be useful tools, something to enjoy, or writing inspiration. I hope you’ll find something new in a shadow the next time you encounter one. 

Why Don’t I Write That?

I’m so happy in-person book sales are returning. I love speaking to people about my books and about the importance of science education through children’s books. Many people are delighted to find my books and often suggest other topics for me to write about. I write them all down. 

My most popular books are my Don’t series, which features animals and plants found in the Sonoran Desert (and other places), are popular in the Tucson area. Often people will comment that they’ve bought one or seen it for sale in various gift shops. That makes my day. However, even though I’m delighted when people recognize my books, I often get credit for a book I didn’t write: Don’t Call Me Pig! But I do have a story about it.

Once Upon a Don’t

Book Cover: Don't Call Me Pig!

Don’t Call Me Pig!  is about the javelinas, or peccaries, of the Sonoran Desert. They are not pigs, although they look a lot like pigs. One clue is that javelinas don’t have tails! Another difference, which is important to my frequent topic of invasiveness of species, is that javelinas are native to the Americas (the New World), but domestic pigs (which become wild boars) are from the Old World (Africa, Asia and Europe).

Don’t Call Me Pig! was written by the very talented author, Conrad Storad. When I was planning on writing about the differences between turtles and tortoises, I wanted to emulate Storad’s book style. His books included many scientific facts and natural history, just like I wanted to do. When I bought my copy of Don’t Call Me Pig!, I discovered that his picture book rhymed. You may be familiar with my opinion that children’s pictures books should rhyme. Inspired, I created my rhyming picture book on behalf of my tortoise, Myrtle (not Myrtle the turtle!)

However, I was concerned about the title. I wanted to name my book, Don’t Call Me Turtle! Was this too close to Don’t Call Me Pig!? Even though, he didn’t have any other titles with Don’t Call Me, would people confuse us?

As I was contemplating my book’s name, I had the opportunity to sit next to Storad at a book festival in Tucson. This gave me a chance to speak with him. First, I learned that his book, Don’t Call Me Pig!, had just sold a million copies. Not bad for a rhyming picture book, published 1999. Modern traditional publishers have been wary of rhyming picture books, with some editors and agents refusing to even look at them. I doubt I will ever reach that sales level, but why not try?

I asked Storad if he minded if I titled my book so closely to his. He graciously told me to go ahead, that he didn’t mind at all. That was the start of my Don’t series about animals and plants that are found in the Sonoran Desert and other places. I am grateful to Storad for his kindness and encouragement. I doubt he remembers me, but I will always remember him.

For more information about my books and me, check out www.LyricPower.net. You’ll find tons of educational and entertaining books, downloadable workbooks, and puzzles.

Celebrating HerStory Month!

March is an important month for women! Not only was March 8th International Women’s Day. But it’s also HerStory Month, otherwise known as Women’s History Month. It is important to celebrate the vital role of women in American history for the entire month of March, not just one day. Learning about HerStory Month, got me thinking about my story as a woman in both science and the arts. I’ve written previously about some of the challenges I faced in my career, but this time I’d like to share some favorite and little-known highlights. Come celebrate HerStory month with me!

The Beginning of my HerStory

One of my favorite (non-science) accomplishments was helping to found the Hunterdon Radio Theatre. They produce New Time radio scripts in the style of Old-Time radio. My storytelling began with creating audio scripts, which are very different from writing stage theater scripts or books. All the information needed for the story is presented orally. Writing for the ear is much more difficult than for the eyes. The ear is unforgiving of “dead air” or incorrect sounds. And it can ruin the whole story for some! I remember listening to a police procedural where an officer enters his boss’ office. I heard the appropriate sound of the door opening and the background sounds becoming louder. As the dialog began, the background noise became quiet, but the door never closed. Instead of listening to the dialog, I was concentrating on the lack of the door closing sound! 

Many of my theater scripts were performed live. One, the Shrine of Seven Iguanas, was actually recorded. I bet you can guess how many iguanas I had in my home at that time (the script title is a clue). Noel, my first iguana, was used as the model for the cover.

The CD cover of my recorded play. An iguana peaks from the corner over a bright green background.

An Inspiring Artist

When I moved to Arizona, I transitioned to writing my science-based picture books. One of my books is set on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. A local artist, Monique Carroll, had created magnificent illustrations for the island adventure. She invited me to join her at a local art festival where we could market the book. The festival organizers had set up a blank canvas that the artists were encouraged to paint on. But after an hour, none of these wonderfully talented artists had applied any paint. So, I, with my very limited painting talent decided to get things going. I painted a couple of green swipes to create a sprouting plant since my adventure tale featured seeds. Those few swipes were all the impetus that was needed. No longer an intimidating blank canvas, the artists’ creativity was released and a masterpeice was created! And even though, many more layers of paint were added, my little starting sprout was still visible.

Two images. The first is Elaine painting on a blank canvas. The second is the finished artwork displaying a shell and various island features.

Riding High

In the past few years, I’ve taken up horseback riding, in kind of a big way. I was never particularly interested in horses as a child or even as an adult until I retired. However, I had liked the idea of riding animals, all along. Before there was this:

Elaine riding bareback on a tan horse.

There was this:

Elaine riding a water buffalo.

I’ve also ridden camels and elephants!

Conserving Our Future

Growing up, I wanted to be a naturalist, sharing my love of nature with others as well as conserving it. However, life took me into laboratories, where I worked as a research biologist. I did wander out to help with conservation outdoors. I volunteered to travel to the Caribbean to work on rock iguana conservation. No lying on the beach for me. No, I was chasing, large lizards over limestone karst, through thorny bushes.

Elaine gripping a wild igauna as another person wraps it in canvas cloth.

Here I am with my friend, Jill Jollay, “processing” a rock iguana. We would take measurements, including weight, which was done by putting the iguana into a bag of known weight. This fieldwork introduced me to the people associated with the National Trust of The Bahamas, and subsequently, the Cayman Islands. Together we realized the potential of the books set in the islands to educate children and adults about important conservation topics. And a personal highlight, interacting with these incredible creatures resulted in me getting a rock iguana of my own to join my family.

Elaine holding a large blue-green iguana.

This is Blue, a hybrid Grand Cayman Blue iguana. He is the star of my in-person talks to groups.

To the Rescue!

My love of iguanas led to my starting an iguana rescue in New Jersey. I was on “speed-dial” for many agencies because I always answered the phone and I always made room for any iguana whose life was in danger. I had up to 26 iguanas in my house at any given time.

Elaine holding a large grayish iguana with orange spines down it's back.

This is Eddie, who spent a year with me while his mom was in Tanzania. When she moved to Uganda, Eddie was allowed to join her. Eddie remembered me when I visited him in Kampala.

Elaine smiles as a large iguana is perched on her shoulder.

This is Calliope, named for the muse of long poetry. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of my HerStory and are encouraged to make your own history. To learn more about me and my current goings-on please sign up for my newsletter

Celebrate Invasive Species Awareness Every Week!

This year, National Invasive Species Awareness Week was from February 28th through March 3rd. It always begins on the last Monday of February. If you’re reading this outside of that particular week, it’s okay. The knowledge and prevention of invasive species are important enough to consider every week. Read on to learn more about why you should care about invasive species despite the day, week, month, or year. 

What Is An Invasive Species? 

An invasive species is any non-native plant, animal, or microorganism that proliferates in areas outside of its native ecosystem. It can be either on land or in the water. Also known as invasives, these organisms can harm the environment, human health, and the economy.

Get to Know Some Invasives

I’ve talked about animals, such as the green iguanas and spiny-tail iguanas as invasive species, but there are soooo many more. In the US, there are more than 6,500 non-native plants and animals. Some are so common that you might think they are native because they seem to always be around. For this blog, I want to talk about a few particular invasive plants. These plants were introduced to non-native environments for a variety of reasons. Sometimes intentionally, and sometimes they are accidentally released.  

The Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia) were both introduced because they’re attractive. I admit, I enjoyed the purple flowers of the loosestrife as I kayaked the rivers of Michigan and New Jersey. However, it did strike me as odd that it was spread out so extensively. That’s what invasives do, they out-compete the native plants.

A field full of beautiful, but invasive Purple Loosestrife.

I spend a great deal of time in Florida. Many Floridians would tell me about the gorgeous bushy tree they had in their yards, the Brazilian pepper or Florida holly as it’s called locally. The leaves and red berries are often used in holiday decorations. However, this non-native plant very successfully forced native plants out of the area. I spent two summers working to remove them from the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The roots had to be destroyed because the plant would regrow if any were left alive. In addition, when the berries ripened and fermented, birds would eat them and become drunk. No matter how humorous the birds look hanging upside down and singing, this is very dangerous for them.

Round, red berries growing in a bunch surrounded by green leaves.

(Photo courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr)

The Dangers of Invasive Species

Even though invasive animal species get the most attention, plants can be dangerous, too. Just how dangerous? If you’ve ever seen kudzu, (Pueraria lobata) grow, you know how destructive plants can be. Kudzu is known as the “plant that ate the South.” Originally planted to help with ground erosion control, it spread over trees, vehicles, and even buildings. Kudzu can grow up to a foot a day. Yes, you can really watch this plant grow.

Kudzu vines covering the ground and trees.

Then there’s the symbol of the desert West, the humble tumbleweed (Kali tragus). Nothing says desolation in a show than a tumbleweed blowing across the dusty ground. But tumbleweed seeds came from Russia. The portion of the plant that is seen rolling along the ground is the seed dispersal unit. Unfortunately, the seemingly harmless balls of rolling branches actually cause significant losses through traffic accidents, invasion of agricultural operations, and property damage!

I was surprised to learn that the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is invasive. My neighbors in New Jersey had a glorious hedge of multiflora rose on top of their backyard fence. I enjoyed the aroma and multitude of flowers. Little did I know how well the rose out-competed the native understory plants.

Delicate white flowers of the multiflora rose.

Invasive species and conservation of native plants and animals is a worldwide issue. Learn some ways locals are protecting wildlife in the Cayman Islands or some of the native species found in North America with my fun and interactive workbooks! You can find them all here.

Author Elaine A. Powers Featured on Tucson Environmental Community Partners

Elaine A. Powers was recently featured on Tucson Environmental Community Partners. This felicitous editorial aligns with Elaine’s aim as an author, conservationist, and biologist to spread science and fun through her stories.

Tucson Environmental Community Partners’ mission is to share the ‘purpose and passion’ of Tucson environmentalist residents, enthusiasts, professionals, educators, business owners, and volunteers.

The group touts Elaine’s “refreshing approach to teaching kids about reptiles & land conservation.” And while they love the fact that “Elaine does not shy away from scientific Latin names to identify the animals,” they also call her books “humorous’ and “leave an impression in [children’s] minds.”

To read the article visit https://tucsonenvironmental.com/project/elaine-a-powers-author-biologist-conservationist/.

About Tucson Environmental Community Partners

Tucson Environmental Community Partners is a resource for Tucsonans to engage in the community of diverse events, activities, education, volunteerism, outdoor and eco-driven businesses, and to locate many opportunities to participate and get involved in supporting and making practical, restorative, and powerful environmental change and care.

Elaine A. Powers’ science-based picture books featured in Big Blend’s Quality of Life Magazine. 

Read about Elaine’s path to becoming a science-focused author and learn about a few of her favorite books! 

Quality of Life Magazine focuses on family, lifestyle, personal development, and professional success. Of course, travel and the arts always have a way of sneaking into their publications too! This magazine is part of their 25th-anniversary expansion of turning Big Blend Radio & TV Magazine into 7 different themed publications, along with continuing to publish Parks & Travel Magazine. Reaching an average of 1.1 million reads per issue, all their magazines are published on Issuu.com and Calameo.com and are featured on their websites, in their Big Blend e-Newsletter, and on social media platforms. 

You can find the entire issue, including Elaine’s feature here: https://blendradioandtv.com/listing/quality-of-life-magazine-spring-summer-2022/

A BIG Book Celebration in Tucson, AZ

The authors are coming! The authors are coming! Once again, we’ll be celebrating books and literacy in person in Tucson at the 2022 Tucson Festival of Books (TFOB)! Learn more about this Tucson book celebration staple and how you find me there. 

A Brief TFOB History

The first festival was held March 14-15, 2009 with 450 authors and 50,000 visitors. The number of visitors has grown to 135,000. Yes, little ole Tucson has the third-largest festival in the country! They have an amazing team of volunteers who keep everything moving smoothly.

One aspect that I particularly enjoy is the annual festival mascot. Each year’s mascot is a resident animal of the Sonoran Desert. Creatures included so far have been the Gila monster, hummingbird, tarantula, Sonoran green toad, butterfly, Gambel’s quail, bobcat, jackrabbit, roadrunner, javelina, and coyote. I’ve written books about many of them and others are my companions in our desert home. I’ve been trying to get a photograph of a jackrabbit for years. They’re HUGE! This year’s mascots are prairie dogs or rather (as I suspect), round-tailed ground squirrels. I’m partial to ground squirrels (Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert).

Elaine smiling from her booth at the 2019 TFOB

Here I am at a previous Festival with some of my books. I’ve published a bunch more since then. 

The 2022 Tucson Festival of Books!

This year’s festival will be on March 12-13, 2022, at the University of Arizona Mall. I’ll be in the children’s section at booth #322. Look for Grab an Adventure by the Tale! Author-illustrator Brad Peterson, aka Anderson Atlas, will be joining me. Don’t miss the opportunity to get your personally signed books by either or both of us! We’ll be there all day, both days.

My books are all published through Lyric Power Publishing, LLC. One of my fellow LPP authors, Gene Twaronite, will sell and sign his books at the festival. He will be moving around to different locations for his signings. He starts at the Indie Authors – Children’s Author Pavilion on Saturday, from 10 am to noon. Then at the AZ State Poetry Society booth (#410 from 1-3 pm). On Sunday, at the ASPS booth again from 10 am to noon. And finally, at Young Adult Author Rendezvous (booth 451) to display his two young adult fantasy novels. 

Something for Everyone

Even though the festival is an opportunity for authors to sell their books and readers to meet the authors in person, TFOB has much more to offer. There are talks, performances, the science pavilion, non-profit agencies, parks, and food vendors. Tucson has the best food trucks. However, the festival is a celebration of literature to increase literacy rates among children and adults. Any money left over after the expenses are contributed to local literacy programs. So far, they have donated over $2 million.

So, mark your calendar for March 12th and 13th. Here’s a chance to get out and restock your reading pile with autographed books after meeting them in person. And remember to stop by booth #322. You’ll be glad you did, and so will I!

For more information on this festival, check out their website: https://tucsonfestivalofbooks.org/

 

Tucson Festival of Books Event Image courtesy of Digital Bookmobile

A Bite of a Blog: Feeding my Scaly Family

There’s a lot of talk about eating. People are encouraged to eat mindfully. Set the table and concentrate on your meal. But, I prefer to eat in front of my laptop. I like to spend most of my free time putting words onto pages. I enjoy writing books and blogs. So, when I get hungry, I grab something, set it beside me, and consume as I create. But thinking about eating habits leads me to my reptilian family members. As you can imagine, their eating habits are quite different. I hope you enjoy this little bite about the daily eating habits of my scaly family members!

What They Eat

I prepare fresh food for my scaly kids every day, serving them different proportions, depending on their appetites and food preferences. I feed my family first thing in the morning. Then, they can graze all day. Their meal is a “salad” of high calcium greens like collard greens, turnip tops, and various vegetables. I whittle the greens into thin strips with a potato peeler to make it easier for them to eat. My reptiles don’t have grinding teeth, like our molars. On occasion, I add a little fruit as a treat.

It’s Not Just What

The how and where they eat is just as important as what they eat. In captivity, most animals don’t move around as much as they would in the wild. There is no need for them to search for sustenance. Because of this, caretakers are encouraged to make their reptiles move a bit to reach their food. Calliope Green Iguana likes to climb up to her basking perch to eat. Her heat and sun lamps keep her nice and warm while she dines.

Calliope the iguana eating her salad. Her front feet are on the edge of her dish.

In contrast, Chile Green Iguana prefers to reach down. I love the way he stretches his body while enjoying his meal. Once he finishes, he’ll pull himself back up to his basking shelf. 

Chile the iguana eat his salad. He is hanging upside down in his cage while eating.

For the tortoises that roam free around my house, I put out plates of food in various spots. Consequently, they can walk about, choosing where they’d like to eat. They also enjoy basking before and after meals.

This is a close-up of a tortoise enjoying a strawberry.

Trevor the tortoise enjoying a strawberry.

One of the box turtles also enjoys strawberries. The other one doesn’t.

If you want to see my family members eating, check out their videos on my YouTube channel: Elaine Powers or Curtis Curly-tail Speaks. You’ll find all sorts of interesting videos. And while you are there, become a subscriber!

The Importance of Eating

I need to watch my family members eat. I get information about the health of each animal. When a reptile is sick, the first symptom is often a lack of appetite. If they feed eagerly, I know all is well. If they don’t, I start checking for problems. Is the heat lamp burned out? Are they sick or injured? If something is wrong, it’s off to the local reptile vet we go. I’m very fortunate to have a superb reptile vet. One bit of advice I give to new reptile caretakers is to locate a reptile veterinarian before you bring your new family member home.

If you’d like to read a fun book about the eating habits of other animals, I recommend How to Eat Breakfast by Gene Twaronite, another Lyric Power Publishing LLC author.

Writing this made me hungry. I’m off in search of a snack. I hope you enjoy your food as much as my scaly kids do! You might not want to hang upside down to eat, though.

The Life & Legacy of Krinkle

When I lived in New Jersey, I ran an iguana rescue and adoption program. If an iguana’s life was in danger, I would always have room for it. All of the iguanas I took in were green iguanas, Iguana iguana, but I really wanted one another type of iguana, the spiny-tail iguana, Ctenosaura similis. C. similis, also called black iguanas. Enter Krinkle. Krinkle had an important life, but an even more important legacy. 

The Story of Krinkle

Because I would always take in iguanas, I was on the call list for many police departments and animal control centers. One day I got a call from an animal control center saying they had a black iguana. I told them I was on my way. I picked up a five-year-old spiny-tail iguana that I named Krinkle. A cute name for a sad condition.

You see, Krinkle had a deformed body. For the first five years of his life, he’d been kept in a five-gallon aquarium, which he quickly outgrew. His body sacrificed his hips and tail in the tight space. His head and shoulders were full-sized, but his hips were small and his tail was accordioned. Worst of all, Krinkle couldn’t walk. He eventually got angry enough that he bit his owners, who took him to Animal Control. Which turned out for the best, I was delighted to welcome this black iguana into my family. 

With some physical therapy, nutritious food, and affection, Krinkle thrived. His tail eventually relaxed a bit. He learned to walk, although he was never able to run. But most importantly he became an important educator. Content in his new life, he never showed aggression and was always calm, even as he was passed around, child to child, at my reptile talks. He never opened his mouth in anger or for any reason. I wanted him to open up so the kids and adults could see his impressive teeth, but he wouldn’t. I believe he truly enjoyed educating people about lizards and the cruelty perpetrated upon reptiles.

He even liked hanging out with other family members. This is Krinkle with Rose Red-foot Tortoise and Calliope Green Iguana.

Krinkle the Igauna sunning himself with a tortoise and another iguana.

The Legacy of Krinkle

Sadly, a few years ago Krinkle passed away. But his educational influence continues to this day. In a previous blog, I described how Chelsea Richardson at Respectfully Dead prepares and cleans animal skeletons. She agreed to take on Krinkle and did a phenomenal job. I knew Krinkle’s skeleton would be fascinating. After cleaning, the bones were reassembled. Below is the result of her team’s efforts. Truly magnificent – Krinkle would be happy.

Krinkle's skeleton. His spine is curved and his tail is fused in a zig zag shape.

His tail end is mostly fused, instead of articulated vertebrae.

Even in death, Krinkle’s story will continue to be told. He will educate about proper care and animal abuse of reptiles. I do appreciate the first owners being responsible enough to turn Krinkle into their local Animal Control so that he could be rehomed. He was truly an ambassador for reptiles and lizards, in particular. RIP, Krinkle and Long live Krinkle the lizard!

The Laws of Physics (According to Horses)

I started horseback riding after I retired. Before that, I’d never been particularly fond of horses, despite being a biologist. I preferred reptiles, crustaceans, and mollusks. However, life has a way of leading me down unexpected trails. Although no matter the trail I find myself on, I always find a little science. Even with a biology major, I had to take physics classes. I particularly liked those that dealt with the physics of living beings. But I still had to learn about the general laws of movement and such. But once I started riding horses, I quickly began thinking about all of the laws of physics. 

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

There’s the obvious law of gravity that I’m reminded of every time I climb on the back of a thousand-pound animal. Should I be jostled off, gravity will without fail take me to the ground. Yet, it’s gravity that keeps me on the horse. By balancing above the horse’s center of gravity, I will stay on her back. Once on board, the laws of motion are very apparent. 

Newton’s Laws of Motion

First Law of Motion: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. I have to convince the horse to move forward. Sometimes, the horse prefers to just stand. That’s the difference between a bicycle and a horse. Fortunately, most of the time when I ask nicely, the horse will move forward. When the horse moves, I feel my body being thrown back – that’s my body trying to remain at rest. The faster the horse goes forward, say to a canter, the more my body is thrown back. Hopefully, I can remain seated and not thrown completely off the back of the horse! Every time the horse changes its pace, I have to adjust my center of gravity. There’s no sitting passively when on top of a moving horse!

Second Law of Motion: acceleration of an object depends on the net force and is directly proportional to the magnitude of the force, while being inversely proportional to the mass of the object. A rider’s center of gravity is critical for horseback riding. If I’m centered on top of the horse’s center of gravity, we are in balance. I can use my balance to communicate to the horse how I want it to move. By shifting my balance back, gently pulling on the reins and relaxing my legs, this net force moves the horse’s mass to slow down or stop. This also happens when a horse jumps, combining the horse lifting its legs and gravity pulling them back down.

Third Law of Motion: when two bodies interact, they apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. When I’m sitting on the horse, my body is pushing down on the horse (poor horse), but at the same time, the horse is pushing up on me (thank you, horse) with the same amount of force. The reason I bounce in the saddle is due to the force with which its hooves push on the ground, creating the upward force that causes me to bounce in the saddle. Of course, my coming off the horse, being thrown, involves this third law. That’s when the force of the horse is a little more than my force.

Centrifugal Force

Centrifugal force: an object moving in a circle behaves as if it’s being pushed outward.  Another aspect of departing the back of the horse involves centrifugal force. So, when I’m riding in a circle to the left, I feel like I am being flung to the right. Sometimes, if the horse makes a sharp turn, my body continues outward by centrifugal force. Sometimes, this force is sufficient to fling me off the horse, where gravity takes over.

To allow me to stay on the horse, friction can help. Holding my legs against the horse creates friction. This also helps keep me in the proper posture. The horse is creating its friction between her hooves and the ground.

Many other aspects of physics are involved in the more advanced riding that I haven’t experienced since I’m a “young” rider. The ones I’ve experienced so far have been sufficient. 

I’ve learned a lot since I started horseback riding, horse behavior, my body and its muscles and a refresher course in the physics of motion. Check out my other science based books, with an animal flair. And now it’s time to meet my physics instructors!

A chestnut horse with a white stripe running down it's head, Elaine leads it on a rope in the pasture.
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Elaine sits on a tan horse.
Lady

Booger Warning! The Science of Sneezing

Do you think about sneezing? I mean daily. Not just when you have a cold or allergies. You probably think about sneezes when you’re in a group and trying to decide if you can hold your sneeze in, risking an eardrum explosion, or let it out and offend everyone in proximity. Well the scientist in me, propels me to think about sneezing more than the average person. Especially because of my animal companions. Get ready for a sneezy, snotty, and all-around gooey-good blog. Because we are going to explore the science of sneezing!

The Achoo of Us

Animals don’t always sneeze for the same reasons we humans do. When an irritant enters a person’s nose, the nerves activate the sneeze center in the brain stem. Messages are sent to parts of the body that need to work together and produce the sneeze action. Muscles in the chest, abdomen, and throat along with the diaphragm, build up the air pressure behind closed vocal cords. When the cords are opened, the airflow rushes up, expelling the irritant. Of course, in the case of a disease, like a cold, the air expulsion helps spread the viral particles. 

Despite the physiological way in which the human body produces sneezing, it’s not human sneezing that I find interesting. Other animals’ sneezes are far more fascinating.

When a Sneeze Isn’t a Sneeze

Let’s start with iguanas, such as green iguanas, Iguana iguana, and rhinoceros rock iguanas, Cyclura cornuta. Humans excrete excess salt through our kidneys via our urine, but iguanas have to sneeze it out! You may have seen videos of marine iguanas sneezing as they bask on the rocks. Watching their bodies jump with each sneeze is amusing. Iguanas need to conserve water in their bodies, so they utilize nasal salt glands. This salt removal method is called “snalting” (sneeze and salt). The expelled salt is called “snalt.” Snalt gets over everything around iguanas. Here are a couple of examples in my house. 

Snalt from Elaine's iguanas covering her blinds and a jar full of shells.

They can sneeze snalt amazing distances, efficiently covering walls and furniture. My printer is thoroughly encrusted in salt. One of my iguanas enjoyed sitting on my shoulder. When she felt a sneeze coming on, she would stick her nose in my ear. I know she did it on purpose. I did have clean ears from having to wash the snalt out.

The Mucus of Mammals 

While my iguanas are coating my home in snalt, my horse uses me as a human handkerchief. My mare has a tumor in her sinus that produced a nasal discharge. She was constantly rubbing her head on me and using my shirt to wipe her nostril when she sneezed. I could understand her need, but still, it left me very gooey. As a result of her behavior, I thought horses sneezed for the same reasons humans do. I’m still new to horse behavior. (The good news is that her cancer treatment is going well and she no longer has the discharge.)

Yes, horses do blow or snort when an irritant gets in their noses, such as ground dust and hay dust. However, sneezing and blowing is also common behavior indicating pleasure. Horses don’t sneeze as a reflex as humans do.

I was concerned when my young gelding would sneeze during his training sessions. Was the dust of the arena getting to him? It must be very distracting for him to be dealing with sinus issues as he was being ridden. Then one day as I was watching the trainer work him, the experienced equestrian sitting next to me mentioned that his sneezing was in revolt! His sneezes were a protest! No wonder the trainer wasn’t showing any concern that he was having allergy issues. My boy doesn’t mind being ridden, he’s just very particular about how he is ridden! But sneezing as a means of expressing discontent was a new one for me. I am happy to report that when ridden appropriately, according to him, the sneezing ceases! 

So I guess sneezing does help deal with irritants, even if the irritant is me! Looking for more gritty-science fun? Check out my science-based workbooks

Breakfast at the Beach (It’s not what you think!)

For writers, it’s important we periodically refresh our minds — or our muses, as they say. And so, a few times a year I leave my Sonoran Desert home for a beach in the Gulf of Mexico. I do miss my scaly and furry family members, but long strolls on the beach do me a world of good. Sunrise is my favorite time for a stroll. Fewer people are at the shore, but more importantly, it’s when birds are hunting for their breakfast.

The Breakfast Buffet

One morning, a white ibis, Eudocimus Albus, and sanderlings, Calidris alba, ignored me as I ambled by. They were intent on a few tasty morsels. I’m not sure what they were consuming, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as they did.

Sanderlings searching for food in shallow water.

 

Further along, quite a few pelicans were gliding and diving. But one brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, had finished with his feast and sat on a sign to dry his wings. I paused to take a photo, and he patiently obliged. 

A pelican with wings halfway stretched out, sitting on a sign that reads "marker 47."

 

 As I walked on the edge of the water, I did my best not to disturb the shorebirds. I never mean them any harm and would never willingly interrupt anyone’s breakfast. Sometimes they ease away, sometimes they pretend I don’t exist, but inevitably a few fly away, squawking their disapproval as they go. 

Strolling with a Heron

Another morning, as I enjoyed the soft sand underfoot, I watched a little blue heron, Egretta caerulea. We walked side by side for a time, and I checked to make sure I wasn’t disturbing him. He didn’t increase his pace or move away in any way. He didn’t lean forward, wings out, as if prepping to take flight. I was pleased that my company didn’t seem to stress him.

A blue heron wading in shallow water with fresh caught food in its beak.

 

Eventually, he caught a fish. Catching one of those wiggly things takes effort. I paused, wanting to be certain I didn’t cause him to lose it. Positioning the fish so it’d go down headfirst was tough enough; he didn’t need to worry about humans getting too close. Once the heron swallowed his fish, we continued our stroll a bit further. 

The apparent comradery made me wonder: what did the bird think of me? Did the heron know I was a mammal, not a bird? If he did, would that have changed his opinion of me? Like many mammals, I could have been a predator – except they, like foxes and coyotes, walk on four legs. Then again, many of the heron’s predators come from the sky (hawks) or the water (alligators). Maybe the heron had seen enough humans to know we weren’t dangerous unless our behavior changed, like lunging or throwing shells. And how did he know I didn’t want that tasty morsel of a fish he’d caught?

Could I have been another strange bird? After all, we both walked on two legs. Large birds were in the area, but pelicans are usually interested in larger fish. Then there’s the wood stork, Mycteria americana, which do eat fish, along with frogs, insects, and even crabs they find in shallow water. I certainly didn’t look like any of these birds. 

Due to my friendly demeanor, perhaps the heron thought of me as an honorary bird? Sure, I’m rather odd-looking with my feathers flat and fused in cloth. A few bare skin patches were present, but it’s also a common trait in birds. My toes, however, weren’t webbed.

In the end, we went our separate ways. However, I’d still like to know what he thought of his breakfast companion…

 

You Say Hibernate, I Say Brumate

During the summer, two of my desert tortoises are allowed to roam outside. Zoe is a Sonoran desert tortoise, Gopherus morafka, and part of Arizona’s desert tortoise foster program. Cantata is a Sulcata tortoise, Geochelone sulcata. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, sulcata tortoises can reach 200 lbs. They’re also known as spur-thighed tortoises due to the spurs on their forearms. The spurs are designed to dig through hard ground, but can also cut through drywall. Despite this, they’re popular in the pet trade. 

Cantata Tortoise, Den Digger Extraordinaire

When it comes to dens, Zoe is more than capable of digging her own. Still, she prefers to leave it to Cantata, who digs tunnels with amazing ease. I encourage her to dig in places that will cause minimal damage to irrigation systems or brickwork and such, but Cantata is stubborn and creates her den where she wants. Once she has a nice hole prepared, Zoe moves in to claim a spot. Consequently, Cantata then enlarges the tunnel so they both can live there comfortably, if not companionly. Having a tunnel big enough for them to pass each other keeps the tussles in check. 

A tortoise digging a den. Their back end is visible as they dig.

Hibernate or Brumate?

The lack of humidity that makes the hot desert summer days enjoyable is also responsible for the plunging nighttime temperatures in winter. During these cold months, some mammals hibernate, while reptiles may brumate. Hibernation and brumation both describe animals in a deep sleep. The term hibernation refers to warm-blooded animals, also known as endotherms, while brumation refers to cold-blooded animals, who are ectotherms

Strange Bedfellows

When the wintry chill arrives in the Sonoran Desert, some of my reptilian family members head for their brumation beds. These beds are better known as underground dens. Tortoises dig their own dens, while other reptiles, such as rattlesnakes, slither in to join them.

Prey animals will also spend the winter with predators. That’s right, animals that are mortal enemies in the summer will often share dens in the winter!

Let Me In!

I’ve gotten the impression that Zoe’s previous foster parents allowed her to brumate inside. Each fall, as the temperatures tell her it’s time to prepare for brumation, she heads for my back door and makes it clear that she wants in. She only does this when it’s time to brumate. 

In past years, I made her brumate outside, as wild tortoises do. She’d eventually give up trying to come indoors, dig out her den and close it up behind her. Last year, however, she made it clear that she was only coming indoors. To send a message, she went to a previous winter den, halfheartedly dug out the entrance, and then jammed herself in, making sure she stuck halfway out. Message received. I let her in and she brumated in my bedroom.

This year, I knew she’d pull the same trick, so when the nighttime temperatures began to drop I brought her inside. For a few weeks, she roamed around, continuing to eat, until finally, it was time for her to brumate. I always wonder how these animals know when it’s time since the indoors temperatures remain the same. I’m sure it has to do with circadian rhythms and sunlight length, etc. At the same time, both Cantata and Zoe found a place to brumate and have snuggled together for the winter…in a cardboard box, in my kitchen!

Elaine's two tortoises snuggled near each other in a box.

Since they settled in, they haven’t left their box. At least I can keep an eye on them this winter. It seems that summer’s reluctant tunnel mates are now winter’s willing bru-mates.

 

Backstories and Barnacles

Recently, while on vacation in Florida, I listened to a lecture on compelling storytelling. It’s an important topic for me, and something I strive to accomplish. The speaker asserted that to attract a reader’s interest, a protagonist’s backstory is essential. After all, their actions and reactions are directly related to their past. It was an interesting premise, as many writing courses discourage backstories; they advise using them sparingly and only when necessary. Yet the lecture I was listening to stated that when a backstory is fully shared, the reader is engrained in the protagonist’s life. Even more, those readers want that internal story.

Backstories and My Characters

To be honest, I hadn’t considered much about the backstories of my characters, but the concept does make sense. It also explains why some of my beta readers are highly interested in the personal aspects of my protagonists, yet say the stories need more umph

Barnacles Ahoy

Later, I strolled along the beach pondering the concept while waves from a passing storm crashed against the sand. As one receded, it revealed a very nice lightning whelk shell, Sinistrofulgur perversum. The shell was about 6 inches long, intact, and still quite colorful. The mollusk who created the shell was long dead, as an oyster had grown on the inside. I picked up the shell, thinking it might be a keeper, but noticed the barnacles attached to the outside of the shell. 

A lightning whelk shell.

For our long-term desert dwellers, barnacles aren’t mineral deposits; they’re live crustaceans, Balanus amphitrite nivens. Even so, most people don’t care about barnacles, and the internet is full of instructions on how to remove barnacles from shells without damaging the seashell. Inevitably, the barnacles are killed in the process. I didn’t want the barnacles to die because of me, so I hurled the Whelk as far as I could into the waves. Why would I concern myself with barnacles, when countless others don’t? It has to do with my backstory. 

My Barnacle Backstory

Growing up, my brothers had pets. Mostly they were snakes who lived in terrariums kept on top of the TV set. (Back then, TV starter mechanisms kept the tops of TVs warm.) I liked the snakes, as long as my brothers held the worms they ate, but didn’t have a pet of my own until one year when it was time for school science projects. My project: barnacles and artificial saltwater.

I’d always loved the ocean and especially enjoyed watching the barnacles attached to the tree roots, seawalls, and rocks. It was fun to see them extend their legs and sift out morsels from the passing currents. Since I lived in central Illinois, I wasn’t able to visit them as much as I liked. At that point, artificial saltwater was a new concept; a company had only recently developed sea salt crystals for use in saltwater aquaria. Before that, ocean water had to be collected and filtered, so an artificial method for creating seawater was a breakthrough. 

My science project centered around artificial saltwater and whether it could keep barnacles alive in an aquarium. To set up my experiment I selected barnacles from a beach in southwest Florida, placed them in the saltwater, and took them home to central Illinois. The barnacles survived for many months and were even photographed for the local newspaper. One of the barnacles was very helpful and extended its legs for the photographer at just the right time! Several of the barnacles were particularly active, and they received names. Sadly, they all died a few months later. Even though I’d provided the correct saltwater, I wasn’t able to fully meet their dietary needs.

That’s why, nearly fifty years later, when I had the choice of taking home a ‘dead’ seashell that had been colonized by live barnacles, I instead returned it and the barnacles to their rightful habitat. I hope they thrive.

It seems the backstory lecturer was correct. A person’s past does impact both their behavior and future actions. Live long and prosper, barnacles!

Why You Should Feel Hopeful for 2022

Farewell, 2021! You’ve been an interesting year. Welcome, 2022! I’m sure the coming year will be as eventful as the last, but I have hope that it will bring more good than bad. Yes, I choose to have hope for the new year. This new year starts with difficulties, such as new variants thriving, economic difficulties, etc. Some may say that dark clouds hover on the horizon. But, I have hope that the seeds we have planted in 2021 will sprout.

Look to the Mangroves

A red mangrove sprouting in the sand.

Like this red mangrove propagule, I believe our efforts will sprout and build up the world around it. Red mangroves, Rhizophora mangle, are known for their ability to build up the land at the edges of oceans. They are able to hold on to the soil against the assaults of waves.

When I feel beaten down by life, I will think of the red mangrove seed and try to persevere, no matter how daunting the situation may seem. I want to believe that this little tree will grow, despite the isolation of its locale.
I hope to eliminate or endure the negativity I perceive, whether the faults are within me or derived from external sources.

Make Like a Crab

The exoskeleton of a crab lying in the sand.

I want to be like a crab and shed the negativity like I am removing an exoskeleton. When crustaceans molt, they are then able to grow. I want to grow as a person as well.

An empty moon shell lying on the beach.

I was encouraged to see this egg casing on the beach for a moon shell, Neverita duplicate. I want to believe that animals will be allowed to survive and thrive around us. This was my mother’s favorite seashell. I want others to enjoy them as much as she did. Knowing that eggs were released gives me a little bit of hope that future generations of mollusks will survive, despite the impact of man on the world’s environments. We are not alone in this world and together we can help us all survive.

Have Hope

I have hope that my books will bring entertainment and enlightenment to others. I have hope that the environment will endure in the presence of mankind. My wish for you is that everyone is able to flourish in 2022. May you go forth and multiply; if not biologically, then in accomplishments, good works, and enjoyment in living.

May the New Year bring you:

Happy New Year, Everyone!

-Elaine

The Need to Feed

An author friend of mine recently wrote a blog for my publisher, Lyric Power Publishing. She described how she, a girl who grew up on the cement streets of Manhattan, became enamored of a couple of native Desert Spiny lizards. A local informed her that she could feed the lizards mealworms. So, every day she offers the lizards a couple of worms, which they eagerly eat. However, this tale has led to a discussion about whether people should be feeding wild animals.

To Feed or Not to Feed?

This is an interesting, but tricky, topic. Do we condemn my friend for offering an acceptable food item to a lizard, when many of us have bird feeders around our homes? I am pleased that migrating bats utilize my hummingbird feeders to support their flight south. One bat species has changed its behavior to come north to feed before heading south again for migration. How about offering floating turtle food pellets in park ponds, when many people, unfortunately, feed bread to ducks? Some people put out corn for the neighborhood squirrels. These are all examples of feeding wild animals. Why are some acceptable and others not? The answer isn’t always straightforward.

During the pandemic, many people turned to the wild animals to maintain their sanity, using food to attract them, usually birds, to within viewing range. This enjoyment might lead to concern for the well-being of the animals and increase participation in conservation.

Many of our social activities involve the sharing of food. Humans seem to enjoy watching other animals eat and becoming part of their world by offering food items to other species. When companion animals eat heartily, we’re assured that they are healthy and happy. I admit, one of the pleasures I get from the Jurassic Park movies is watching the dinosaurs eat well.

It’s Not a New Discussion 

Many people are against bird feeders. Others think it will help the local birds, even if it won’t significantly enhance the general population. Sometimes, diseases are spread through bird feeders, but with our destruction of the natural habitat, humans have reduced the abundance of natural food. Providing food might help since mankind has reduced what’s available naturally, right? It’s a complex situation. And in reality, people won’t try to protect animals that aren’t important to them.

The advice that has been given is: do not feed wild animals when it might cause them harm.

When NOT to Feed

How do we know if we are harming them? Are we tempting them from natural food with tastier human food that has no nutritional value? Are we changing their behaviors? Are we affecting their health?

Human-wildlife interaction has become an important topic in The Bahamas, concerning their endemic rock iguanas and tour operators. How do you balance the needs of the iguanas with the need of Bahamians to earn a living? The tour operators take day-trippers out to see the magnificent lizards, but just looking at them and taking photos is not enough. The tourists want to interact, i.e., feed the iguanas. Early on, people would feed whatever leftover food they had onboard their boats, potato chips, etc. After discussions with the scientists, they agreed to offer food closer to natural food, often grapes. But throwing the grapes on the sand, led to the ingestion of sand and caused impaction, resulting in the death of the iguanas. After further discussion, it was agreed that the grapes would be put on sticks, like roasting marshmallows. An improvement. It’s true that grapes aren’t a natural food and have high sugar content, but it’s an improvement. Effects on iguana health have been noted, so more work is needed. Discussions are ongoing to develop protocols that allow the tour operators to conduct their tours with wild iguana feeding while minimizing the effects on the iguana populations.

Along with impacting the iguanas’ health, the tourist’s feeding has changed their behavior. When the boats arrive, the iguanas, mostly males, run down to the beach to get the handouts. This is another factor to be discussed. You might have seen the YouTube video about the woman doing yoga on a beach being bitten by an iguana. Her nail polish was grape-colored. It’s dangerous to wear fruit-colored toenail polish as well. Iguanas have color vision! In addition, they have razor-sharp teeth for biting through fibrous plant material.

The One Thing to Remember

In conclusion, it would be hypocritical of me to condemn all feeding of wild animals. My yard is filled with various bird feeders. I do ask that if you do feed your neighborhood wild animals, do it responsibly with knowledge of the possible risks.

Cayman Illustrator featured in Cayman Compass

Simone Scott illustrator of Fly Back to the Brac, Brian Brown Booby was recently featured in the Cayman Island’s most trusted news source, Cayman Compass, as well as the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of InsideOut magazine. 

As a Cayman Brac resident and talented artist, Simone was the perfect choice for Elaine’s book featuring the Grand Cayman’s Brown Boobies. 

Read the full article: Simone’s slice-of-life: Brac artist captures spirit of the Sister Islands.

 

Arizona Daily Star Book Review: Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert

“Elaine Powers, a former laboratory biologist, is living her retirement dream writing science-based picture books for children. Tortoises, rattlesnakes, and even the Night-blooming Cereus have all been grist for her mill. With this latest offering, inspired by a suggestion from volunteer naturalists at Sabino Canyon, Powers takes on the challenge of explaining, in rhyme, the ground squirrel. There are three species of ground squirrels who call the Sonoran Desert home, and Powers tells us all about them, from their physical descriptions and habitat to their role in the desert ecosystem. Lively, often humorous, and sometimes downright startling illustrations by Anderson Atlas accompany the text. When the Peoria, Illinois transplant to Oro Valley takes a break from writing books for kids, Powers can be found penning murder mysteries. Ages 5 and up.”

Read the full review here!

Review by Helene Woodhams

Helene is retired from Pima County Public Library, where she was literary arts librarian and coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year, the library’s annual literature review.

Give the Gift of a Picture Book!

This is the season for gift giving. Why not give a gift that educates as it entertains, builds language skills, and can be enjoyed over and over again? Books are always a great gift for any age.

Not Your Average Picture Book

What makes my picture books worthwhile? Immense amounts of scientific information are included within the rhyming text. In addition, each page is filled with bold, colorful illustrations. Sometimes, the books contain extra features, such as the photographs of real boas in Bahamian Boas: A Tabby Tale.

As a scientist, my first goal is to provide science to my readers. However, I enjoy the fact that my texts are also capable of increasing literacy and vocabulary, as well as stimulating an interest in poetry and enjoyment of reading. Of course, we mustn’t forget the special bond formed when an adult reads to a child. 

Great for Children Ages 0-200

Sadly, as we grow older, our books include fewer and fewer illustrations. Shoppers often comment that they don’t have children to buy books for. However, my books are suitable for all ages. Everyone enjoys a great illustration, and the ones included in my titles are unique; they appeal to children without appearing ‘babyish’, and contain bits of humor that older kids and adults enjoy. I’m very fortunate to have incredibly talented artists, and their illustrations work with my words to enhance the reading experience. 

You’ll find that in my books, I use scientific terminology and refuse to talk down to children. If a reader doesn’t immediately understand a word, it will become familiar with time. Some may consider them too advanced for younger children due to the terms used, but they are all explained in the storyline, often with additional information in a glossary. Despite the abundance of information, the repetition of the rhymes ensures that readers are not overwhelmed. These are picture books, after all. They absolutely may be read before bed. 

Teaching Empathy and Compassion

I truly hope that through my books, people will gain compassion for animals that they might disregard and fear. Perhaps, through that compassion, they’ll be able to raise the level of empathy in the world and contribute to better treatment of the animals in our world. 

My Most Popular Books

A variety of picture books are currently available. Many were written with the Sonoran Desert in mind, although they are appropriate for other regions of North America and the world. Below are but a few options:

a green book cover with an illustration of a tortoise standing on hind legs

Don’t Call Me Turtle 

Myrtle the Tortoise helps explain the differences between turtles and tortoises. There are more than you realize!

 

illustration of a desert roadrunner

Don’t Make Me Fly

Roadrunners are fascinating birds who prefer to run instead of fly!

 

book cover graphic of rattlesnake

Don’t Make Rattle

The truth about rattlesnakes just might replace fear with respect. 

 

book cover Queen of the Night

Queen of the Night: Night-blooming Cereus 

This Sonoran Desert native is astonishing in that all the flowers bloom in one night, all together for one night only! How do they all know when bloom night is?

 

book cover for Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert

Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert

 I didn’t realize that the chipmunk and tree squirrels in my backyard are ground squirrels. Learn why these desert-adapted rodents are so important to the ecosystem.

 

A brown book cover with illustrations of bahamian boa snakes

Bahamian Boas: A Tabby Tale

To combat discrimination against snakes in The Bahamas, similar to that seen against rattlers, I wrote this book. It includes photographs taken by scientists in the field. 

 

book cover with photo of iguana from Cayman Brac

Silent Rocks: Iguanas of Cayman Brac

The first picture book I wrote for the Cayman Islands is a call-to-action to save the endemic rock iguana, the Sister Isle Rock Iguana, Cyclura nubila caymanensis. 

 

green book cover with turtle illustration

Hickatees vs Sea Turtles

People confuse freshwater turtles with sea turtles, with tragic results. Native freshwater hickatees are often thrown in the ocean as if they sea turtles!

Can’t Quite Choose?

If you’re unsure as to which books may be right for your family, feel free to contact me. Remember – picture books are appropriate for everyone. What you read in the privacy of your own home is your own business, so enjoy a picture book! 

Meet Calliope, the Muse of Long Poetry

Most of the iguanas in my life have been green iguanas, Iguana iguana. However, not all green iguanas are green. Through the years I’ve cared for green iguanas who were various shades of green, orange, blue, and even one that was black and white. Like any animal, they all had different personalities. Some liked to be cuddled, while others were content to sit on my lap or shoulders as long as I didn’t touch them. Then there were those I called real people-lizards. Those were the ones who enjoyed our visits to schools and senior centers. Still, others were homebodies and preferred to stay out of the spotlight. No matter their coloring or temperament, I’ve found that iguanas are my writing muse. 

Enter Calliope

Years ago, I retired from my job as a laboratory research biologist to become a writer. I quickly found inspiration in writing with my iguanas around me. To soak in their positive creativity, I moved my writing desk into their midst. One Christmas, a friend gave me a baby female iguana from her favorite breeder, who was well known for producing easily socialized iguanas. When a new iguana comes into my life, I like to choose a meaningful name – we humans like to name things. I pondered the ease with which this little green lizard was stimulating my muse, and the moniker Calliope came to mind. Calliope was one of the Greek Muses, the nine sister goddesses who presided over poetry, song, the arts, and sciences. Calliope was the muse of epic poetry. Epic poems are narrative, long poems. Some articles refer to Calliope as the muse of long poetry.

Since many of my books happen to be long poems about scientific facts, Calliope was just the muse I needed. Non-fiction can be written as rhyming poems. I believe it enhances learning and retention of information. Consequently, I think all picture books should rhyme.

Rhyming Science

During my adventures in writing poetic science, I’ve received comments stating that poetry and science should never be mixed. Then, at a book festival in Chicago, several poets happened to be at my booth as they discussed how non-fiction could be written in rhyme. One of them pointed at my books, turned to the others, and said “See? You can put non-fiction into rhyme.” 

Here’s a real-world example. As part of my efforts as a citizen scientist, I create iguana identification booklets. These pocket-size booklets are used in areas in which iguanas, both native and invasive, are common. They teach people how to tell between native and invasive iguana species, but that’s not all. They state where to call for invasive removal and provide tips for protecting their native animals, amongst other things.

Since rhyming is my thing, the text in these booklets rhymes. One of the target audiences for these booklets is dock workers. They are the front line of biosecurity. Unfortunately, green iguanas often stow away in shipping containers and it’s up to the workers to prevent them from getting ashore and out of the port. At first, it was feared that workers wouldn’t like the “childish” rhyming, but authorities soon realized the opposite; rhymes assisted in detailed memorization. It wasn’t long before they insisted upon rhymes.

Calliope Green Iguana has contributed to many books, and I enjoy creating leaves of books while Calliope, a folivore, enjoys the leaves in her food. I appreciate her support as I continue writing long, epic poems which become entertaining, educational picture books.

Elaine, wearing a green shirt and smiling at the camera. Calliope is perched on her right shoulder and appears to also be smiling into the camera.
Calliope on my shoulder.

 

A Squirrel is a Squirrel is a… Chipmunk?

Sometimes, stories are written to craft clarity from confusion. That’s certainly the case with my book Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert. I’ve lived in many places yet found myself perplexed by the local squirrels. In discussing them with other residents, it became clear that they were just as confused by the nature of these rodents. I was encouraged to write about them, and I’m very glad I did. 

The Regular Squirrels

Growing up in Illinois, I was used to “normal looking” squirrels, those with the bushy tails. They would scamper up and down trees, run across power and telephone lines, and gather acorns. Sometimes they would position themselves upside down on a tree trunk and chitter at people or other animals passing by. These were the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). In both Illinois and New Jersey, the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is the resident species.

Squirrels are often viewed as pests: raiding bird feeders, utilizing human structures for their needs, or falling victim to electrical lines and causing power outages. However, while we may view many of their activities as amusing, they also demonstrate how clever squirrels really are. For instance, time and again they thwart humans’ best efforts to keep them out of bird feeders. This is natural for them; they didn’t evolve from the need to out-think people. 

Squirrels are problem solvers, and notoriously plan in advance by storing food for the winter. At my home in New Jersey, the squirrels stored their walnuts on my second story porch at the top of the stairs. Not only was it easily accessible yet safe from competitors; my constant lurking provided a bonus measure of protection for their stash. 

The Sonoran Squirrels

When I saw chipmunk-like rodents in my Tucson, Arizona yard, I was delighted. Chipmunk holes never bother me. In fact, I find the little critters’ white stripes along their brown fur quite attractive. So, why am I describing squirrels and chipmunks in other states, even though I live in Tucson? Because when I moved here, a black, fluffy-tailed squirrel lived in my mesquite tree and little chipmunks scampered about the landscaping rocks. Or were they something different?

In fact, the three squirrel species in the Sonoran Desert are all ground squirrels, no matter their appearance. The fluffy-tailed squirrel in my mesquite tree was a Rock Squirrel. Those cute chipmunks scurrying about are Harris’s Antelope Squirrels. And finally, the miniature prairie dogs who dig through the hard ground and road asphalt are Round-tailed Squirrels.

What are the differences between tree and ground squirrels? Ground squirrels use their tunnels for life activities: sleeping, food storage, family dens and protection from predators. In contrast, tree squirrels live in trees and either utilize tree cavities or create nests from leaves, sticks and bark. Even though ground squirrels may climb into trees for food, it’s not where they make their homes.

All of this, and more, I learned in researching my book. A few highlights:

  • Fluffy rock squirrel tails are for more than balance – they provide protection!
  • In a battle between a rattlesnake and a ground squirrel, who would win?
  • How do the three species co-exist in the same habitat?
  • What purpose do the holes in your yard serve? 

Find out all this and more in Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert!

A squirrel jumps over a prickly pear pad as a snake looms ahead in the cover of Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert, by Elaine A. Powers. Illustrated by Anderson Atlas.
Illustration of a ground squirrel biting a rattlesnake.
A squirrel bites a rattlesnake in a scene from Squirrels of the Sonoran Desert.

Arizona Daily Star Book Review: Queen of the Night

“A perk of Sonoran-desert living is the one-night-only appearance of the Night-Blooming Cereus, a much-anticipated summer event for Tucsonans who rely on predictions from experts to know precisely when the tiny window of opportunity will open on the floral extravaganza. How in the world do the experts know? And what causes a cactus to behave this way?

With this picture book, Elaine Powers demystifies the mysterious bloom, explaining – in rhyming couplets no less – the life cycle of the plant, how to predict its flowering (when the buds reach 170-230 millimeters, stand back!), why they all flower simultaneously, and other bits of botanical lore about this intriguing plant, which spends most of the year looking like an undistinguished stick. Written for children, Powers’ book will charm and edify cactus lovers of any age. Lush illustrations by Nicholas Thorpe are a splendid accompaniment: Look for his very stern javelina on page 12 – he’s delightful.

A former laboratory biologist, Powers, who makes her home in Tucson, now writes science-based children’s books.”

– Reviewed by Helene Woodhams. Helene is retired from Pima County Public Library, where she was literary arts librarian and coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year, the library’s annual literature review.

Snakes (and Science) for All!

Buying books online is wonderfully convenient, but for me, selling my STEM-based books in-person is special, especially when the people are children. I’m delighted when kids show interest in the science that I include in my books. And I’m especially thrilled when girls are interested in snakes!

Breaking into Science

As a child, I dreamt of being a scientist, an outdoorsy naturalist, in particular. At that time, my grandmother, who was a teacher, was a little doubtful in my ability to be a scientist, something that she couldn’t be, due to societal restrictions on women. Even though she taught science in school, she couldn’t be a scientist. But, I hoped to study the environment and be involved in conservation. Fortunately, with time came change. I did pursue a career in science, eventually obtaining a Master of Science. Though I had hoped for a job outside, I ended up indoors and became a laboratory research biologist. I was able to do hands-on research involving many diseases and medical technology. Still, I still longed to be outdoors. 

To curb my naturalist cravings, I volunteered as a citizen scientist. My first project was helping with conservation projects on the rock iguanas, Cyclura sp., in the Caribbean. To me, the ideal vacation is chasing large, wild lizards over rough limestone karst and thorny brush. No laying on the beach for me!

Over the years, I also obtained the desire to write books and decided to mix my two favorite things together, creating engaging educational books that make science fun! Two of my books involve snakes: Don’t Make Me Rattle about rattlesnakes and Bahamian Boas: A Tabby Tale about the endemic boa constrictors of The Bahamas. The boa book includes actual photographs taken by scientists in the field! 

A brown book cover with illustrations of bahamian boa snakes      book cover graphic of rattlesnake

All this to say, that I am absolutely delighted by the fact that a majority of the snake book sales in recent years have been to girls! Yes, girls! When allowed to choose for themselves, I’m excited to report that girls like snakes and want to learn about them.

So, this holiday season, as you are thinking about a great gift for the girls in your life, think science, think SNAKES! My publisher, LyricPower.net has workbooks and activity sheets about snakes, too.

PS

I also discuss this very topic in one of my most recent Reptile Chats. Check it out below, or view that and all my wonderfully scaley videos on my YouTube channel.

Arizona Daily Star Book Review: Don’t Make Me Fly!

“What a curious creature the Roadrunner is! This iconic desert bird prefers hoofing it to flying, and its footprints are the same backward as they are forward. With vibrant illustrations by Nicholas Thorpe, this picture book is jam-packed with scientific facts about roadrunners, delivered in verse form to keep the narrative lively. Roadrunners “grab their victim behind its head And bash it on the ground until it’s dead.” Want to know how to swallow a horned lizard? Keep reading! Don’t Make Me Fly! is recommended for children in grades K-4.”

Read the full review here.

– Review by Helene Woodhams

Helene is retired from Pima County Public Library, where she was literary arts librarian and coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year, the library’s annual literature review.

Morton Salt, Campbells, and Flamingos in the Bahamas.

Recently, while in Chicago I happened to see the iconic Morton Salt sign. It’s so huge you can’t miss it. While it’s called a sign, in actuality it’s a roof on the old Morton Salt factory on Elston Avenue. As a child, this sign always reminded me of the Morton Salt Girl and the drawing of her carrying around an umbrella in the rain. I confess, I always wondered what she had to do with salt. If you look closely, you’ll realize she also carried a container of Morton salt that spilled behind her. The marketing slogan was When It Rains, It Pours. It must have been effective, as the company kept her as their mascot and updated her through the years. I even remember her as an animated character on TV!

Animated characters are something I’ve delved into, starting with my character Curtis Curly-tail. However, this time my thoughts drifted not to curly-tail lizards, but the island of Great Inagua in the Bahamas. 

A Salty National Park

For those not aware, I collaborate with the Bahamas National Trust in several of my books. I’ve also given multiple presentations on the benefits of using children’s books in science education. Then there’s the National Trust’s biannual Natural History Conference, which brings college students and teachers together with scientists working in the Bahamas. I especially enjoy checking in with the scientists to make certain my stories contain the most current information.

The Bahamas consists of more than 700 islands, and I try to visit a few more on each trip. My goal is to visit all the inhabited islands and some of the uninhabited ones. One year, after the National History Conference, I jumped at the opportunity for a field trip to the island of Great Inagua. Why was I so excited to go there? Salt. You see, the major industry on Great Inagua is the collection of salt for Morton Salt!

With a dry climate, Great Inagua is perfect for salt production. Operations began in the late 1930s and continue to this day. Believe it or not, the island’s 300,000 acres produce about a million pounds of salt each year! Nature plays an important part in producing this salt. Energy for the drying is provided by the sun and wind. An algal mat in the reservoirs removes impurities. Brine shrimp eat the algae, which keeps the water clean. More importantly, the brine shrimp serve as food for Caribbean flamingos. The Morton Salt facility shares Great Inagua with the Inagua National Park. Established in 1965, the park is the site of the largest breeding colony of West Indian Flamingos, Phoenicopterus ruber, in the world. Once near extinction, the population of The Bahamas’ national bird is now growing.   

Sandy mounds with power poles and large piles of salt in the background.
Morton Salt facilities on Great Inagua
Flat field of white sale with a barely visible tree line in the distance.
Great Inagua Salt Fields

Along Came the Campbells

On this fascinating trip, I was joined by a gentleman named David George Campbell. When introduced to him by a mutual friend, Sandra Buckner, I was sure I’d remember his name, as I knew a George Campbell when I lived on Sanibel Island, Florida. George was a naturalist and a great inspiration to me. When I worked at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, George was also there. He kept an eye on our activities and the activities of others in his quest to protect the island’s special ecosystem, and I felt honored to know him. He wrote The Nature of Things on Sanibel. I treasure my copy and suspect he would be saddened by the damage later generations did to the island we both loved.

When mentioning George Campbell to David, I was astounded to learn that George was his father! It was intriguing to learn how intertwined our lives were. David grew up on Eleuthera Island, the location of the Leon Levy Preserve. Meanwhile, I wrote Grow Home, Little Seeds specifically for the preserve. To my delight, David shared that he attended Kalamazoo College. I lived in Kalamazoo while working for the Upjohn Company. In addition, in the seventies, David served as the Executive Director of The Bahamas National Trust. He worked on the conservation of the unique ecosystems in The Bahamas, the same ones I write about in my books. David wrote The Ephemeral Islands, the first natural history of the archipelago to be published since the 1800s. It seems that the islands inspired both of us to write.

It’s a Small World after all

They say it’s a small world and that everyone has only six degrees of separation from each other. The connections between David, George, me, a small island in the Bahamas, and that Morton Salt sign seem to add credence to these ideas. Despite these very diverse places and situations, they are all interconnected in my life.

Iguanas and Tortoises are… Invasive Species?

 

Invasive species are a common topic in environmental discussions these days, and rightfully so. Often, these concepts seem to deal with invasive plants or animals that affect people and places far away. But if you’ve ever watched my Reptile-Side chats, or witnessed one of my school or community visits, you know my non-human housemates are reptiles, mostly iguanas and tortoises. What you may not realize is that some of them are invasive species.

It’s Raining Green Iguanas!

Take green iguanas, for instance. I have both green and rock iguanas, species involved in my conservation effort in the Caribbean area. However, green iguanas are well-known invasives. They can be entertaining, like when comatose green iguanas fall from the trees during cold snaps in Florida. “It’s raining reptiles!” people love to say. Knowing how fond I am of iguanas, folks assume I want to help these unfortunate frozen lizards. They’re surprised when I suggest that the local wildlife personnel and the public finish the job that nature began.

I am a fan of iguanas, but prefer them to be safe and protected in their natural environment. Green iguanas, who are unable to handle cold weather in south Florida, are native to much warmer Central America. These wonderful animals have been introduced around the world through the pet trade, as stowaways on ship containers, and from human negligence. As a result, they’ve become a very dangerous invasive species. They’re not aggressive or a danger to humans; rather, they’re dangerous because they destroy non-native environments.

Part of my volunteer work as a citizen scientist involves helping to identify invasive green iguanas throughout the world. Posters have been created and flyers produced to spread the word, but more needs to be done. My author skills came to the rescue, and I created identification booklets for the public. These little booklets enable the public to tell the difference between native and invasive iguanas. In addition, they educate folks on the importance of native lizards.

In Tucson, Arizona, where I live, green iguanas are not a problem. Iguanas need more humidity and better vegetation to survive in this harsh environment. It’s not a problem for their relatives, the chuckwalla, who do well here. An invasive species that also does well here and lives in my yard—the sulcata tortoise. Surely, you must be thinking ‘how dangerous can a tortoise be?’

Invasive Tortoises in the Desert

The reality is that sulcata tortoises can have devastating effects on native Sonoran desert tortoises. Sulcata tortoises are natives of southern Saharan Africa, not southern Arizona. Sulcatas are much larger than the desert tortoise, 100-200lbs versus 15lbs. Both species eat the same plants, which means competition for limited food sources and water supplies. They also compete for a territory that, thanks to humans, steadily decreases.

Why are sulcatas roaming the Sonoran desert in the first place? They’ve been dumped by humans. You see, sulcatas are a favorite pet choice. As hatchlings, they’re a nice size and are both friendly and calm. In contrast, desert tortoises are much smaller at hatching. They’re shy around humans (who are viewed as possible predators) and tend to explore.

People may enjoy having a pet tortoise when they’re small. However, as they grow (and grow and grow) their caretakers learn how just destructive sulcatas can be. Sulcatas can easily dig through doors and drywall. Furniture is moved and broken while gardens and plantings are destroyed. One of my sulcata tortoises digs outside quite a bit, and I wondered how close she’d gotten to my house foundation. Turns out she was undermining it.

Due to the harshness of desert life, both sulcata and desert tortoises dig tunnels to escape the intense heat. Obviously from their size, sulcatas dig much bigger holes than the smaller desert tortoises. Sulcata dens can easily be 30 feet long and 20 feet deep, while desert dens are far smaller. Either type of den can provide a habitat for other animals. When my female sulcata dug a burrow in my yard, the desert tortoise helped herself and moved right in. Consequently, the sulcata had to continue digging to make the burrow big enough for both of them. They are not happy den-mates.

The entrance to a large den is visible beneath the broken edge of a house foundation.
A large sulcata den.
The entrance to a small desert tortoise den is visible beneath a succulent plant.
A small Sonoran tortoise den.

In other households, many unwitting owners eventually decide their tortoise is too destructive and unmanageable. Instead of finding a new home or at least contacting a rescue group, they’re often just dumped in the desert. Once there, not only do they have to compete with desert tortoises, they can also introduce diseases.

At least dumped sulcatas can survive here in the Sonoran desert. When I lived in New Jersey, I read a report stating that a Sulcata tortoise was found in a Pennsylvania forest. Fortunately, the unlucky tortoise was found before winter set in. A long, slow death in cold weather is a fate no reptile deserves.

How Can You Help?

An inconvenient and abandoned pet can easily become invasive and have a devastating effect on native animals. When we bring animals into our homes, it’s our responsibility to ensure they have a good place to live for the rest of their lives—which is up to 150 years for a tortoise. Once they live with humans they can never be released or returned into the wild. And they should never, ever be left in someone else’s habitat. Before you decide to bring home a pet, like a tortoise or an iguana, it’s a good idea to learn everything you can about them and make sure they’re the right pet for you.

Arizona Daily Star Book Review: Don’t Make Me Rattle!

“A rattle from a reptile is not a welcome sound, but if it makes you tread carefully, it’s served its purpose, says Tucson author Elaine A. Powers. In a picture book chock-full of rattlesnake facts, she emphasizes the good they do (eating rodents, scattering seeds, and aiding cancer research), as she imparts interesting reptilian lore. For instance, although toxic to those on the receiving end, venom acts like saliva for a rattlesnake, a necessary digestive aid since they lack teeth for chewing. And rattlers are surprisingly social creatures who bunk together when it’s cold–forming a ‘rhumba’ of rattlers. An unabashed rattlesnake fan, Powers bemoans how willingly we exterminate them, largely because they look so unlovable. She gets no argument there from illustrator Nicholas Thorpe, whose threatening rattlesnake pictures, some with mouths agape and dripping venom, are undeniably scary. The third in the “Don’t” series is for kids in grades K-4.”

Read the full review here.

– Review by Helene Woodhams

Helene is retired from Pima County Public Library, where she was literary arts librarian and coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year, the library’s annual literature review.

How Not to Photograph a Bat

I wrote a book about the difficulties in photographing hummingbirds, How Not to Photograph a Hummingbird. It pits one bumbling human against the desert as he carelessly attempts to photograph an Anna’s Hummingbird. If lucky, a hummer may alight for a moment or two, allowing the photographer to get the shot she wants.  But there is a tougher subject, that for some unknown reason, I feel compelled to try to photograph – Bats!

There are two main reasons why bats are hard to photograph. Not only do bats move fast and erratically, but it’s also rather dark when they come out. If you thought photographing hummingbirds was hard, then bat photography might be downright impossible. Especially if using a cell phone to take photographs.

It’s all for science!

So why am I trying to take photographs of these photo-elusive nocturnal mammals? I’m taking part in a citizen scientist research project on bats’ use of pools, especially in times of drought or areas of low rainfall, such as the Sonoran Desert where I live. I have a bat call detector on the edge of my pool that records the bat calls each night. The researchers can identify which bat species made the call and determine bat activity.

I knew my pool would be a good location because I am often joined by bats when I swim at night. I know that I have at least two species. The most common bat visitor is a small, insect-eating species that comes in a group. But every now and then, like this summer, a much bigger, solitary bat swoops down to the water.

I was concerned that the chlorine in my pool water would bother the bats but it doesn’t. I’m very glad. I also wondered if chlorine would help fight white-nose syndrome. Another possible research project, perhaps?

The researchers asked for all sorts of details about my pool: depth, length, shape, lighting, surrounding vegetation, fencing, nearby busy streets, etc. The results will be interesting to see what species of bats are around and which pools had the most activity. Tucson has a variety of bats: Big Brown, California leaf-nosed, Cave Myotis, Peter’s Ghost-faced, Greater mastiff, Lesser Long-nosed, Mexican Free-tailed, Silver-haired, Spotted, Townsend’s Big-eared, Western Pipistrelle, Western Red, and the Pallid. Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out which ones, swoop down to share my pool with me. They prefer me to either be on the side of the pool, so they can swoop at will, or in the center of the pool, so they can fly in a circle around me.

I can’t resist the urge to photograph my aerial neighbors, but it’s a lot harder than photographing a hummingbird. Here are my best efforts:

 

 

 

 

 

So, what do you think? Yes, these really are bats, not just smudges on my camera lens. Perhaps my next book should be How Not to Photograph Bats.

Stay tuned to for more blogs about my research on the citizen science bat project. And if you know any budding young bat scientists, I highly recommend My Book About Bats and Rats, a fun and educational workbook that not only focuses on the Caribbean Fruit Bat, but also the much easier to photograph rats that live on Cayman Brac.

Mushrooms in the Desert? I Have Pictures!

Living in the Sonoran Desert, I don’t often see mushrooms.  Sometimes, fungus appears on the trunks of dying trees, but that’s not often. This year, Tucson has had a very wet monsoon season, which is wonderful after years of severe drought.

Along with the greening of the vegetation, the abundance of rain has brought forth some interesting mushrooms.

These interesting mushrooms are Podaxis pistillaris, the Desert Shaggy Mane mushroom. Possibly the most common mushroom in the Sonoran Desert, this genus of fungus, possibly this species, is found in deserts worldwide. The above ground portion, the fruiting body, appears after a soaking rain. The fibrous texture and closed cap are believed to protect the gills and spores from desiccation.

The mushroom starts out whitish, turns brown, eventually ends up as black powder.

Being unfamiliar with this type of mushroom, I was curious to see what happened to these specimens. Would they be consumed by rodents, rabbits or coyotes? Would the horses be interested in eating them?  No, these mushrooms were undisturbed. This made me think this fungus is toxic.  However, P. pistillaris, is eaten in many areas of the world and has high nutritional value.

In addition, this mushroom is used extensively in traditional medicines and cosmeceuticals throughout the world. Now, I’m intrigued to try this mushroom, but I’ll await instruction by an experienced mushroom hunter.

I’m always delighted when I discover new and different aspects of the Sonoran Desert.

Book Note: If you’d like to know more about the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, check out my Don’t series and the other Sonoran Desert-themed picture books.

#elaineapowers

#lyricpower

#desertmushrooms

#Podaxispistillaris